The first time I became a “fan” in the “fanatical” sense of the word was in the summer of 2012. “Midnight City,” M83’s biggest (read: only) hit, had been released for nearly seven months and was just breaching alternative rock radio. In a landscape of Mumford & Sons, Gotye, and Foster the People (all of which I loved at the time), “Midnight City” stood out. Songs by these artists were compulsively listenable, just as “Midnight City” was, but the M83 track felt personal and relatable, and could hit an emotional pressure point that I wasn’t even aware existed. I listened to that song on repeat for weeks, eventually allowing myself to open up to the album it was on. I played Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming everywhere. At home, in the car, with friends, at my workplace, with headphones and without once they broke from overuse.
I remember, on numerous occasions, making a friend or classmate listen to the song and becoming frustrated when I realized that they simply didn’t feel the same way about it as I did, that the intense feeling I derived from the song wasn’t shared. I worried that my tastes were in some way inadequate or undeveloped—or, worse, that they were developed but in the wrong direction. I would wait for my friend to finish the song and rave about it, only to get a simple nod, shrug or laconic “it’s pretty good.”
I could never just let it be. “It’s all about how there’s this one note that the singer hits,” I would say. Or “there’s this amazing riff right here, just wait for it.” Even if the reactions were positive, though, I never felt that they did the music justice.
Maybe a month into my obsession with Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, I turned to the internet. Happily, I found exactly what I was looking for. Ian Cohen’s Pitchfork review of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, with a score of 9.1 out of 10, described the album in such terms as “some of the most thrilling pop music released this year” and “a sonic planetarium, penetrable and totally geared towards enhancing the user experience.” At the time, these seemed to justify my attachment. They gave clout to opinions that I “knew” were correct, despite the disinterest of my classmates. Seeing such praise written on a reputable (and well-traveled) website, in such an authoritative tone, gave me a sense of alignment and participation in that authority.
This permanently changed the nature of my listening habits. Whereas before I sought approval from my peers at school, where the conversation didn’t usually extend beyond Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry, I slowly but surely found a community with the potential to validate tastes I had previously worried were eccentric. The cost of participation in that “conversation,” though, was subservience to the judgments that came out of it—even when those judgments conflicted with my own. No longer could I listen to Mumford & Sons (whose best song, “Little Lion Man,” I maintain to this day has a perverse but pleasurable forward momentum to it) without seeing the bright black 2.1 Pitchfork assigned to their first album. Where before I sought out bands blindly, stumbling onto whatever Pandora or Spotify recommended me, I now swore by the words of tastemakers who, for better or worse, I desperately wanted to agree with.
The Next Next Level, the debut book by Slate reporter Leon Neyfakh, centers on a more intimate critical conversation. The book is about the relationship between Neyfakh and his friend Juiceboxxx, a white, Milwaukee-based rap-rocker who, despite having a menacing live show and a devoted cult following, has never quite made it. Neyfakh has been convinced since he was a teenager that Juiceboxxx is a creative genius. Back in high school, when he was booking some local bands, Neyfakh tried, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to get his friends to go to Juiceboxxx’s shows. At first Neyfakh thought the poor attendance was due to his own failing as a promoter, but gradually he began to suspect there was more to it: Juiceboxxx, he realized, actively resists fandom. He’s ostentatiously uncool—and not in the way that most music fans and critics are used to finding interesting.
A decade later Neyfakh, now a journalist living in New York, hears that Juiceboxxx is going to be in the city for a few weeks. He decides to take the opportunity to interview him, hoping to discover why this weird underground rapper is one of his favorite musicians—a fact Neyfakh can’t quite account for. When discussing the story with a friend who works for the New Yorker, Neyfakh admits, “I don’t have an effective summary at the ready of who Juiceboxxx is or why I’m so invested in him.”
Part of the reason Neyfakh has trouble explaining his attraction is that Juiceboxxx’s music is such a 180 from his normal tastes, from the things that he (or any serious music critic) would be expected to admire. In a chapter entitled “Stupid, Stupid, Stupid,” Neyfakh notes that his love of Juiceboxxx seems to go against his deepest aesthetic instincts. For instance, Nefakh feels a special affinity for bands like Real Estate, describing them as “guys who didn’t brag about being simple, who didn’t take pride in being ‘intuitive,’ as opposed to considered and deliberate.” He expresses frustration, on the other hand, with a culture that too often equates spontaneity with sincerity. But Juiceboxxx, with his pared-down beats, lyrics and ideas, is raw in just the way Neyfakh usually finds unrelatable and even annoying. “I should want to tell him to go fuck himself and stop trying to tell people how to live their lives,” Nefakh reflects—and yet, not only is Juiceboxxx a major interest of Neyfakh’s, he’s an inspiration.
For Neyfakh, the tension is especially potent because of something he calls the “genius vs. critic” divide. Originating as a game Neyfakh played with friends in college, the idea is that people can either be “geniuses” or “critics.” The “geniuses” are content generators—purposeful and somewhat magical in their ability to spout fully formed ideas. “Critics,” on the other hand, are responders—“calculated and careful” to a fault, reacting to what gets produced by geniuses in their flurries of inspiration. Neyfakh admits that he spent much of his young adulthood trying to find the “genius” underneath the “critic” within him, going through various embarrassing experiences in an effort to discover his natural instincts. Neyfakh never pinpoints the moment when it happened, but at some point he accepted (for the most part) that he was a critic.
Seeing Juiceboxxx again, though, wakes up the old insecurity. Midway through one of his interviews with Juiceboxxx, Neyfakh resolves to confront him about the power he feels Juiceboxxx has over him, “badly want[ing] him to acknowledge that he and I are in fact very different. And also to feel sorry for me and also to tell me it’s OK that I am who I am.” But Juiceboxxx reacts with confusion, turning defensive and vehemently denying that his show and music are uncalculated. His attempts to describe his mindset become more and more vague until, eventually, Neyfakh gives up. But later, while mulling over his failure to parse Juiceboxxx’s thoughts during the interview, Neyfakh stumbles into the idea that perhaps, despite what he’s thought all these years, artistry isn’t about being a “genius” in the traditional sense. The thought comes with some measure of relief. “Maybe, just maybe,” he thinks, “that means the difference between people like him and people like me is less black and white than I have always assumed.”
On one level, the whole book is trained toward the discovery that a genius and a critic have more in common than Neyfakh had realized as a teenager. As Neyfakh interviews Juiceboxxx, the two grow closer. Neyfakh eventually realizes the extent to which Juiceboxxx is a critic, despite his sometimes manic behavior. But while the book is a great look into the way the artist/fan relationship can be complicated when an idol becomes a friend, it gains additional resonance from its relationship to the broader world of music journalism, where the general attitude toward “new” artists and bands tends to boomerang between utilitarian, sycophantic and awed.
Neyfakh, by way of contrast, does not shrink from putting down popular artists and hyped bands like viral punk sensation Wavves at the same time as he remains consistently self-critical. Neyfakh’s staunch individualism lends a defiant tenderness to his attitude toward Juiceboxxx: Neyfakh shadows Juiceboxxx not because Juiceboxxx needs a career boost but because he wants to know what makes him and his artistic output so personally compelling to him, despite his contradictions and shortcomings. This interaction doesn’t just ignore the “critical conversation,” it actively pushes against it, allowing doubt and awkwardness to enter the often oppressively confident posturing of the critic.
Some reviewers have pointed out the “low stakes” of the book, and a cynical reader might be led to believe that The Next Next Level is just thinly veiled promotional material, a favor done by one well-connected friend for another. An interview by the FADER leads off by giving both The Next Next Level and Juiceboxxx’s album, Heartland 99, the author’s “highest recommendation.” It’s a nice gesture, but at the same time it feels strangely hollow. An unexamined endorsement of that kind misses the point: this isn’t a promotional book—and there are times when it feels like even Neyfakh doubts his own interest in Juiceboxxxx. It’s a love letter, written in full acknowledgment of the complexities of fandom and of the subjectivity of taste.
In recent years, pop criticism has spread its wings, embracing everything from Mariah Carey to múm. Even so, most criticism still relies on a notion of authority, secure in the value (or lack thereof) of the art being described. The act of giving scores or awards to albums and tracks, of assigning distinction to certain artists, lends the artist and the listener a sense of the social and cultural value of the music, even if they might admit that taste is (to some extent) subjective.
Neyfakh turns this on its head. The artist is never on trial in The Next Next Level—the critic is. Instead of analyzing the music, Neyfakh investigates his own attraction to it. Neyfakh is an admittedly unreliable judge, and he never quite gets to the heart of why he likes Juiceboxxx. But he’s also an empathetic listener and writer, and in combining introspection with a gonzo sensibility, he achieves as much as any string of adjectives or description of an album as post-Cocteau Twins or something could.
In November of 2013, about a year and a half after I read Ian Cohen’s review of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Cohen published a retrospective review of Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism. The review was saccharine, often vague, and a complete reversal of Pitchfork Media’s usual stance on Death Cab’s output, giving an extremely high score to a band often derided by the website in their late period. It was also honest about the reviewer’s bias. In the second-to-last paragraph, Cohen says what he must feel more often than not: “We’ve gotten this far, so let’s just do away with it: judging Death Cab, and Transatlanticism in particular, from a completely objective standpoint feels kinda insincere and wholly inaccurate (and everybody knows it) … I was completely obsessed with Transatlanticism in 2003.”
He could’ve gone further. Perhaps what The Next Next Level does best is to point out the contradiction of conventional music criticism, as well as a way out. Pop music doesn’t sound like authoritative metaphors and descriptions and biographical details: it sounds like a grab for identity, confusion about social capital, and moving bodies. It sounds alive, and for about two hundred pages, Leon Neyfakh and Juiceboxxx together embody that vitality and connection.
To a listener like me, this means everything. I’ve spent the last few years learning the ropes of critical discourse, dissecting what makes something formally “good” or “bad,” and gradually becoming more comfortable matching my own tastes against those of the critics I look up to. But I also maintain an instinctive affinity for some of the same bands I liked when all I knew was that they were “different.”
At its best, pop music grounds normally indescribable emotions in sound, giving them form without over-defining them. It reassures the person listening that grand, overwrought-on-paper concepts like capital-L Love or capital-F Fulfillment might be achievable, if only because they sound real. The fact that Neyfakh focuses for at least half of the book on his own experiences and self-critique is not a distraction from his criticism; it is the method he chooses to convey it. By the end of the book, we know what someone who really likes Juiceboxxx is like, which may just be the best way of understanding what there is to like about Juiceboxxx.