Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister
by Scott Plagenhoef
In Continuum’s latest installment of the popular 33 1/3 series, Scott Plagenhoef of Pitchfork Media reexamines Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister and the early years of this amazing group. Plagenhoef also tackles Tigermilk and basically all music media outlets since the beginning of the ’90s. That’s a lot to cover in 100 pages, but Plagenhoef keeps it real, meandering from topic to topic, sometimes repeating himself, and mostly ranting about how the internet makes shit too easy for young kids to find new tunes. As a kid, he had to walk uphill both ways in a blizzard to get the latest issue of NME, so don’t complain when your goddamn indie music podcast delivers a shitty track! I jest, but did I mention that Belle and Sebastian are a great band?
Let’s try to stay focused here. If you happened to have missed If You’re Feeling Sinister when it was first released, Plagenhoef offers a unique perspective on this seminal album and the strange story of Belle and Sebastian’s early years. Way back in the day, even before file sharing and Napster, print still ruled as the chief publicity outlet for fledgling rock groups. And while Belle and Sebastian had the talent and pop instincts to produce two terrific albums in less than a year, they still lacked the media savvy (or willingness) to really get out and promote their work through traditional outlets like NME. Shit, they didn’t even play regular shows in regular places. Instead, B&S’s earliest listeners were baptized into fandom through word of mouth and Belles Lettres, an early online community of starving pop music fans who just didn’t fit in with the Blur and Oasis crowds. Like the characters in Murdoch’s songs, these kids were smart and introverted and preferred lingering in libraries to sporting events and student rallies.
But all this is just a good reason for Plagenhoef to say whats really on his mind. He writes about the internet: “The sense of discovery, of having to hunt for music has largely been stripped; listeners instead skim and browse, sampling without ever having to make a financial commitment to a band.” I can dig what he is saying, but I don’t think Plagenhoef is entirely fair. Lets not forget the reason people had to hunt for great music in the old days was because a limited few had almost total control of labels and print media. Finding great music was hard work and most listeners just weren’t willing to do it. They were content to let radio DJs and print media do the work. Fast forward to today and those same lazy listeners look to blogs and internet radio to fill their listening free time. Nothing has really changed, except that our musical landscape has become somewhat more varied thanks to the diversification of media outlets. Bands worth obsessing over are still rare, but fans willing to do the work may still find that life changing album, maybe on a blog, or maybe even on Plagenhoef’s own site.
Plagenhoef goes on to argue that “[b]iography and recorded output are more tied at the hip than ever before; where the former used to be something to pursue and unearth if you enjoy the music, it’s become an increasingly larger selling point for an artist…” That’s true. But, again, there is a reason for that. With an ever increasing number of podcasts, blogs, MySpace bands and streaming audio services, the amount of music available for mass consumption has multiplied one billion fold. And this creates a dilemma: musicians have nothing but biographies to help them stand out from the crowd and people have nothing but cliché music knowledge to keep them all straight. Hence, unless a new band has enough wit to create their own identity, listeners are going to do it for them just to keep from being overwhelmed by all the other new music. But I don’t accept that this dilemma will make finding great music any less satisfying. In today’s music world, its not about unearthing a rare gem but instead finding a needle in a haystack. There is a good chances that your next favorite band is within ten clicks of this page right now. But how are you ever going to know that unless you sample hundreds of bands and blogs and possibly even slog through the wasteland known as MySpace? That shit is still hard work and guess what, most people are still too lazy to do it. But the internet has taken some of the leg work out of finding decent music, even if it’s not as lifechanging as If You’re Feeling Sinister. The result is we have a more diverse musical landscape today than 10 or 15 years ago, even in spite of music fans’ perpetual laziness.
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