Showing posts with label Rock Critics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rock Critics. Show all posts

Saturday, April 14, 2012

KILL YOUR IDOLS: Anti-Rock Revisionism

Image result for kill your idols derogatis
Add caption
Kill Your Idols: 
A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics 
Edited by Jim Derogatis and Carmel Carillo

The problem with the generation of rock critics who followed the late Lester Bangs was that too many of them were attempting to duplicate Bangs' signature and singular ability to write movingly about why rock and roll stars make terrible heroes. Like many of us, Bangs became disillusioned with rock and roll when he discovered that those he admired and was obsessed by--Lou Reed, Miles Davis, Black Sabbath--were not saints. The discovery of their clay feet, their egos, and the realization that rock and roll culture was a thick cluster of bullshit and pretentiousness didn't stimy Bangs' writing. It, in fact, was the basis of Bangs transcending his limits and finding something new to consider in this. Sadly, he died before he could enter another great period of prose writing. "Kill Your Idols", edited by Jim DeRogatis, is an anthology that is intended, I suspect to be the  antithesis to another inconsistent anthology of thematic rock commentary, "Stranded", the Greil Marcus edited collection where he commissioned a number of leading pop music writers and asked them to write at length about what one rock and roll album they would want to be left on a desert island with; it's not a perfect record--then New York Times rock critic John Rockwell chose "Back in the USA" by Linda Ronstadt and couldn't mount a persuasive defense of the disc--but it did contain a masterpiece by Bangs, his write-up of Van Morrison's album "Astral Weeks". 

His reading of the tune "Madame George" is a staggering example of lyric empathy, a truly heroic form of criticism. "Kill Your Idols", in reverse emulation, assigns a group of younger reviewers who are tasked with debunking the sacred cows of the rock and roll generation before them; we have, in effect, pages full of deadening sarcasm from a crew who show none of the humor or sympathy that were Bangs best qualities. Bangs, of course, was smart enough not to take himself too seriously; he knew he was as absurd as the musicians he scrutinized.

"Kill Your Idols" seemed like a good idea when I bought the book, offering up the chance for a younger set of rock critics to give a counterargument to the well-made assertions of the essayists from the early Rolling Stone/Crawdaddy/Village Voice days who are finely tuned critiques gave us what we consider now to be the Rock Canon. The problem, though, is that editor Jim Derogatis didn't have that in mind when he gathered this assortment of Angry Young Critics and changed them with disassembling the likes of Pink Floyd, The Beatles, the MC5; countering a well phrased and keenly argued position requires an equally well phrased alternative view and one may go so far as to suggest the fresher viewpoint needs to be keener, finer, sharper. DeRogatis, pop and rock music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, author of the estimable Lester Bangs biography Let It Blurt, had worked years ago as record review editor of Rolling Stone and found himself getting fired when he couldn't abide by publisher Jan Wenner's policy of not giving unfavorable reviews to his favorite musicians.

His resentment toward Wenner and Rolling Stone's institutional claims of being a power broker as far as rock band reputations were concerned is understandable, but his motivation is more payback than a substantial refutation of conventional wisdom. The Angry Young Critics were too fast out of the starting gate and in a collective haste to bring down the walls of the Rock Establishment wind up being less the Buckley or the Vidal piercing pomposity and pretension than, say, a pack of small yapping dogs barking at anything passing by the backyard fence. The likes of Christgau, Marcus, and Marsh provoke you easily enough to formulate responses of your own, but none of the reviews have the makings of being set aside as a classic or a landmark debunking; there is not a choice paragraph or phrase one comes away with.

Even on albums that, I think, are over-rated, such as John Lennon's Double Fantasy, you think they're hedging their bets; a writer wanting to bring Lennon's post-Beatles reputation down a notch would have selected the iconic primal scream album Plastic Ono Band (to slice and dice. But the writers here never bite off more than they can chew; sarcasm, confessions of boredom and flagging attempts at devil's advocacy make this a noisy, nitpicky book whose conceit at offering another view of Rock and Roll legacy contains the sort of hubris these guys and gals claim sickens them. This is a collection of useless nastiness, a knee-jerk contrarianism of the sort that one overhears in bookstores between knuckle dragging dilettantes who cannot stand being alive if they can't hear themselves bray. Yes, "Kill Your Idols" is that annoying, an irritation worsened but what could have been a fine project.

The collection would have benefited nicely if they had the budget to afford writers not so much identified as rock critics but rather as critics in general, beholden to no particular canon in any medium, knowledgeable enough to understand what's in front of them and honest enough to cry not just tripe when tripe was served, but to demonstrate, by example and judicious mockery, the pretensions of the artists under scrutiny. I am thinking of Martin Amis or James Walcott, two able and incisive critics who's collected essays respectively rise far above the sludgy monotony that too soon overtakes the assortment DeRogatis and co-editor Carmel Camillo offer the public for a price.

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?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Rock Criticism, RIP

What really killed rock music, if you insist on hanging with this tenuous thesis, wasn't rock critics, but rather fans who bought the records and went to the shows. And I noticed in my time that the fans who buy the newer, grainier, more strident and dissonant stuff are younger than I am--gadzooks! The avant gard I matured with was now a younger listeners retro-indulgence. Simply, styles change, and much of what is new at first seems ugly to an audience who's tastes are entrenched and internalized. Rock criticism, like in any other criticism, makes the unknown clear, or at least momentarily comprehensible for the moment. Blaming writers , though, for the murder of a music gives them too much power--it's doubtful that the history of long, abstract ,numb skull dissertations in the Village Voice, let alone Rolling Stone ever convinced a tenth of their readership to make album go double platinum.

Given the particulars , that absence may make it more honest. Rather than attempting to appropriate musical culture to the exclusion of all other comprehension, musicians in given communities--and communities have their niches in areas even great critics, theorists, or grouchy , partisan fans can imagine-- may chose, unvindictively , non-judgmentally, to assimilate and reconfigure melodies that they find appealing to them. One plays a particular way because they want to play that way: the how and the why of that want is mysterious, but its existence cannot be attributed to racism. To say that it is racist is bone-headed. Let me rephrase that: it's ignorant and cheap. I don't follow the argument that this topic wants to make. It sounds as if some one has the feeling that they've fallen from grace, that the keys of the musical kingdom are lost to them, and that it's the critics, always the critics, who have to take the rap for making the Perfect World all wrong. What would be more useful is some harder thinking, less flame-throwing generalities, and more crisp distinctions, starting here:

My frames of reference are less broad musically--I'm a harmonica player of thirty five years gasping experience in some times bands--but it seems to me that the difference falls between technique versus talent. Technique, I'd say, is sheer know-how, the agility and finesse to get your fingers to execute the simplest or the most difficult of musical ideas. Talent, though, resides somewhere in the grey mists of the soul, where there is an instinct that, or lets say intelligence that knows how to make the best use out the sheer bulk of technical knowledge : making it all into music that's expressive and new. Rock, like the blues, it's closest elder relative, is principally about feel, and citing Dylan, Young, The Beatles and others as great musicians is to address the feel, the subtle combination of musical elements and lyrical blasts that result, at best, in the sheer joy drums,bass and guitars can provide. Rock criticism, when it's performed as a practice that seeks comprehension, and hearkening back to it's early days as an outgrowth of LitCriticism, probes these elements and addresses why a blues guitar lick, roller rink organ, nasal vocals, over-miked drums and abstruse lyrics convey meanings and provoke responses whose origins are mysterious. It is feel, or Spirit, that connects Coltrane, Hendrix, Dylan, Little Feat, Hip hop, a sense of where to put the line, when to take it away, when to attack, when to with hold. Feel.

Rock, perhaps, is about trying to address the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. That is what I think writers like Christgau, Marcus, and even (sigh) Dave Marsh aspire to do. Christgau and Marcus, at least, are inspired most of the time. Marsh remains a muddle, but then again, so are most attempts to talk about the extreme subjectivism of art making, be it music or other wise. Influence is an inevitable and inseparable part of being an artist, and a rock and roll musician is no less subject to the activity of borrowing from something they like. Without it, going through the eras, right up and including the debate about hip hop and its artists proclivities for Borg- style assimilation of others music onto their likeness, we would have no music to speak of. Or so it would seem to me. Our respective selfs may be locked behind cultural identities that make it hard for us to interact, but our cultural forms mix together freely and easily. I'm sympathetic to the crowd that prefers the soul of an instrumentalist to a sound board jockeys' manipulating of buttons and loops, but I do think that this is the advent of a new kind of canvas. Most new art seems profoundly ugly when first perceived, at least until the broader media brings itself up to speed. I think that hip hop, rap, what have you, is an entrenched form, and is not going away. It will co-exist with rock and roll, and will mix its particulars with it, and generate a newer, fiercer noise, as have always done.

What stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty in the use of the word "dead": rock and roll is as its always been in my experience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath of credible acts, bands and solo, who keep the edgy rigor of the music in tact, and vital. The dustbin of history is always full, what survives the clean sweep is anyone’s' guess. In the mean time, I reserve the right to be excited, engaged but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original. If I'm tired of dead things, I should leave the grave yard.
Rather, it's criticism that's ailing, if not already deceased as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to gossip magazine auteurism, Spin gives itself over to trendy photo captions, and for the scads of "serious" commentary, much of it has vanished behind faux post- structurualist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at hand within an artists work is not being done. Rock criticism, taking its lead, again, from the worn trails of Lit/Crit, has abandoned the idea that words and lyrics can be about anything. Rock and roll, good and ill, cranks on. The spirit that moves the kid to bash that guitar chord still pulses. To say that bad, abstruse writing can kill that awards too much power to what has become an inane, trivial exercise.

Anyone who argues that rock musicians are somehow responsible for the tragedy in Colorado are themselves a rock critic in the narrowest sense, and there we have an impassable irony, and more ironic, this is where some leftist brethren meet the Christian Right square on in what they gather is the source of all our social eruptions: popular culture in general. Neither the quacking vulgarists of the left nor the quaking apostles of the right like it very much, and both in their separate ways, and contrarily reasoned agendas, have attacked it, the source of whatever grace there was to fall from. The left will emit a squalling bleat about an "artists' responsibility" for the defamiliarizing "aestheticization" of real social problems , thus robbing working people of real political consciousness and maintaining th force of the Dominant Culture and Capitalist Imperative.

Such is the kind of no-neck culture-vulturing as a I listened to a Marxist lit professor critique "Guernica" or Freida Kahlos' portraiture as though the modernist formalities Picasso and Kahlo put upon their canvases were the reason, and only reasons, that bombs go off, that babies die, and why woman get raped by art-sickened men. The Right, in turn, finds evidence of decay and decline in everything not sanctified in the Bible or in limitless free market terms, and everything that occurs in society that involves a tragedy on a spectacular scale is reducible , in their view, to the errant need for self-expression.

Much of this is old hat--its been going on for years, and again, its the job of thoughtful critics, critics or are genuinely provocative to bring a larger analysis to bear on complex matters, to strive for truth that stirs us away from the intellectual panic that some of our pundits seem to want to fire up. We have another case of left and right agreeing on the basic tenet that artistic freedom is wrong headed, and that it must be hemmed in my so many conditions and restrictions that its practice would be practically pointless. We have a pining for a world of Norman Rockwell small towns and church bake sales.

How pathetic. The rock and rollers duty, as it is with any artist, is to seek and express the truth they perceive in the comprehensible in terms that extend our notions of what the human experience is. Parenting is part of that profound experience. Might some people still be alive today if parents paid attention to what their sons were up to? Marylin Manson is only the messenger of what's already in place: to shut up artists because the message is some times vile and ugly is , at best, cutting off our antennae to what the rest of the world is feeling.

The original claim was that rock music was dead, slain by by critics, by extension Big Media, corporate America, which has turned it into a commoditized vulgarity through which it sells back a teenagers sullen notion of empowerment one CD and one Concert ticket at a time, reaping billions. But yet:
We're still out here playing, and teaching the unnoticed, the unheralded, the unfashionable kids who, inspite of everything, want to be able to play to.
So , I gather, rock and roll does live after all, it lives on because others, dedicated idealists like you from thirty years ago, continue to play and instruct younger players who want to play with an accomplished and feeling voice. I'm sure your idealism is real, Clint, and your CD collection enviable, but you've back tracked right into the oppositions camp: rock and roll is a human activity that survives and persists despite marketplace distortions, if you're inclined to lazily call it that, and in fact even thrives because the market is open and unrestricted toward content. We insist, and you affirm by clarifying your sketchy autobiography, that it is force that continues in the places where people live and practice, not in high towers, corporate or academic.


Sunday, June 3, 2007

Sgt.Pepper and the Terminal Ennui of Gina Arnold

June 1st marked the 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club album , and not missing a beat to raise the hackles of both baby boomers and subsequent generations of rock and pop music fans, Salon has decided to spark a debate whether the epochal album is The Most Important Album Ever Made or not. Or even if the disc was all that epochal. It's a cheap and easy way to get readers to focus for the few minutes it takes to scan the column, and I can't say I wouldn't have the same had I been the editor; the relative worth of Sgt. Pepper's forty years hence, and it might well be time for the album to go through a reappraisal. This, however, is not what Salon has set out to do, and goes the route of the cranky and formulaically contrarian anthology of anti-canon rock reviews Kill Your Idols 
, a snotty collection of reviews where younger critics eviscerate many of what many older reviewers consider the core discs of rock and pop music history. For the book,

it's a blown opportunity for genuine revisionism, and one suspects the writers misunderstood editor Jim DeRogatis' instructions to write an alternative version of rock and roll critical thinking. The writers busied themselves with being young, loud and snotty and leveled the typical charges against the Beatles, The Beach Boys, the MC5, Joni Mitchell; they're boring, they're lame, they are over rated, they are old. Not much more elevated a dissent than what members of the typical Bakersfield Greyhound station might offer if so queried about what tunes they'd like to never hear again.

Salon brings in Gina Arnold , a nitwit hypothesizer and unfocused rambler who's idea of evaluating the worth of a band or its albums is by how often they slammed dope, how many band members died stupidly, and what were the cut of designer rags they wore when either playing in concert/discovered by a maid, dead in the bathroom, wrapped around the toiler, a needle or an empty vial shattered or spilled on the tile. "Sgt.Pepper" doesn't rate because it lacked all topical references and wasn't hug-gable enough, blistering enough, "real" enough. These are vague particulars, and Arnold, who writes as airily about music as Greil Marcus minus Marcus's elegance or occasional genius for making the far flung connections across historical periods and art movements, has little to say about those remarks should matter to us. She seems unable to talk about the music, the performances, the quality of the songwriting, elements that any music discussion comes down to, regardless of one's variety of nonconformist opinionating.

For me and most I know, the album is good if over rated, about half good to great, the rest arch and pretentious; some of the songs and lyrics are among the best in the Beatles body of work while the rest is as pretentious as anything the Vanilla Fudge or Moody Blues would contrive. It;s an album whose importance is both musical and one of style blazing and it's obvious with time that the better songs have survived because their substance is solid as craft and imagination, while all the fashionable studio tricks come across as several shades of hokey; nothing ages worse than yesterday's avant gard.One could go along this line, taking songs apart and putting back together through any number of filters, and much would , I wager, be worth reading. It depends on who is doing the talking. Meghan O'Rourke and Louis Menand , both first rate culture critics, would have have understood the disconnection in the Beatles' work and parsed the mixed blessing the album unleashed upon the audience and other musicians. Arnold isn't able to make distinctions and speaks in moldy generalizations, and mulls over Beatles v Stones and opines that God is a creep because most of the Ramones are dead while Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are still alive. Does one wonder if Arnold is even interested in the subject she's made a career writing about?

Arnold doesn't like the Sixties, she doesn't like rockers in their Sixties, she doesn't like to discuss music. But the obituaries. She's all over that with a ghoulish relish, and from what I'm able to determine from reading her in The San Diego Reader and Spin Magazines over the years is that she herself is that she's waiting for her own demise, perhaps a fantasy in which every album and CD she owns is cut up, snapped in two, smashed with a hammer into tiny pieces, all her books are in a pile, smoldering in a flame, and she sits there under a Kurt Cobain poster , waiting to at last to achieve what has yet to be done; to be bored to death.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Give Robert Christgau A Writing Gig NOW!

The firing of pop music Robert Christgau from the Village Voice by their new owners gives me yet another reason to pass up the weekly on the news stand and to cease dialing up their web site. I'd been reading Christgau's insular, fannish, personal and idiomatically dense reviews for decades and rather liked the idea that I was part of the cognoscenti who could parse his sentences and follow his train of thought. Any Old Way You Choose It, his collection of longer reviews and pieces gathered from the Sixties and Seventies, is one of of my all time favorite essay collections, a brainy, chatty, at times exasperatingly idiosyncratic journey through a couple of decades of extraordinary innovation; I love it for the same reason I still cherish Pauline Kael's I Lost It At The Movies, for that rare combination of true fan enthusiasm and discovery. As with Kael at her best, you can sense the moment when Christgau comes to an insight, a discovery as yet undiscovered by other writers; he has that element of "ah-HA!"Coming to his Consumer Guide column, where he would review anything and everything available, from the varied strands of rock,disco, reggae, folk, jazz and popwas like meeting that clutch of friends you knew in college who considered rock and pop the emerging Grand Art.

His was a column where I found someone who kept the conversation going, and strange and self indulgent as it may have seen, it was a fertile ground to debate and exchange ideas on the relative qualities of music. Anyone who's been through this bit before, the obsession with rock music being an art and establishing the critical terms with which one can assess, appraise and make note of what makes albums worth the purchase, appreciates the kind of critical thinking which becomes a habit of mind. In college I was Arts Editor of the thrice weekly campus newspaper, and was required ,in addition to my studies, to write a crushing amount of column inches a week on matters of music, theatre, television, movies. Rough life, I know, but it was alot of writing none the less, and the chief debt I might have toward Christgau , an admittedly sketchy model for a minor league reviewer, was the creation of a tone, a style.

The Village Voice, founded in the fifties by Norman Mailer and Dan Wolfe, was formerly noted as a magazine where the pittance that writers were paid was somewhat compensated by the freedom they had to develop writing style, ideas and journalistic beats. It was a writer's publication, and that was the chief attraction for a reader who wanted more than cooker cutter reviews or cursory coverage of politics and culture. Christgau is a product of that freedom and developed a particular argot and style that was intended for those as obsessed and concerned with music as he was; he is a critic, not a reviewer distinction being that the critic assumes that his or her reader has the same background in the area under discussion as they do.
Unlike reviews, which are final and absolute and brook no discussion beyond name calling, Christgau's essays are addressed to the concerned, the convinced, the true believer that pop music traditions matter as much as so-called High Culture
expressions. This leaves him incomprehensible for many who think his writing is too dense with insular references and verbal short hand to bother with, but that was a chief part of my attraction to his writing. There were many a time when I was in my twenties when I hadn't the slightest idea of what he was talking about-- who was Adorno? Marcuse? Sun Ra??-- but the subject matter at hand compelled me to investigate references further. It was an old fashioned enterprise, his column in one hand, a dictionary and an encyclopedia at the ready to clarify the murkier waters of his prose. Any inspiring critic does that.

Christgau and the late Lester Bangs gave me some ideas and methods in learning how to write fast, and well (or at least well enough that some light editing could be done without a major operation and my copy could be taken to the typesetter before deadline). What is impressive about Christgau is his catholicity of taste, his constant curiosity about new sorts of noise and racket, and his ability to form connections and generate operate theories. His writing is unique, and the Village Voice's loss will be another editor's gain.