Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Grantland "Best Song of the Millennium" Bracket

I'm a big fan of I started reading Bill Simmons in 2004 and I've probably read every article he's written since 2007. His site isn't perfect, but it's a pretty good model of how to succeed in internet journalism: get support from a big backer (ESPN), hire great talent and combine interesting/unique analysis with great storytelling. I'm not a fan of every writer on the site -- in fact, there are some writers who I actively dislike. But I love reading Simmons, and every piece from the lead writers for each of the big three sports (Bill Barnwell for football, Zach Lowe for basketball, Jonah Keri for baseball) is a must read. All three of those guys really do their homework and it shows in the consistently high quality of their writing.

What I want to talk about in this article, however, is the other half of Simmons' website: pop culture. No doubt, there is talent on that side as well (Andy Greenwald is the best companion to Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad that a guy could ask for). But I find it very interesting that the well-reasoned, objective analysis that is so prominent in the sports portion of Grantland is cast asunder when it comes to pop culture. Every time I read a piece by Barnwell or Lowe or Keri, I know that they will have evidence for every claim they make. Even if I don't agree with them, they always make a compelling enough case that I have to consider their argument seriously. In following the "Best Song of the Millennium" bracket that Grantland unveiled last week, I've noticed the complete opposite from the site's pop culture articles. I should note a few disclaimers before I begin my argument:

  • Pop culture is inherently more subjective than sports. It is much harder to be objective when a larger portion of the subject matter is subject to taste.
  • I do not read Grantland's pop culture articles as much as its sports articles.
  • This bracket is meant to be (ostensibly) for fun. So I understand that some of the writers discussing the bracket may be a bit more subjective than they normally would for a traditional piece.
With that said, the Grantland writers who have commented on the bracket either a) are completely self-centered; b) have no ability to empathize whatsoever; c) are total music snobs; or d) some combination of all three. When I viewed the initial bracket (available here), I thought that, overall, the Grantland staff had done a pretty good job of putting it together. Squeezing 13.5 years of music into a 64-song bracket was always going to be tough, and they did seem to under-represent country (and this is coming from someone who hates country music) and managed to leave out "Lose Yourself" (really?). But after assigning themselves an almost-impossible task, I'd give the Grantland staff an A- on bracket assembly.

What angered me is the self-righteousness emanating from the writers as each round played out. My favorite song since 2000 is "When You Were Young" by The Killers. But when it was left off the bracket, I wasn't upset. I understood: not everyone likes that song as much as I do. I put my eggs in the "Mr. Brightside" basket and was pleasantly surprised to see it keep chugging along, knocking out #1 seed "Since U Been Gone" in the second round and ultimately advancing all the way to the semifinals before losing to "Hey Ya!" Judging by the reaction I get when I tell people my favorite band is The Killers, having Mr. Brightside named the unofficial best song of 2004-2007 was a pretty good accomplishment. (Quick story: A few months ago, I told a girl that my favorite band was The Killers. She said that she really liked them 7th grade. Cue snickers from the rest of the table). 

Yet to hear Grantland's Rembert Browne tell it, the fact that "Mr. Brightside" was even in the semifinals was a crime against music. Here's what he wrote when he received a (incorrect) message that "Mr. Brightside" had beaten "Hey Ya!" to advance to the final.

3. This is not the world Dr. King envisioned.

I hope that every person who repeatedly voted for "Mr. Brightside" to make it out of a region with "Since U Been Gone," "Paper Planes," "Rehab," "Yeah," and "INTERNATIONAL PLAYERS ANTHEM" looks in the mirror after the pro-Killers results, fist-pumps, and reads aloud the text on their shirt: "Stand for something or nothing at all."

I can understand someone liking "Hey Ya!" more than "Mr. Brightside." Personally, I enjoy both songs. There's a case to be made. It's just that no one at Grantland is making it. I've read Browne's pieces for the site, and they're supposed to be fun. His role isn't to perform rigorous analysis on pop culture -- it's to go out and collect stories. But what I've noticed in following this bracket is how much this approach differs from the one taken by the site's sportswriters. In Browne's article, not once does he mention what makes "Hey Ya!" a better song than "Mr. Brightside." Instead, the article is about him measuring his outrage and finding a humorous way to express how much of a tragedy a "Mr. Brightside" victory would be. Again, I understand. His assignment was not: write why "Hey Ya!" is better than "Mr. Brightside." 

Yet by reading the article (and becoming increasingly frustrated as Browne completely discounted a song that people liked enough to vote to the semifinals), I realized that, as a reader (and a writer), I really need to see people support their claims. I credit my high school social studies teachers for this approach -- they always stressed evidence in crafting an argument. Since most of writing involves crafting an argument, evidence is therefore vital. To me, it is frustrating to read an impassioned, one-sided take that is totally critical of one side. Such an article would never run on the sports portion of Grantland. Yet in the pop culture section, it is far too common. 

Here's Grantland's Sean Fennessey on the quarterfinals results:

I can see now that we've made a grave mistake.

What do [these songs] say about us now, as a society of consumers? Mostly, I think, that we feed on nostalgia like so much Fruit by the Foot. This is what we tell ourselves at Grantland HQ to reconcile the wreckage of the last six days. Here is what happened yesterday, you monsters.

The Killers are revivalists; their songs are about 30 and 20 and 10 years ago. "Mr. Brightside" has a riff like a scythe and a chorus made for karaoke. But it is ultimately homage. Are we prepared to say that across the span of four very important years — years of terror, social unrest, a lurking financial collapse, and Fear Factor — that the Killers defined the time? Give me Usher Raymond in a laser club and a pair of Air Force Ones or give me death.

I actually respect Fennessey's take more than Browne's because it appears that he's actually listened to "Mr. Brightside." But where in the bracket bylaws does it say that a song has to "define its time"? Fennessey's argument here is so short that it's difficult to completely dissect, but it's unclear what about "Mr. Brightside" makes it so much more of an homage than "Yeah!" By this reasoning, isn't all music (and culture) homage? "Mr. Brightside" and "Yeah!" are both pop songs. The bracket was designed to see which one Grantland readers liked more. That's all that's going on here. Don't discount "Mr. Brightside" for its lack of grand social impact and then conclude the same paragraph with a joke. Either make a serious argument or don't make one at all.

Here's Emily Yoshida on the results from the round of 16:

It's not funny anymore. You know we added a Killers song to this list out of charity, right? We felt bad because there weren't enough "rock songs" in the bracket and so I turned to Mark Lisanti and was like "Uh, the Killers? Did people like the Killers? Sure, throw the emo kids a bone, it'll shut em up before Kelly Clarkson massacres the lower left corner of the bracket." I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive myself.

What is it about "Mr. Brightside" that makes it so inconceivable that a large number of people would vote for it in this bracket? I get that the angle many pop culture writers try to employ is that they're "above" certain genres or types of songs, even if, deep down, they're lying to themselves. I don't happen to subscribe to that angle -- I'll admit to you that I have eight Britney Spears songs on my iPod and that I really enjoy seven of them. I'll admit that there's no shame in a guy liking Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth." I''ll even admit that -- GASP! -- I'm a Nickelback fan. Judge me however you want, but in a subjective medium such as music, I don't care if snobs look down on me because I don't have a hard-on for Jay-Z and Kanye West (which is apparently a prerequisite for writing about pop culture for Grantland). 

Rather, what disturbs me most is that people who write about pop culture for a living seem to have no concept of what that even means. Pop culture is short for popular culture. If your job is to write about it, shouldn't you have an idea of what is popular? Should it really surprise you when a song that was popular when it came out and still gets plenty of airplay in alternative rock circles is still popular now?  Nah, it's easier to just make fun of the song (and the people who like it) than considering the possibility that one person's thoughts and subjective tastes do not carry across the nation.What a foreign concept that other people's views could differ so drastically from your own.

"Mr. Brightside" didn't win "Best Song of the Millennium." I can comprehend that a song I really like didn't win. Why can't anyone at Grantland understand why a song that they don't like almost did?


  1. Grantland completely destroyed their credibility with this, and it's going to be very hard for me to read their articles anymore (aside from Simmons whose fingerprints weren't really on this) So GL writers don't like "Mr. Brightside"? Fine, then don't put it in the bracket. And if it's in, don't act like a self-important ass when it wins a few rounds.

    Did they not realize that they were only fueling the fire by showing their utter contempt for a very popular song? The more GL writers piled on, the more people voted for "Mr. Brightside" out of spite. No other song got this much hate. None.

    Maybe there really was a spambot. Seems plausible in this Day and Age (yeah, I'm a Killers fan, too) But the fact that the game makers clearly tipped their hand against a particular song and then that particular song was the only one to have a "spambot" skew the results -- which were then invalidated -- seems a little fishy to me.

    Personally, i think their 'stack the deck against rock and hate on the last track standing' strategy backfired, and *they* hijacked their own game in a panic, to guarantee the result that they always wanted. They didn't expect rock fans (even those who don't like The Killers or "Brightside") to cheer for it like a Canadian hockey fan cheers for any/all remaining Canadian hockey teams once his/her favorite is eliminated -- even if that means a Maple Leafs fan has to swallow his pride and root for Ottawa or (gasp!) Montreal.

    Which reminds me, you nearly invalidated your take right off the top by excluding hockey as a major American sport. Even the haters (ESPN) acknowledge that there are four -- and Grantland actually does cover hockey. Don't sleep on Katie Baker, yo.

    1. Appreciate the comment man, you make some good points. I recognize that there are a lot of hockey fans out there, but you can't deny that it's the least popular of the "big four" (and yes, ESPN has something to do with this). I just don't read Grantland's hockey coverage very often so I wouldn't have felt comfortable commenting on it.