There's a chance many of you have not heard of DIIV, the good and even sometimes great indie-rock band based in New York City. That's not critical snobbery at work, but rather a layman's understanding of how difficult it is to keep up with new-ish indie bands (or political coverage or celebrity uncouplings or cat memes) when we're all ceaselessly overwhelmed by information every day. That said, there's also a good chance you've come across the boyish face of the ascendant band's founder, Zachary Cole Smith, whether you knew it or not.
Perhaps you were in an airport flipping through magazines when ads for fashion labels Hedi Slimane or Saint Laurent Paris featuring Smith's stoic visage demanded at least a passing glance. Or maybe the gossipmonger Perez Hilton infiltrated your news stream with word that ZCS and his lover, the rising pop adventurer Sky Ferreira, were arrested for alleged crimes involving a stolen vehicle and many decks of heroin. Or was it Smith's anti-SXSW screeds that caught your attention last year?
"The 'music' element is all a front," he inveighed on Tumblr. "Drunk corporate goons and other industry vampires and cocaine. Everyone is drunk, being cool. 'Official' bureaucracy and all their mindless rules. Branding, branding, branding. It's bullshit."
This sort of reverse-engineered publicity tactic has proven effective through several generations of the pop-culture milieu, and the dust wafting around Smith has almost certainly cultivated DIIV listeners through sheer contrarianism. Controversy begets publicity begets (typically) a passionate following begets (if you're lucky) modeling contracts — a scenario that's ripe for exploitation in the Internet age.
I concede we've hardly scratched the surface of DIIV as a music entity, though, but I guess that's sort of the point. "What do I give a damn if Perez Hilton used MS Paint to scribble on dude's face if he can't, you know, satisfy my emotional needs?" you ask. It's a fair question, and one I asked myself many times before actually spending time with DIIV's lone LP, Oshin, released in 2012. Unfortunately the avalanche of think pieces and Twitter pile-ons crossing any observer's radar every day enforces this weird phenomenon wherein we feel some obligation to choose sides before we've engaged the work in question. I'm a proponent of the social Web, but I have to acknowledge that it's created a culture of pseudo-intellectual one-upsmanship that obscures the simple, clear-headed act of listening for its own sake. Context is important, but in recent years it has disproportionately dictated musical taste in the critical realm — I can't play Beyoncé or Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence without 10,000 binary voices entering my head.
Compounding the situation in Smith's case is the fact that it's totally feasible he's been throwing gas on the fire solely to generate headlines. Perhaps he grasps the ways in which controversy and hyperbole can be a boon to DIIV's stock, and has been actively trolling music critics and hyper-aware indie obsessives since he arrived. I came across at least one aspirational "voice of my generation" quote from Smith in my research, which obviously belies both the implausibility of anyone serving a Dylan-esque role in our fractured cultural economy, as well as the fact that DIIV is too beholden to its record-collector influences (think Joy Division, The Chameleons, The Cure, etc.) to fill such a role should it exist. And it doesn't take a PR genius to grasp the power of Smith invoking icons like Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith when discussing his own work, however misguided the comparisons.
And yet, you know what? Despite Smith's occasional hubris and the well-trodden touchstones fueling DIIV, I still really, really like Oshin and am psyched to see the band live. Experienced in a vacuum, removed from its many-tiered context, the record ekes out its own space on a plane full of similar efforts, and its calm winds keep swirling long after the gorgeous closer "Home" trickles away. Unprovoked, I've been humming the Kevin Shields-worthy melodies from "How Long Have You Known" for days now, a concrete reminder that the business and intellectualization of music often pales in vigor to the power of music itself.