The term “universal acclaim” is, on its face, silly—no cultural product is universal, and even The Godfather Part II had its pans. But it becomes a little bit more useful once you factor in the idea that in pop culture, as in some interpretations of quantum mechanics, there exist multiple universes, each self-contained yet seemingly infinite to those inside.
That’s how it can be that the second sentence of the Wikipedia entry describing the musician Panda Bear’s 2007 release Person Pitch says that "the album was released to universal acclaim," even though the vast majority of people in the known physical universe haven't heard of Panda Bear. The people who had, in 2007, existed within the microcosm of indie-rock-oriented, Pitchfork-reading music lovers who just might actually deserve the label “hipster.” But even among those folks, “universal acclaim” in this case is an exaggeration. At least one relevant person hated Person Pitch—me.
That sounds self-important, and it is, but only because I was very self-important about my musical opinions at the time. And Person Pitch was, if not the first, then the most profound encounter I had with the experience of finding myself utterly alienated by a work of art that I should by all rights love. The phenomenon is—dare I say?—universal, leading publications to make lists of "guilty displeasures" and SNL to spoof the notion that someone would admit to not totally loving Beyoncé. But what isn't universal is how you respond. Person Pitch was to me what The English Patient was to Elaine Benes, and I indeed reacted with about as much social grace and self awareness as a Seinfeld character would.
As is the case for any indie-obsessed college student, listening habits were a vital identity marker to my 2007 self, and figuring out my personal taste was a matter of great seriousness. By that point, I’d aligned with a certain group of friends and a certain group of publications to go to for recommendations, and found they did not, generally, fail me—here and there would be a buzzed-about record that didn't end up staying in rotation during walks to class, but usually the music “my culture” recommended ended up being the music I liked.
Panda Bear, real name Noah Lennox, is a member of the experimental rock band Animal Collective, which makes woozy, percussive folk and rock that’s often ugly, sometimes sweet, and occasionally results in an all-out banger. I liked them a lot. Of the band's two vocalists, Lennox is the more soothing one, often compared to Brian Wilson. On Person Pitch, he retreated from traditional song structures and propulsive rhythms, instead opting for pastoral, looping tracks that friends professed to have transcendental spiritual experiences to and that I found—even after dozens of listens, in various environments—plain dull.
Was the problem me, or his music, or the people around me? I’ll confess that I suspected all three but only spoke aloud, a lot, about the latter two, styling myself as a snarky apostate against the cult of 12-minute lullabies about living in Portugal. I accused Panda Bear of making pop music for people who didn’t want to admit liking pop music, and friends of trumping up their reports of ecstasy for social cachet.
Which embarrasses me now. Part of maturing, I think, is realizing that charges of acting in bad faith are often themselves made in bad faith, an attempt to explain away gaps in understanding between two people rather than trying to bridge them, or even make peace with them. That's as true in politics and in relationships as it is in music, but in music—arguably the strangest and most subjective art form there is—the best option often is "make peace." Not everything is for you, even you of eclectic tastes and voracious listening appetite. That doesn't mean others are lying about their enjoyment.
Today there’s another Panda Bear album out, his fifth, entitled Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, and it’s getting strong reviews from all the right people in his universe. When I first put it on, I’ll admit to groaning and being hit with a flashback: Track 1, “Sequential Circuits,” is all gurgling noises and owl hoots and misty synths and chilled-out chanting that never seems to become a real song—it's everything I found tedious about Person Pitch, collected in one place. But I’ve kept with the album and can identify some moments of real delight.
Lennox’s voice can surprise you by moving from droning to awestruck, and on a track like “Crosswords”—featuring near-danceable breakbeat and a spry, reverberating synth pattern—he uses that ability to serve up emotional plot twists that make you choke up a bit. The first single, “Boys Latin,” is a clattering jam featuring what sounds like a didgeridoo with a nonsense call-and-response vocals somehow suitable for shower singing. Songs like those seem to use his experimental streak for a purpose, forgoing the precious-seeming languor that’d defined his past work for me.
In hindsight, I can see that there were moments just as lovely on Person Pitch. Caught up in the cultural and personal context of the time, I didn’t let myself enjoy them. But now, on occasion, I’ll pull up Person Pitch and zoom to the spots in the tracks that are undeniably wonderful—the beachside strumalong breakdown of “Take Pills,” the initial rush of “Bros,” the monk-party climax of “Comfy in Nautica”—and leave the rest. I still don’t quite get Panda Bear’s full appeal, but I can be happy for those who do.