If They Can’t Find a Way To Help Her They Can Go To Hell

So it may come as a bit of a surprise to some people, but I’m a pretty big reader. I read everything I can get my hands on: books, magazines, The Huffington Post, The L.A./N.Y. Times & other music blogs. One blog that I try to read daily is Heather Browne’s Fuel Friends Blog. I can’t tell you how many new artists I have discovered by simply reading this fantastic blog. I do, however, have to take issue with something she recently wrote & while it may seem like an innocuous statement, I found it to be quite hyperbolic & pretty much baseless.

Josh Ritter is one of the most important songwriters of our generation, consistently producing breathtaking songs that are rife with symbolism, rich with meaning, and brimming over with the kind of heart that I want to have.

Most important songwriter’s of our generation? Really? Josh Ritter is a fantastic writer who regularly puts out great music, but most important of our generation? Not even close. He’s not even that well known. I do think he’s talented, but as far as his importance to music…I can’t understand how he is remotely important. He’s not standing up for anything, speaking out against injustices or even bringing something new to the table.

Important songwriters of our generation (I guess that’s applying to Generation X) would be more like Billie Joe from Green Day, whether you like his music or not with American Idiot he said some pretty unpopular things to many people & received quite the backlash for standing on principle. Another would be Jeff Tweedy who revolutionized the alt-country genre twice with Uncle Tupelo & then Wilco. Ryan Adams has such an amazing body of talented work that he is a better example of one the most talented writers of our generation.

This is the problem with today’s over-saturation of music. It used to be that everybody knew pretty much who everybody was, but now with everybody being slotted nicely into their own little groups, labels like, “greatest songwriter of our generation” are just tossed around without so much as a thought.

I contend that Josh Ritter is not very important at all. If he stopped writing music, sure it would suck, but would the world be that much worse off? Think about how shitty music has been since Ryan Adams decided to get married & be happy. Elliot Smith, who again I’m not a huge fan of, was one of the most important songwriter’s of our generation & that is prevalent in the number of artist’s who try to emulate his sound.

I find it slightly irresponsible to be so hyperbolic & I’m pretty surprised that someone usually so spot on with her exclamations would just spout off like that. It’s not innocuous, it’s not small, this our music, this is important to many of us who believe that this is a renaissance in music much like the ’60’s was the evolution. I love Heather’s blog, she is extremely knowledgeable in regards to music, but in this case just flat out wrong.

Girl in the War (Live at the Record Exchange) – Josh Ritter

Wings – Josh Ritter

Bandit (Live at the Record Exchange) – Josh Ritter

21 thoughts on “If They Can’t Find a Way To Help Her They Can Go To Hell

  1. heather

    this is an interesting reflection. thanks for noting what I have to say.
    I think that the depth and literacy of Josh Ritter’s songwriting skills are unparalleled among many/most of his contemporaries, and that what he is doing through his music is important. I also think artists’ work can be important without necessarily seeing vast commercial success. If you look back over history, art (visual, musical, literary) history is littered with those who were doing something important that may not have ever seen commercial success or been recognized and embraced by their peers of their generation. I think the work still stands the test of time, though, and maybe I’m wrong about my future predictions, but I get that sense of lasting, dense quality in Josh Ritter’s music.

    1. Matty D Post author

      I agree that he is extremely talented, Heather & that through time he may become important, but at this stage in his career I’m just not convinced that he is exceedingly relevant to music culture in general. I also concur that music doesn’t have to have commercial success, but that is the barometer that is typically used when defining someone who would be the most important songwriter of their generation. Take for example, Bob Dylan, widely considered the greatest songwriter of his generation. He led a cavalcade of followers who not only emulated him but carried on his legacy, while at the same time maintaining some semblance of commercialism. Can the same be said of Josh Ritter at this point in his career? I just think it’s too soon to tell what the future may hold. Again, though, he is extremely talented & I do look forward to his next album. Hopefully he proves me wrong.

  2. geld lenen

    I find it amazing that you always find the time to write about things like this. I like your blog, so I hope that my post will inspire you to post some more good things!

  3. Brian

    This is one of the dumbest (not hyperbole!) posts I have seen in a while. Calling someone “one of the most important songwriters of our generation” is obviously a subjective decision, and to rant about this title being bestowed upon an artist you feel doesn’t deserve it is totally senseless– especially if it was stated in a blog. Besides this, the fact that you go on to complain about how “how shitty music has been since Ryan Adams decided to get married & be happy” completely undermines any of what you had written before. I thought this was the No Hyperbole Zone! What happened? You are clearly an upset Ryan Adamshead who’s chosen, bizarrely, to express it in a weird attack on a writer who, in my opinion (opinions! That’s all any of this is!) expresses herself much more thoughtfully and effectively than yourself.

    1. Matty D Post author

      Calling someone the “Greatest songwriter of a generation” is definitive not conjecture. It’s stating that above all else he is the best. Ryan Adams is just one example. If you’d read the article I wrote it explained that I too am a fan of Heather’s, but I’m sure reading comprehension is not your strong suit.

  4. Brian

    I read the “article” (the is a good magazine!) and indeed saw that you praised Fuel/Friends. I also saw that you called her “irresponsible” for calling Ritter a great songwriter. My point is that if she had said Ryan Adams was a great songwriter, for example, you would have eaten it up. You’re acting as if it’s up to you to decide who’s worthy of praise like “songwriter of our generation,” and I’m wondering how you can take yourself so seriously.

    1. Matty D Post author

      Again I never said it was irresponsible to call him a great songwriter. I said it was irresponsible to call him one of the greatest of our generation. How do I take myself so seriously? Let’s see…written for Rolling Stone, Spin, Live 105’s morning show in SF, LA Direct Magazine, SF/LA Weekly. That’s how I take myself seriously.

  5. Matty D Post author

    Please, Brian, if you have a point make it. I’m still failing to see if your point is that it’s wrong for me to disagree vigorously with someone who wrote something that was hyperbolic at it’s core or if you’re just standing up for someone without really having a clear case knowing that your argument is basically, “Stop picking in her even if you’re right.” I’ll wait for your answer Brian cause again I don’t think you have one.

  6. heather

    no need to fight on my behalf. for the record, i appreciate the divergent opinion, and i still think we might be defining our terms slightly differently. i am talking about inherent value and importance of songs written this well, and what a songwriter like josh ritter contributes. i believe you are talking about cultural relevance, and defend your point just fine, but ultimately – yeah, different terms, subjective opinions both of us, perhaps.

    thanks for reading fuel/friends, matty. keep up the good work.

    1. Matty D Post author

      Thank you, Heather & for the record this is not an indictment on you at all just as you said a divergent opinion. I will always be a fan. Take care.

  7. Frank Joyce

    Interesting article…I do think Ryan Adams is still great & important enough whether or not he became Mr. Mandy Moore. Who knows, maybe they’ll churn out the next “Double Fantasy”…
    I also believe calling someone’s musical opinion “flat out wrong” is just as irresponsible…I do agree with Heather, not just because I’m a big Ritter fan, but because it is very hard to find a combination of wit, substance, intelligence and melody in a singer/songwriter/performer these days. I would say the same of say David Mead or Josh Rouse or Langhorne Slim or the Avett Brothers. You can call me wrong but it won’t change my opinion. Heather is also not the first to heap this kind of praise on Ritter…you can go all the way back to reviews of his first album to see such praise.
    Blogs are technically opinion pages and everyone is entitled to their own and some are read and taken in more than others. If Josh Ritter adapted “The Animal Years” into a broadway show and played on the Grammys, would his stock go up? Definitely, but I would think he’d be just fine not doing so, and just continuing to write and play his songs for his devoted fanbase. I spread the word about him as much as possible and almost always get positive responses, just like I do about other music that I enjoy. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, but I believe the world needs more Josh Ritters than it needs more performers like Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Taylor Swift and Green Day. Some people prefer commercially successful music that is played everywhere…I prefer Nellie Mckay, Corinne Bailey Rae, Patty Griffin and Nada Surf to name just a few. I like to seek out new things, films, music, books that I haven’t seen, heard or read and if I like it, I enjoy letting others know about it who I think would enjoy it as well. The argument over how much critical praise and commercial success has to do with cultural importance could go and on, even if it’s premature. How much criticism do you think Jon Landau received when he crowned Springsteen the future of rock & roll in 1975? Of course the magazine covers helped as well, but there’s nothing wrong with heaping praise upon “unknown” artistic talent when it is done with careful attention, wit, intelligence and taste. I’m sure you’ve done the same with some of your favorite artists. True, only time will tell, just as it has done well with Springsteen and other legends like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt. But I do believe that just like my father passed on his Dylan records to me, I will be passing them on to my own kids, along with Springsteen, Cohen, Pearl Jam, Wilco, the Avett Brothers, and my Josh Ritter records amongst others.
    Keep up the great work,

    1. Matty D Post author

      Frank that was a concise, intelligent reply & the only contention I have is that while Josh Ritter is amazing I still don’t think that he is the greatest of our generation yet. I will concede that it could just be an inevitability.

  8. Frank Joyce

    Hey Matty, thanks for the reply…I guess my main gripe with the piece was that if Heather Browne’s proclamation was irresponsible, what do you consider “responsible”? Should her goal be to cater to the masses, or to first check out your opinion and others then form hers from those? Don’t you think you should stick to writing positively about your own tastes & opinions rather than negatively criticizing others? And just to clarify, she did not proclaim him as “The Greatest” but as ONE of the most important songwriters of our generation, an opinion likely formed from the effect the music has on her….seemingly slight, but a big difference.
    I just believe it was irresponsible to call someone’s musical and artistic opinion “flat out wrong”. I know you must have a very high opinion of yourself and your writing, otherwise you would not take the time to blog on these subjects. But you must always keep in mind that music blogs are formed from personal opinions. I know you would take issue if someone called your opinion on say, Pearl Jam or Springsteen, flat out wrong. I’m just saying to always keep an open mind and open ears. I write a running blog, but follow the same principles. I welcome all feedback and opinions but tell everyone that I’m no authority on the subject, just an enthusiast who enjoys sharing his own experience and expertise.
    Now Heather is not nearly the first to praise Ritter so highly…reviews of his work are very similiar dating all the way back to his first album, not just by bloggers but also many journalists/critics. And I can tell you that he most definitely does stand up for many things, speak out against injustices (one can safely assume his views are to the left…you would enjoy his in between song commentaries) and brings something new to the table every time I see him. Do yourself a favor and go out and see him when he comes to your town and you can judge for yourself.
    If anyone disagrees with my artistic or musical taste, there is not much of anything that can be said to change that. And FYI, some great new music I’ve discovered recently…
    Mumford & Sons, Dr. Dog, Local Natives & Elvis Perkins…check them out if you haven’t already. Keep up the good work, I always look forward to reading about quality music, whether it be positive, negative or divergent opinion.
    Take care,

    1. Matty D Post author

      Listen Frank I’m not sure why you’re so passive aggressive with your backhanded compliments, but here’s the difference between you & I: I am an expert on music. Plain & Simple. I don’t need to qualify myself to anyone. Saying a relative unknown artist is important is hyperbolic. It wasn’t hey he’s one of the most important artist’s to me point you’re trying to make. It was a Bob Dylanesque label of important to a generation. Albeit a generation full of people who mostly have no idea who Josh Ritter is. If you polled 10 random people 9 out of 10 would not know who he was or would confuse him with that guy from Three’s Company.

      You couldn’t even try to contend that Bruce Springsteen or Pearl Jam or Nirvana or even Green Day were not important. Green Day exemplified teen angst & brought Punk or Pseudo Punk back to the foreground. With American Idiot they opened eyes. Maybe that’s too mainstream for you, thus not cool, but it doesn’t take away their relative importance to a genre. Again for better or worse Green Day brought Punk Rock back from the dead with three chord progressions much like the Ramones. Just because kids like them does not make them shitty. I’ve seen Josh Ritter & what he does in between songs has no bearing on his songwriting no more than what Sean Penn does in between roles makes him a better actor. Again, for the cheap seats, my point was not that Josh Ritter is a bad musician, in fact he’s fantastic, my point is that he is not important to our generation in the least. Though, he may be singularly important to a person, that does not make him wholly important to a generation.

      1. Frank

        Whoa Matty, easy now…no need to point out our differences, even though I do consider myself quite an expert myself but I’ve only qualified that point to those who know me well, which you do not. I’m sorry if I insulted your intelligence or ego in any way, it wasn’t my intention. I actually had read your blog a bit even before taking issue with this subject (I especially liked your piece recently on how The Grapes of Wrath relates to today), and I can clearly see that you know your music, with or without any expert status…don’t want to turn this into a scene from High Fidelity. I like & respect your writing on music, just as much as Heather Browne, Aquarium Drunkard, Late Greats, Stereogum or Some Velvet Blog or any of the other numerous sites I read regularly with great interest. My intention was just to point out that I understood the place where Heather was coming from with her opinion and that I thought it was an irresponsible statement in calling her opinion “flat out wrong”. Simple as that…if it seemed like a larger indictment on you personally, it wasn’t my intention. It’s a big world out there in the blogosphere and there’s room for all of us to have a voice, whether we are serious music experts or critics who write for a living or just folks who enjoy great music and reading and talking about it and how it affects us in our own respective and subjective terms. A good example would be whether or not one agrees with say, Paste Magazine in putting Animal Collective at the top of their year end lists, or say the National a few years back. I enjoyed both albums immensely but I know that’s in the eye of the beholder of whether those albums are the best of the year or as some said, among the best of the decade…and I believe they were pretty much crowned their status before any substantial commercial success. But probably everyone you ask is going to say something different.
        Here’s one for you, since you have experience writing for the publication…I always found it interesting looking at Rolling Stone’s year end lists and seeing great unknown acts like the XX, Girls and the Dirty Projectors (unknown to most mainstream audiences) on the list with not much mainstream press coverage throughout the year (except for blogs of course), and then they put Bruce and U2 at the top. This is just my opinion, but I am a huge lifelong fan of both of them but I did not think the recent albums merited best of the year. But this is Rolling Stone we’re talking about, who will probably have the cast of Jersey Shore on the next cover…
        Personally my top 5 of last year would’ve been in no particular order, Elvis Perkins, Neko Case, Wilco, Dr. Dog (even though it came out in ’08), and the Avett Brothers. Anyways, hope you understand where I’m coming from and hope you don’t read this or any future comments with too much contempt…debate like this is healthy anyway, and can be a lot of fun as well.
        Again, as always, thanks for reading, keep up the great work and take care,

  9. Tom

    Not to belabor the point, but I think I’ll echo what’s been said and agree that taste in music varies quite a deal from person to person. Therefore, it doesn’t really seem to make sense to say someone is flat out wrong about a personal opinion, much as it wouldn’t make sense to say that someone is flat out wrong for liking chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that people can’t discuss why they like or dislike an artist in terms of their style, voice, or ability to convey certain emotions through their lyrics and music. When talking about such things, it’s fine to say you disagree with someone and articulate why, but probably better to avoid calling someone’s opinions baseless or wrong, because ultimately, there’s really no objective way to assess the validity of opinions. In the spirit of discussing personal preferences and not judging opinions as right or wrong, I’d say that I far prefer Josh Ritter or the Drive By Truckers over Green Day in terms of how they have used music to express how they feel about the tumult that is life in early 21st Century America. Certainly, neither is as commercially successful as Green Day, but I’d caution against equating commercial success or widespread popularity with being able to make a stand for something important, or ability to have influence. In fact, I suppose that it’s possible to argue that it was commercial interests that motivated Billie Joe Armstrong to “stand-up” for something in the first place. Before American Idiot was released, Green Day’s popularity had been flagging for years and one could conceivably argue that they saw an opportunity to capitalize on an already popular and somewhat widespread (and valid) anti-Bush sentiment. While I appreciated Billie Joe’s effort to hold a mirror up to early 21st Century America, I think the reflection he presented was an oversimplified portrait of Americans and America that I find myself trying to dispel every time I’m out of the country. Ultimately, I think America and Americans are more complex than what American Idiot shows, and for that reason, I appreciate Ritter’s “The Animal Years” and the Drive By Trucker’s ability to convey the complexities of life in modern America in a subtle, yet multi-faceted and thought provoking way. If interested, I recommend checking out the song “The Righteous Path” by the Drive By Truckers to get a sense of what I mean. (You might also be interested in the song “Outfit” by DBTs which has the lyric “Don’t sing with a fake British accent” which may be directed at Mr. Armstrong). All that said, I’ll reiterate that I’m not trying to say Ritter or DBTs are objectively better or more important than any other artist, simply that their work resonates more with me than some others. Wow. That got long. Thanks for reading.

    1. Matty D Post author

      But being commercially viable is a litmus test for how important to a generation a band/artist is. When wild examples like Taylor Swift or the Jonas Brothers are thrown around to say that because they’re commercially successful does not make them important. That’s a fact, but they’re not standing on a platform and saying hey I have something important to say. Josh Ritter is saying I have something important to a generation & that generation has thus far not listened. Commerciality, as much as you may hate it, is essential to determining importance to a generation.

      In American Idiot, much like the Who’s “Tommy” what Green Day did was take a character the album’s protagonist, Jesus of Suburbia, a powerless “everyman” desensitized by a “steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin” & create a character that could be related to. I’m a fan of the DBT’s, Patterson Hood is amazing. To say American’s are more complex, again is like saying “The Godfather” is a good movie, but ultimately Italian-Americans are not all in the mafia so It’s not important. Rubbish.

  10. pcahern

    I’ll be forthcoming with the fact that I have ALL KINDS of issues with both your initial post and your subsequent replies. However, since it is all in good fun and ultimately takes place around something that is close to our collective hearts (music), I won’t go so far as to call your commentary ‘irresponsible’ or even ‘flat out wrong’. After all, what, you’ve presented is nothing more than your opinion of someone else’s opinion — and I’m about to do the same.

    It seems to me that the primary issue here isn’t wholly around the merits of Josh himself; Instead, it’s that you and Heather see different meaning behind the word ‘important’. Your interpretation of the word ‘important’ assumes correlations with ‘influential, impactful, visible’. Your evaluation is much more external in nature and apparently denotes some type of responsibility to society (as opposed to just the music itself).

    Heather’s intended application seems to be more specific to the craft itself. You could swap out the word ‘imortant’ for the word ‘best’ and not lose a lot of what she is intending to say: “Josh Ritter is one of the BEST songwriters of this generation. Therefore, if you love great songwriting, he should be important to you.” This strips away any social obligations or commercial relevancy being used to evaluate his importance.

    Present day, we see Townes Van Zandt’s name getting dropped all over the place. During his career, he was absolutely someone that your interpretation of ‘important’ would dismiss as a ‘talented writer…but as far as his importance to music…I can’t understand how he is remotely important’.

    You go on to suggest that Ritter’s lack of importance is due in part to his ‘not standing up for anything, speaking out against injustices or even bringing something new to the table’. I’d argue that this is COMPLETELY irrelevant on its base, but is made even moreso when you decide to use Green Day and American Idiot as an example of ‘important’ songwriting. I’ll offer the following reasons regarding it’s social relevance and impact(none of which include my personal opinion that Green Day is almost as overrated as U2):

    1) Billie Joe based the concept of the album on a sentiment that was already widespread — he didn’t ‘break the news’ with his release, he just put those thoughts to music. Telling punk rockers and highschool kids that ‘government is bad, war is evil, the US is a fat, greedy imperialist’ isn’t innovative. It isn’t controversial, it isn’t edgy. For the sake of comparison, the comment made by that Dixie Chick took 100 times the balls of Green Day putting out this album. Why? She’s from Texas. Billie Joe’s from Berkeley. Shit, if Billie Joe wants to be embrace that contrarian ‘punk’ spirit, he should try preaching the virtues of the Bush presidency and the GOP in his hometown.

    2) The people who listened to American Idiot were already of the same mindset. He was preaching to the converted.

    3) If it takes the songs of Billie Joe Armstrong (or any other songwriter for that matter) to inform the viewpoint of a generation on any of the exceedingly complex political, social, or economic issues that have faced the country in the past decade, then brother, we’re in for a rough ride.

    On that last note: Perhaps it’s just a pet peeve of mine, but I cannot STAND being preached to by songwriters. For the most part, the decision by otherwise-talented writers to jump on the soapbox and ‘make a difference’ has been a disaster. Kristofferson. Steve Earle. Todd Snider. Guys, you stick to what you do best and trust that the rest of us will pick up the newspaper (and not just the NY Times, Huffington Post, MSNBC, I hope). Don’t get me wrong — If you can write ‘Masters of War’ (or Temptation of Adam for that matter), then do it. But ‘Third World Warrior’? Come on. As Townes would say, it’s ok when an artist ‘just has to sing for the sake of the song’.

    Lastly, on Ritter’s talent. I perused your blog a bit and caught your post on Tom Waits and the song Time. Tremendous song. Masterpiece. When I look at the songwriters you mention, most of them don’t have that song in them. Tweedy couldn’t write that. Ryan Adams couldn’t. I LOVE Tweedy and Adams. It’s not a matter of style or musical talent — they flat-out don’t have the creative or lyrical chops to pull it off. I would argue Ritter has shown that he has that in him. Perhaps so do Oberst, Darnielle, som I’m forgetting…

    Lastly, please remember that, while the analyzing of music may be an intellectual exercise (of which you’re a self-proclaimed expert), the EXPERIENCE of music is an emotional one. And while it can inform our intellectual sensibilities, I really want a song that makes me cry a little harder, enjoy my dumbass friends a bit more, and convinces me that I’m not the only one in the bar that knows ‘one more round’ won’t be the first or last bad idea that I won’t turn down.

    Does Ritter contribute anything of value to the Tower of Song? Or, as the old hipsters used to ask, ‘Does he have anything to say?’ Yes and yes, and THAT’S what makes him important.

  11. Stephen

    I think the logical conclusion here is that our generation, as a whole, is really….REALLY shit. As a collective group, they will always pick the Billy Joels over the Josh Ritters.
    Those who actually care about culture and value the arts attempt to distance themselves by creating their own personal “important” figures to replace those hailed by MTV and popular music magazines.
    I’d guess that most people who read indie music blogs do so because they can’t relate to “our generation” as a whole. So holding up these mainstream figures probably won’t get you very far when you have to argue against everyone else’s personal opinions.

  12. Pingback: They Say We’re The Chosen Few But We’re Wasted « The De Mello Theory

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s