Future Brown’s self-titled debut LP was one of our most anticipated releases of 2015, and the album’s utopian mix of American street rap and high-minded European electronica didn’t quite live up to its promise. Future Brown is good, but it’s not so good as to be critically bulletproof, which has led to some fascinating controversies surrounding coverage of the project.
A great Gawker piece today outlines the first conflict. It began when a new Red Bull editorial music site published a piece by critic Alex Macpherson called “Honest Question: Is Future Brown’s Shtick 4Real?” It was a negative but fair review, a perfectly normal and reasonable piece of writing. But because another segment of the Red Bull empire is working with Future Brown in a promotional capacity, somebody at Red Bull HQ balked and decided to delete Macpherson’s story. The link is still live, but it redirects to a fluffy, positive interview with the group. (Find the original piece at Macpherson’s Tumblr.)
Meanwhile, in Pitchfork’s middling review of the album, critic Meaghan Garvey argued that Future Brown’s high-minded thesis gets in the way of enjoying the music: “It’s an album of aesthetics and not many ideas, and that’s just fine. But it’s okay to let a basketball be a basketball, and not an orb imbued with the power of community, or something.” But the members of Future Brown say no such thesis exists and Garvey’s review is based on false pretenses, an argument group member J-Cush advanced while dialoguing with Garvey on Twitter. Essentially, Garvey posited that as a critic she’s reading between the lines based on interviews Future Brown has given, and Future Brown are saying she’s seeing something that isn’t there.
Now another Future Brown member, Fatima Al Qadiri, has issued a statement on Facebook that labels Macpherson and Garvey’s pieces as “attacks” and accuses both writers of “proliferating theories and false notions of a malicious nature that have no factual bearing.” Al Qadiri insists that she’s not the type to label all negative feedback as malicious and suggests that the writers should have interviewed Future Brown instead of building arguments around theories that aren’t actually driving the group’s music. Her post concludes like so:
Writers who see fit to assert a theory or thesis on behalf of an artist when there isn’t one, or posit a privilege or claim of appropriation without access, proof or knowledge, create a hostile environment for artists and readers who demand credible journalism, filled with genuine criticism and facts, good or bad.
This is all tricky for multiple reasons. For one thing, the Red Bull controversy revisits the spotlight on the always-complicated intersection of corporate patronage and creative endeavor. Gawker puts it this way:
The tension here is pretty clear. On the one hand, Red Bull is selling Future Brown (and, by proxy, itself) as a progressive band of artists that’s helping push music forward. But on the other, in Macpherson’s since-deleted piece, it’s telling you that there’s a nagging emptiness to that argument because Future Brown’s music actually isn’t very good.
Culture publications are constantly forced to navigate this divide. In the case of music publications, artists are the ones who, theoretically, attract readers. So while most editors and writers would love to write as bluntly as possible about the music they cover, the truth is that the health of every magazine and website depends, to varying degrees, on which artists — and PR firms and labels — feel comfortable enough with your coverage to continue to play ball.
These kinds of questions have been around for decades, and they’re becoming more and more common. If you’ve ever wondered if, say, Pitchfork feels obligated to write more favorably about acts who play its festivals, you’re probably familiar with the conflict. It’s something all publications deal with to some extent, including Stereogum. The main difference here is that Red Bull, for all its valuable patronage of the arts (and its contributions as an educational and curatorial force have been valuable), does not appear to be comfortable with running a critical operation or associating itself with any kind of negative critique. What’s the value of culture writing if everything is awesome all the time?
As for Garvey’s review: As a writer who often attempts to read between the lines and make sense of the larger cultural environment surrounding a musical work, it’s hard not to feel some camaraderie with her here. She seems correct in her assertion that Future Brown, not the critical community, are the ones who affixed high-concept baggage to their music via Art Basel exploits and loaded graphic design. Sure, writers who run with those elements might carry them somewhere Future Brown doesn’t like, but musicians don’t get to dictate how their music is perceived, and human beings in general aren’t always aware of how they might strike other people. Outside analysis might reveal some unconscious aspects of an artist’s approach that the artist doesn’t like and/or don’t agree with, but they’re not necessarily in the position to be their own judge and jury. They do know their own conscious motives, though, and anyone whose motives have ever been misunderstood can probably empathize with them for that reason at least. It must suck to be told not that your music is bad but that the non-existent ideas behind it are bad.