Wrong isn’t right

Imperfection is cool, but the celebration of imperfection can lead to the misguided pursuit of its earmarks, the codification of imperfection in a set of manners and gestures available only to those who possess the right influences, the right sources of wrong.

Consider the clinical example of the great Nineties American rock band Pavement, Northern California secessionists and a band I adore. The radical slack and surge of their tempos, the thumb-stubbing slop of the guitar playing, the studio naivete, and the pitch carelessness that always threatens to pull Stephen Malkmus’s exquisite vocal melodies into a tuneless sprechgesang: It’s all without a doubt part of this legendary band’s immense charm and character.

But let’s get the horse back out in front of the cart here. It was Malkmus’s genius (and the band’s somewhat novel way of rocking) that made all the amateurish slop charming, not the amateurish slop that made Malkmus a genius. Cobain might have made heroin cool (again), but heroin didn’t make Cobain cool. You can see, in that example, how important it is that we get our cause-effect sequences straight.


Here, more than 25 years downstream from Pavement’s actually seminal mid-Nineties output, their influence remains ubiquitous and quite often baleful. If its guitars are played by private-school white kids, it probably fetishizes and institutionalizes the ways in which Pavement simply didn’t know any better.

It is the prerogative of slack and dabble, the prerogative of idle wealth in its collegiate years of handsome dalliance. Indie rock is generally a rich kid’s game, and private-school white kids are truly the last remaining willing audience for instruments poorly played in very specific and studied ways.

And it’s telling that Pavement’s final record, the slick (but to my ears quite good) Nigel Godrich-produced Terror Twilight, is rejected by indie tastemakers even still as a fatal misstep and the swift end Pavement’s authenticity and relevance (man, you gotta be careful with this crowd — is it any coincidence that indie rock is so cowed by its own hyper-hip audience?)

The University of Chicago was not ready for a competent Pavement, which also explains why Malkmus’ opulent and super competent solo career remains a cottage industry, still attended by hipsters but only because of early Pavement.

Shoot not for perfection but for the best you can do. That — not the politicized and privileged act of flouting mainstream notions of talent and professionalism — is how you will get the imperfection, the real thing. Your own brand of it, too.

Don’t try to get it wrong in precise and arcane hipster-approved ways.

Try to get it right. And don’t worry. You won’t.


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.