Sunday, February 15, 2009

Stephen Metcalf and the Decline of the West

Rock criticism had a heyday in the sixties when the primarily male likes of Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, and Robert Christgau combined their counter-culture hedonism and the civil-rights informed progressive spirit and composed an ecstatic body of writing that supposed that rock music was more than a newly arrived art form, it was the future itself singing to us. Those of us old enough to remember can replay our favorite bits of prose that underscored the historic struggles embodied by the Beatles v The Rolling Stones or the creative accounting of Bob Dylan on the plight of our collectively bedraggled spirit. What of all that? 

Well, there was some excellent writing, deluded as much of it tended to be. Greil Marcus has become an ersatz cultural critic who chases around Bob Dylan's reputation in much the same fashion as the later writing of Harold Bloom rides Shakespeare's coattails, Dave Marsh has become a dour Methuselah, serious and dull as a paper clip, Robert Christgau has at least left the past behind and continued to listen to and write about new music, and Lester Bangs, pour sainted Lester, is dead as a doorstop. Not that rock criticism has stopped being written or that there's nothing good being said about younger artists. But their times when the younger critics read as if they're performing an Andy Kaufman-like parody of an older generation of serious reviewers. It's disheartening when you discover these guys aren't kidding. I've come across the latest case in point is Stephen Metcalf's hand wringing piece in Slate about Bruce Springsteen's performance at the Super Bowl. Springsteen had sinned somehow, and the additional crime, from Metcalf, hints at, was that The Boss couldn't sense the beleaguered critic's reservations through the ether over the digital transmissions. Bad dog! I am not a Springsteen fan and have written for years on the fact that the good man is severely overrated by babbling pop pundits like Metcalf ( the likes of whom seem unable to even take a dump without summoning summaries of zeitgeists past, present, and oncoming), but I do have to say that Bruce isn't required to live up to any coterie's collective fantasy about what his "purpose" is. 

Metcalf here seems increasingly like those noisy, bellicose, and useless color commentators who shout statistics and jargon-clogged truisms over the airwaves while the real players, like them or not, are doing the best they can on the field. The piece had nothing to do with music and everything to do with the author's sadness that he's older, more cynical, and just a little bitter that he aged his way past his earlier zeal and optimism. Springsteen still plays music with much the same spirit that animated him when he was a much younger man; I don't care for his music or lyrics to any significant degree, but I do admire his honesty and his refusal to let age depress his vitality. 

Constipated depression is what oozes between the sentences of Metcalf's mewling essay. The astonishing thing is that somehow he seems to hold the Boss accountable for not aligning his performance on the author's soured mood. This is not heroic criticism on the level of William Hazlitt or Matthew Arnold; this is sophistry on a par with the snobbish sniveling of Dave Marsh. As far as TV performances go, it was good, quite good, but Metcalf is just an inconsolable sourpuss because he didn't get his standard Transcendent Effect. But what galls me, really, about the diatribe is the author's odd conceit that he knows intimately what the "National Mood" is and how anyone should behave in a downswing. Springsteen is there for his fans, the ones who pay to see his concerts and buy his records, not the likes of Stephen Metcalf, who wants music written and performed by others to a soundtrack for his personal gloom and disgust. Plus, it's absurd to go on the way he did; if he thinks Springsteen was inappropriate in his performance, why didn't Metcalf chide The Steelers for daring to win the game? Would writers be out of a job if they decided to grow up?


  1. Hi, I just stumbled upon your blog through Google. This is a wonderful critique of a critique. Enjoyed reading it.

  2. Hi there. Thanks for the kind remark and thanks for taking the time to read the post. Did you create your avatar? It's wonderful.

  3. Hi Ted
    I enjoyed it too. I'd just read an article by Stephen Metcalf in Slate about the fiftieth anniversary of A Separate Peace. Curious, I googled him and hit your piece about him and the Springsteen Concert. What you said pretty much works for Metcalf's piece in Slate. Not a bad article, but it was as much about him as the book. okay, but what about me?

    Anyway, your piece was good. I'm a writer and a journalist myself, but I've never written squat about myself. nor have I written any Rock criticism. think I'd like to keep it that way
    cheers, brendan

  4. Stephen Metcalf is boob. I hear him week in and week out on Slate's Culture Gabfest. I like the podcast, but skip past any words spoken by him. He is a snob and not worth reading or listening too. His fixation on Springsteen and Dillan is weird. He is trapped in one moment of his life that made those to artists relavent to everyting in his life. But in truth they are irrelevant to everyone's life including his. No artist really speaks for or to anyone, except in those rare moments in life. Stephen Metcalf is trapped in those rare moments.

  5. Anonymous11:42 AM PDT

    Just came across Metcalf's 2006 review of Thirteen Moons, and it was the most ignorant thing I've ever read. I'm only a lukewarm fan of the book, but his basis for panning it was all about his own views and prejudices rather than about the work itself (which is presented almost as an afterthought). Sensing a pattern here . . . (Also -- who "works on a book about the 1980s" for at least seven years, and counting? Newsflash, Metcalfe; that book's already been written. It's called Bonfire of the Vanities.)


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