On James Wolcott's Engaging, Irritating, Snarky and Insightful Criticisms

In Critical Mass James Wolcott directs us to the intellectuals, entertainers, performers, and/or celebrities who have graced, cursed, or captivated him ever since he quit Frostburg State and hit Woody's Manhattan.

Critical Mass

Publisher: Doubleday
Author: James Wolcott
Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover
Length: 512 pages
Author's website:
Publication date: 2013-10

In Lucking Out, his memoir of dropping out from a rural Maryland state college in 1972 to come to New York City to make it as a writer, James Wolcott surveyed the magazines which employed him, the films he reviewed under the guidance of Pauline Kael, and the music he heard at CBGBs as Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television, and the Talking Heads began their careers. Finally, Wolcott's recollections shifted into ballet and literary criticism as he looked back at the start of his long career at The Village Voice, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.

Readers of his articles have long praised or damned Wolcott's confident, acerbic tone, and his use of metaphor and the polished phrase to sum up or put down the figures and films he covered. Those familiar with his memoir will find certain episodes repeated from CBGBs or his movie reviews, and within this 500 page anthology of his past 40 years, perhaps inevitably, stylistic tics (e.g., "whatever" "nowhere fast") appear more than once. The payoff is finding Wolcott engaging, irritating, and insightful.

Over six-dozen entries defy easy summation. Working through the galley proof (which limits my ability to evaluate Wolcott's style, as this hampers my scored rating), my attention did not flag, a testament to the author's commitment to record his reasons, his emotions, and his insights, honestly and determinedly. While my wife--whom I have urged to persevere through Lucking Out--avers that the only reason I find Wolcott more amenable is that I share his curmudgeonly manner, I counter that Wolcott (to steal a phrase from one of his preening subjects, John Lydon) means it, maaaaaan.

Wolcott explains he selected pieces able to stand up long after the cultural moment had passed. He leaves out those needing footnotes by now, he keeps those relevant decades later, and he even lets go some that while they "still have a bop to them" might have further damaged their targets. He laments that criticism, dulled by the medium by which you and I connect for this review, has lost its clout compared to the heyday of the underground as well as popular cultural and music magazines.

Nothing monopolizes the conversation, as "mainstream dissent" in The New Yorker under Wallace Shawn once did. "Although we live in a culture of uncircumcised snark, it actually seems a more deferential time to me, the pieties and approved brand names--Cindy Sherman, Lena Dunham, Quentin Tarantino, Junot Diaz, Mark Morris, Judd Apatow, John Currin (feel free to throw other names into the pot)--more securely clamped down over our ears." Anyone taking on a "major reputation" does so more out of self-referential deference, he adds. Critics these days watch their own Twitter and Facebook feeds, fearful of their own status, careful not to upset those whom they cover.

Therefore, Wolcott, while not going soft, learns from the four decades of shifts away from critical punch to online tweets. He arranges this anthology with nostalgia. "But there's solace in knowing I learned and stole from the best", and his college dropout status keeps him studying more. That aspect, considering the amount of literary as well as cinema and music and media critique this collection amasses, attests to Wolcott's largely autodidactic training (compared to many of the critics he at a doleful 1980 Skidmore conference on the decline of American culture sits through and here sends up) puts him in the tradition of many of the cultural critics he praises from mid-century, when a Ph.D., tenure, and sabbaticals might not be the prerequisites for holding forth on novels, film, and poetry.

Let's look at some of the highlights of Wolcott's holding forth. "Talking Furniture" begins with television reviews. Mary Hartman, Dennis Potter, the local NYC crank Stanley Siegel (an exception to the footnote needed, but a special case close to Wolcott's curdled affection), SCTV, and The X-Files fill the chapters. Examining Vanessa Redgrave in the Holocaust melodrama Playing for Time, he concludes with a balanced look at her controversial political stances, given her role here as a Jewish prisoner. "Perhaps Redgrave's political passion and her passion as an artist spring from the same rich source; perhaps the gall and the energy which propel her all over the globe to spout Marxist rubbish is also what enables her to enter so deeply into a role that she becomes transfigured--luminously possessed." Wolcott remains sensitive, open to Redgrave's own reactions onscreen.

Similarly, he watches for cant, complacency, and stasis. Designing Women, in its Clinton-era cant of feminist bromides, languishes by its seventh season in its own lame-duck predicament. "The characters seem sandbagged to the set, baying to each other from the far reaches of the Naugahyde." Yet a punchy observation like that can be followed by this: "[Delta] Burke settled into the sofa as if were her baby bath. The echo in her features of Elizabeth Taylor's suggested a luxury fund of food-libido." The odd metaphors sag--bath, echo, fund, libido--and bob about each other, soggy.

Turning to comedy, I admit that while the passing reigns of late-night TV hosts never interested me, I followed Wolcott's eager depiction of Johnny Carson closely. Wolcott drew me in. Citing fellow transplanted Burbanker Bob Hope as claiming comedians thrive on their own "insincerity", Wolcott applies this to 1979 Carson: "He has a gift akin to David Bowie's for copping from others and yet appearing totally self-invented." I doubt if a television critic other than Wolcott, equally attentive to rock, would make such a comparison. By 1992, the "nonstop" drummer Carson endures as the "comedy's last practitioner of white jazz", his "steady pistons" pumping on from the "bachelor pad of passé legend". Staring back at David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O'Brien, Wolcott pounds away, before switching to Jerry Lewis' hectoring marathon years to typically delightful, coy, and wry effect.

Music follows his memoir's subjects settled in New York City, but he looks beyond CBGBs (and ballet not at all). David Byrne's shtick by now feels at best as rehearsed as Carson's golf swing, but in a Village Voice review of his band, we see him as in 1975, fresh. He "has a little-boy-lost-at-the-zoo voice and the demeanor of someone who's spent the last half-hour whirling around in a spin dryer. When his eyes start Ping-Ponging in his head, he looks like a cartoon of a chipmunk on Mars."

He decries a few whom many worship. By 1976, Lou Reed's own stage patter had worn thin: "though he probably couldn't open a package of Twinkies without his hands trembling, he enjoys babbling threats of violence." Patti Smith, whom Wolcott early on idolized, gets in a 1996 retrospective a more reflective veneration, updated in a postscript for 2013. Noting the coverage given Smith's handshake with Pope Francis, Wolcott weighs this elevation of her as "high priestess of lost bohemia" as "a testament to our own sense of loss--our bereavement over the death of the counterculture, of any hope of new rebel energies rising through the thick sediment of money, snark, accreditation, and digital distraction". There's "snark" again as our own era's characteristic, post-Occupy, post-Letterman.

Furthering this look back at icons, a defense of Albert Goldman's often derided The Lives of John Lennon demonstrates Wolcott's appreciation of a principled analysis of how to fairly counter the smug platitudes, sung or paraded, of the counterculture. As for smug, the Rat Pack contrasted with the remake of Ocean's 11. The original, filmed in Vegas when the sun was high, after the Pack had lounged away each night, makes them "look like sirloin in the atomic light of day".

As expected from a protegé of Pauline Kael, much of Wolcott's volume scrutinizes movies. Brian De Palma and Woody Allen gain multiple exposures in related reviews; Sam Peckinpah, Alfred Hitchcock, New York noir, and an eager endorsement of "the greatest film Billy Wilder never made", The Americanization of Emily, show Wolcott's range. He captures as he did in his memoir the glare of his adopted city, refusing soft-focus. "You'd ride the New York subway just hoping to reach your destination, hell, any destination, suffering claustrophobia from the graffiti-sprayed windows, the lights blinking on and off like a submarine under attack, staring impassively ahead as predators loped from car to car, stalking prey." The feral rhythms of his longtime home, as he peers back at the B-movie antiheroes of the '70s, cement his credibility as a critic who has met his subject personally.

He can also roam, in a less wary, more urbane pose. In a postscript to a 1993 piece on John Updike, Wolcott apologizes for his own snark about that writer's love of Doris Day, which he comes later to appreciate, as Wolcott's carefully observed 2000 article on Rock Hudson and Day diligently affirms. Such a reconsideration reveals Wolcott's ability to remain alert, to re-examine his own prejudices.

In the literary section, he opens up, with asides and instances taken from his own study of the classics, old and new. He can drop a reference to War and Peace in as nimbly as the Cowsills or woefully as Pauly Shore. He dismisses the posturing of bad guys in print as he has on stage or on screen. A protagonist of the much-praised (by others) Richard Ford keeps "dropping clichés into the slot until he gets the click of a dead phone". Critic Marvin Mudrick's glee at being credited by a student as "the funniest writer I have ever read" is as touching as is Wolcott's sharp notice about critic Seymour Krim: "In a couple of his books he even reprints his letters to the editor, a sure sign of a crackpot". Wolcott includes none of his own; doubtless his entries generated hate mail galore.

But maybe a few of his detractors had a point, or a persnickety prick. Wolcott (beyond any glitches of this galley proof) may be faulted for his own fumbles. Reviewing Martin Amis' autobiography, Wolcott introduces it confusingly. "Marketed as a literary hullabaloo so frank and blazingly humane it has to be kept in a Domino Pizza's carrier, Experience is a Lazarus act of self-resurrection. Contradicting Amis's cold-fish image, it's a confessional strip search, personalized with schoolboy letters and family-album photos--a portrait of the artist as a battered man reborn." Hullabaloo is a term that I struggle to picture as so fiery in its intangible humanism that a pizza box could hold such a phenomenon. Let alone that Lazarus did not raise himself from the dead: Jesus did. Maybe He could explain how a strip search is confessional, given Lazarus' own sorry post-mortem, tomb-smell state.

When Wolcott takes on mournful Joyce Carol Oates for her own forays into the grave and the Gothic, "wonders of reckless energy and dishevelment", the resemblance to scattered passages in Critical Mass persists. Yet, on the next page in the Amis article, Martin's dissolute. portly, and almost constantly drunken father Kingsley "toward the end" resembled to Wolcott "a pickle jar with a stuck lid": a quirky but accurate caricature, one suspects. Wolcott, with his own wry eye, can reduce a novel or author to its essential gift or flaw. After citing an errant passage: "That's what John Updike's naturalism in Rabbit is Rich comes down to: telling you every dumb thing that is on Rabbit's mind."

However, as I referred to earlier regarding Updike on Doris Day, Wolcott resists pouting, at least now and then. "Since Updike knows intimately every blade and pebble in Proust, he can alight like a robin and spot the worms in Pinter's adaptation, removing them with a few light tugs." Even Ayn Rand earns grudging respect for her pop-culture pull. He sees her "as the last industrial novelist, the last to lyricize the urban might of stone and metal". For whomever he analyzes, Wolcott shows patience.

Jack Kerouac's minor works resemble "listening to a musician tune up, only words are more than notes and sounds; they signify and convey meaning". A commonplace comparison in some respects, but relevant by Wolcott's context and placement for it. When he corrects a writer, he also commends, or at least shows us how to regard him or her with more generosity than we might have. He parenthetically closes his essay on Kerouac: "(he's the deadbeat dad everyone's decided to forgive)".

Near the end of this hefty collection, Wolcott approves Gore Vidal's put-down of professorial "scholar-squirrels" who dig among the detritus of a writer's life and texts to find a petrified scrap. Wolcott, who never gained "accreditation", started by emulating Norman Mailer, the New Journalism, and "mainstream dissent". He made it in the Big Apple by hard work, with a dash of luck.

Critical Mass testifies to his ability to avoid "academic robot-speak" and to convey his critiques of high and low culture, transmitted on stage, in print, on television, and at the movies, in a winning way. His own small slips make his achievement more accessible to us. We look on, over his shoulder, as he directs our eyes and ears to the intellectuals, entertainers, performers, and/or celebrities who have graced, cursed, or captivated him ever since he quit Frostburg State and hit Woody's Manhattan.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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