Wax Volcanic x Anthony Fantano
ANTHONY FANTANO - MUSIC REVIEWER.
There’s somebody in the mid-left flank of Anthony Fantano’s audience that is assailing the stage, one half-sentence at a time. From somewhere in the thick grove of bodies covering the Toff in Town’s floorspace, pearls of wisdom like “depressing!” “Yeah!” “Like me!” and “Don’t break my heart again Anthony!” sail overhead and fill any conceivable silence. Everyone, it seems, is a critic.
And in a way (a far more valuable and articulate way) Fantano had a similar start. He launched his blog ‘The Needle Drop in 2007 (videos started in 2009) and simply started saying what he felt about music he liked in a place where people could hear it.
‘Music he like[s]’ being the operative phrase. Personal preference is the axiomatic tenet around which Fantano’s reviews (and the contents of tonight’s presentation) are threaded.
Fantano stalks the length of the stage, occasionally arching himself into the audience so the room can hear the front row’s nervous huffing, or so he can kiss a lucky spectator on the top of the skull. As I’m shuffling in, stopping slightly south of a sort of hobby-pirate (top-hatted, flowing-locked, moustache-waxed), Fantano’s pacing is gaining velocity. He’s moving rapidly into a semi-heated rant about the most recent and obvious aberration of his most sacred tenet of personal preference—the Apple/U2 collusion of bad taste. Apple’s (almost unbelievable) transgression of personal boundaries (and taste) generates the kind of nerd-rage that you’d expect from Fantano. It’s a definite highlight. Even better than the full 1:12 of internet songsmith Matt Farley singing “poop” (from the song of the same name), or when Fantano’s front-row roving amplifies a cry of “death metal” and then a smashing beer, or Jake Cleland’s (the Vine/Pitchfork/etc) steely-eyed pre-question wrath before returning to public joviality and shouting “Welcome to the Thunderdome motherfucker!”
[Author’s Note: The Fantano/Cleland thing was a about Fantano saying Cleland didn’t like the DMA’s because they weren’t cool. Not so, according to Cleland, who used words like “derivative” and “ripoffs” to alert the audience to his true feelings about the band . Fantano was later rumoured to have smoothed over the situation using his usual method—a tender kiss upon the skull]
Fantano’s fidelity to personal preference continues to be the central pillar of his presentation/performance. It shapes the way he shrugs off ADIDAS’ necrophilic relationship with Death Grips (“are we in any position to make moral judgements”), and informs the ‘it’s really up to you’ type of advice he bestows upon the audience’s musicians (“you could hop on a trend”, “I would consider anonymity”).
Given that the appeal of Fantano rests almost solely on this merciless doctrine of personal preference, the following may sound strange, but here goes: I’m not convinced that Fantano’s unswerving conviction in areas of personal taste is actually doing his role of ‘reviewer’ any good. Daniel Mendelsohn, acclaimed critic, essayist and author says it better than me. In an article for the New Yorker, Mendelsohn writes that a critic “loves his subject above anything else, he will review, either negatively or positively, those works of literature or dance or music—high and low, rarefied and popular, celebrated and neglected—that he finds worthy of examination, analysis, and interpretation”. What should matter most is music, not as personal playlist, but as cultural experience. Fantano’s exclusive reviewing of the music he likes (and ridiculing of the music he doesn’t via the Rick Moranis/Felix Ungar-ish character of Cal Chuchesta) qualifies him as a music lover, but basically disqualifies him as a critic. He’s simply not serving his subject. The Cal Chuchesta persona is the most poignant illustration of this, where anything Fantano thinks isn’t worth his time is ridiculed, things like Lana Del Rey and Rebecca Black. Both of which are extremely (if terribly) culturally vital. Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ or Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born to Die’ (or Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style etc etc etc) communicate more about modern music culture than the new Wolves in the Throne Room or Alter of Plagues records (sonic appeal aside). In reality my music taste generally aligns with Fantano’s, but it’s a specific taste, where bands like Swans, Death Grips and Ratking (ie-serious and non-mainstream acts) make up the bulk of music discussion. Fantano’s reviews provide an invaluable service— they highlight material that mainstream music organs won’t. But this is a music appreciation service. By ignoring (except in ridicule) albums he doesn’t like, he’s robbing them of their true cultural merit and disregarding a fundamental precept of criticism— That discussing an artform’s trash is just as culturally/critically valuable as discussing its treasure.
[Author’s Note: I’m aware that writing all this on a blog bankrolled by Warner Music Australia makes for a very dubious case indeed. The best defense I can offer is the rest of this article, which will give you a pretty good indication of my non-existent editorial guidelines]
By this time the guy in the mid-left flank is taking every opportunity to stuff his words into lingering breaks in Fantano’s speech and his front-row counterpart (of the “Death Metal!” yelling, beer-wearing variety) is speaking so loud that he has to be affectionately bullied back into silence with another kiss to the skull. But here’s where things start to get interesting
[Author’s Note: Interesting for me at very least]
Fantano, during the ‘advice-to-bands’ quotient of the presentation spends a large chunk of time talking about the positive application of “mythology” and “aura” in securing a band’s long-term popularity. “The thing about figures and icons is that they don’t age” Fantano reasons slowly while meandering the length of the stage, pointing out that at this point, Daft Punk are, despite their impossibly shiny visage, two ageing Frenchmen.
But iconography doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a facially invisible robot DJ. Fantano prowls through his monologues wearing a bright orange t-shirt with the Virgin Mary’s holy features spread over it. The image seems kind of apt. Through the specificity and ferocity of his music preferences, Fantano is creating a sort of ‘Church of Good Taste’, with himself as the altar. In exactly the same way that DJs become personalities from standing in the reflected limelight of their music choices, Fantano (who, in addition to public speaker was also toured as a DJ) has sculpted an online personality out of his music taste. And kudos to him. But turning himself into a ‘personality’, a sort of ‘icon of taste’ is, again, a threat to the veracity of his criticism. Let me explain.
Personalities are belligerent creatures. Where the credible critic wholly serves their content, personalities modify/tailor their content so it feeds their personality. It’s rife in the v-blogger world, where success is dictated by personality. You have to stand out, you have to be a brand, you have to possess a clearly defined audience. Now I’m not cynically suggesting that Fantano is deliberately and knowingly picking albums based on them fitting the ‘Needle Drop’ style of underground/cult album. But I think Fantano’s personal taste has in a way blinded him to the fact that this is indeed what is happening. And it’s bad for critique. When the reviewer becomes a ‘personality’ defined not just by their format but their taste, everything, in varying degrees of subtlety, becomes about the reviewer, rather than the subject.
And the nature of this relationship becomes most clear during the small video part of the presentation, when Cal Chuchesta is shown on screen amid the whistles and cheers of the audience. The video interplay between the broadcasted Fantano and his character of Cal Chuchesta is the most lively and well-received portion of the presentation. It sounds strange, but maybe isn’t that odd when you think about it through the prism of personality. At first it just seems like a horrific display of internet-age simulacra, where the virtual is more present than the real. But then it makes sense. The online, onscreen environment is where Fantano’s personality exists, so strange as it may seem, this is where the audience can finally revel in the full effect of the personality they paid money to see. Host Nick Clarke even thanks Fantano for “materialising” after the video for the Q and A that follows.
[Author’s Note: First year philosophy students would’ve had a goddamn field day with this whole evening]
The Q and A further highlights the power of the personality. All questions, regardless of subject are bent inwards, towards the reviewer, rather than the subject(s) of his reviews. Questions on Death Grips are fashioned in a ‘clarifying your thoughts on’ sort of way. There’s a question about how much he ‘benches’. The resulting data makes no sense to me. It’s just numbers, like measuring a city’s total mass in grapefruits. The altar at the Church of Good Taste is then consulted about the role of women in music. A worthy (if misdirected?) question, and most revealing in showing how Fantano is viewed, less as a music critic and more—as (over)stated above—an icon. My questions are softly phrased and shakily-delivered versions of the above contentions about music taste and personality and how they affected the reliability of reviewing etc. These—true to the ‘personality over subject’ quandary in which Fantano iss increasingly, visibly engaged— are all bent inwards. He interpretes/mutates the questions to mean: “do you really like everything you review?” To which his reply is an elongated, unsatisfactory ‘Yes’.
I am excited early on, directly after my first question, when he stops talking and paces the stage, saying slowly: “Let me unpack this…” But he never really does.
He does however make his whole presentation completely free from the crippling boredom usually experienced when hear people talking about music. People are various colours of drunk, laughing, and with their attention completely held. Even off-screen Fantano’s a convincing performer and has an absolutely fervent love of music. Regardless of my doubts towards the nature of his criticism, there’s no questioning Fantano’s obsession with new music. It’s undeniable. It seems to electrify his entire body. I want to get swept up by it, to cheer at the end with everyone else, to congratulate him on being the champion of good taste he surely is. But I still have too many unanswered questions.
I don’t know. Maybe I just need a firm kiss upon the skull.