I recently read a piece by Ian S. Port in his SF Weekly blog about why music critics dislike a number of current “___ the ___” bands including Portugal. The Man. Ironically the only reason I read the article was because Portugal tweeted it. I haven’t given a good enough listen to the other bands mentioned in the article besides exposure to a few songs here and there to comment on them, so instead I’m going to focus on Portugal. The Man and why Port’s criticism is off base.
Port’s main arguments can be summed up in the following quotes:
“gateway indie rock with bad band names”
“all basically doing the same thing: Derivative, anthemic guitar rock built on optimistic melodies and pop-friendly arrangements.”
“these bands represent a classic target of critics. Call them Champions of Vanilla — their music is successful, decent, and sometimes surprisingly effective, and yet nearly all of it is utterly generic. Devoid of personality. Anonymous.”
First, the strength of Port’s criticism against Portugal. The Man comes from lumping this band in with others (largely due to the similar name structure). But tying them to a group and attempting to sink the lot speaks more about the writer’s (or writers’, if Port wants to speak on behalf of all music critics) bias against a particular genre rather than providing any well-formed criticisms of the band’s individual merits. Lumping them in with Foster the People, etc., adds to this illusion that Portugal just popped on the scene this year. The truth is they’ve been around. They have five major albums, not to mention their other projects, and show no signs of letting up.
Second, Port’s criticisms of Portugal seem to be based on a limited, shallow exposure to the band. While I agree that the band’s two most successful singles “People Say”(The Satanic Satanist) and “So American” (In the Mountain In the Cloud) lean toward “anthemic guitar rock built on optimistic melodies and pop-friendly arrangements,” all I have to say is this: No shit. They were the first singles off new albums. Of course they’re going to be extra catchy and more broadly appealing. That’s like judging the White Stripes based solely on “Seven Nation Army” and “Icky Thump.” I fear the critic(s) have not scratched beneath the money-making singles surface to see the full scope of what Portugal has done and will continue to do. It’s their loss, however, if they wish to miss out on a great catalogue just because the singles were too delightfully infectious.
Third, Portugal is actually really fucking great for several reasons. Besides the entire band being extremely talented, Frontman John Gourley has an unparalleled creative vision. I am perpetually impressed by his drive to create– music, art, and whatever else he can get his hands into (leather shoes? etc.). This element, this single force of (dare I say) genius, is something I’m betting the other ___ the ___ bands don’t have going for them. I had the chance to speak with Gourley a few months ago and was fascinated by his disregard for categorization. This refusal to adhere to genre is something that frees Portugal up to do whatever they want, and if the critics would actually look back at their previous albums, they might see their exploration and evolution of style.
Furthermore, it’s almost laughable to me that someone would dismiss Portugal as some kind of frivolous novelty band only good for sunny drives with the windows down (although full disclosure, that is one of my favorite times to listen to them). If you actually listen to Gourley’s lyrics, you’ll see a philosophy unfold in front of you. His music isn’t just for the casual listener (although it’s enjoyable for that group, too), but rather it describes a way of life: living in harmony with nature and one another, not blindly bowing to institution, not being afraid of the world… It’s genuinely admirable.
Finally, the opinions of music critics should hold a lot less water in general. Most critics are failures at something and they’ve chosen to be critics because they couldn’t succeed at what they wanted. They destroy because they can’t create. Their job is to literally tell other people what kind of opinions to have on a subjective issue: music. So maybe it serves a useful function to inform people about a great new band, but otherwise who cares what critics think? Make up your own mind.
Maybe I’m just defensive because this is one of my favorite bands, and I’ve grown up watching them over the past several years. That’s ok though. We all have our biases, as I’m sure Mr. Port does. I would just invite people to get to know a band first before making easy dismissals. Besides, if you brush off a band like Portugal because you thought the single was too poppy, you might miss out on their fantastic live show.
(skip to 2:30 if you’re pressed for time)
Port, Ian S. “Things Music Critics Hate: Foster the People, Cage the Elephant, Young the Giant, Portugal. The Man. Etc..” SF Weekly. (2011): 2. 19 Nov 2011 <http://blogs.sfweekly.com/shookdown/2011/11/things_music_critics_hate_fost.php>.