Does Video Game Criticism Need a Lester Bangs?

During the Holiday Season it is something of a tradition for Video Game Critics to celebrate the influx of new games hitting the market with essays about how game criticism is abysmal and there is something intrinsically wrong with the way we assess video games. Whether it’s Leigh Alexander’s critique of the overly negative reviews of Silent Hill 5, Iroquis Pliskin’s A Creed for Game Reviews, and Michael Abbott’s Spore and the Rush to Judgment, almost every critic has a game that has been insulted by someone else that they are defending. They are standing up for a work of art and telling people that no, this title does something good despite its flaws, and you should play it for a higher purpose.

Each article points out the flaws in other critical approaches yet it is tough to find much that is conclusive. We each play video games for our own unique reasons and establishing a critical approach that can encompass every single person’s perspective is always problematic. Consider Ralph Koster’s Theory of Fun, which proposes that people enjoy video games because they enjoy mastering rule structures. I can honestly say that mastering the rule structures of a game is what I consider to be the most boring and obnoxious part of the experience. Others might point out that their appreciation of the plot or artwork supersedes mastering rules. What can you do to find some critical consensus around here?

In a feature for Esquire, Chuck Klosterman argues that what video games need critically is the equivalent of a Lester Bangs. He explores some of the different ideas going around, such as the nauseating argument that the plot in video games is irrelevant or the ‘Games as Architecture’ critical approach, and finally points out that the kind of critic the medium needs right now is someone who can help it realize its potential. Bangs is an interesting critic to cite because his personality actually doesn’t really suit the medium of video games very well. Being drunk or on drugs isn’t really associated with video games because they’re typically hard to play when one is wasted. Long rants and adrenaline are certainly aspects of the culture, but drinking a six-pack of Bawls doesn’t quite equal an amphetamine habit. Part of the reason Lester Bangs was a great rock critic was because he reflected the virtues and vices of his medium. He lived like a rock star and got to hang out with them, becoming as much a part of the fantasy as he was describing it. Yet as a critic Bangs provided a lot of personal standards that could be easily applied to multiple mediums. I picked up a copy of his collected works, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, to find out what a critic like Bangs would bring to video games if he were around.

A few small caveats: I’m not equipped to gauge how valid his judgments were throughout the book. I was born in 1983 and missed the majority of cultural moments that his work focuses on. There are the basic bands such as the Clash, the Stooges, or Led Zeppelin that we’ve all listened to, but I hardly followed all of his arguments about music in the book. I’ve been engrossed in the punk bluegrass movement coming out of Nashville for a while now and stopped paying attention to rock and roll, so I’m not really even in tune with the spirit he’s espousing. If it ain’t got whiskey, a banjo, and stomping, then I haven’t paid much attention to it. Instead I mostly focused on Bangs’s arguments, their principles, and how one might extract them to any medium.

One of the most striking arguments Bangs makes is in favor of Iggy Pop & the Stooges. In the piece “Of Pop and Pies and Fun”, he argues that there is merit to music that is offensively simple, loud, and combative. He defends them on the grounds that despite their lack of ability or appeal, they are a better rock band than most of the other more sophisticated ones. They earn this credit because they are one of the few people willing to stand up and offend their audience. Comparing the Stooges with Alice Cooper, Bangs argues that the Stooges create monotonous and simplistic music that loudly hammers home a spirit and passion that most bands lack. He argues, “Power doesn’t go to the people, it comes from them, and when the people have gotten this passive nothing short of electroshock and personal exorcism will jolt them and rock them into some kind of fiercely healthy interaction.” They are precisely the infusion of edgy artistry and new ideas that the rock and roll needs and so Bangs is defending them.

Bangs makes a great argument for their lack of skill by comparing them to a story told by Cecil Taylor while playing jazz. A random player barged his way onto the stage one night and demanded to be allowed to play bass. It was obvious the person had never touched a bass in their life. Yet after an hour of tooling around, Taylor said you could start to hear a sound coming out of his random plucking that was unique. It was powerful because it was “veering between a brand-new type of song which cannot be taught because it comes from an unschooled innocence which cuts across known systems, and chaos”, and Taylor argued that if he had kept playing he would’ve become one of the great free bassists. Bangs says that the Stooges are like that, and the story told by Taylor magnifies the fear that Bangs himself has about the Stooges; that if we do not stand up against the critics and encourage bands like these, then we will lose something great.

There are other elements of Bangs to consider. His review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is an amazing combination of personal experience and celebration of an album that was ten years old at the time of writing. His hilarious interview with Lou Reed highlights the deranged personalities of rock stars and the even worse nature of their critics. Yet it was his essay about the Clash that really struck home for me.

Liking the Clash could hardly be considered rebellious anymore, yet it was surprising that Bangs chose to write about them in a way that explored their failings as a band as well as their virtues. The essay is filled with awkward moments intermixed with gushing praise of the band. Fantasies about how powerful and intellectual the message of the band is sit alongside elaborate descriptions of its fanbase’s habit of spitting on them. Joe Strummer is absent from the coverage because of a toothache, an ironic nod to the way he was the main person everyone wanted to know about in the first place. Other tense moments, such as a roadie insulting and bullying a fan, are mixed with praise for the band’s desire to give all of its fans a place to sleep. Yet the piece is ultimately willing to dismiss these flaws for the fact that they are still able to deliver a powerful concert. Bangs writes:

The politics of rock ‘n’ roll, in England or America, or anywhere else, is that a whole lots of kids want to be fried out of their skins by the most scalding propulsion they can find, for a night they can pretend is the rest of their lives, and whether the next day they go back to work in shops or boredom on the dole or American TV doldrums in Mom ‘n’ Daddy’s living room nothing can cancel the reality of that night in the revivifying flames when for once if only then in your life you were blasted outside of yourself and the monotony which defines most life anywhere at any time, when you supped on lightning and nothing else in the realms of the living or dead mattered at all.

It is probably the best definition of what rock was really about for people and what the goal was during Bangs’ time. That he credits the Clash with providing it is a compliment to them, but by mixing it with the inevitable flaws that are going to come with any band, he gives them a plausible claim to fame. These are people like you and me, and they are delivering precisely the experience that we want out of our music. It is the same reminder of enjoying the simplistic “fun” of a game that so many critics struggle to remind the cynics who tear a video game down. Bangs’ complaints about the youth of the Clash’s fanbase and the mixed nature of their music aside, he still ends the piece referring to an adult in her mid-20s explaining that she keeps showing up because “they make me jump up and down!”

Yet one cannot rely on the written word alone — Bangs in person was almost more insightful than in his writing.

In a radio interview, Bangs explains his problems with music criticism thoroughly. Almost all of his points run like echoes of the problems facing game critics today. He is quick to point out how in bed the music magazines are with the recording industry. Part of the reason he left Rolling Stone was that the editor actively sought out people who already liked an artist or album for a review. Reviews were often expected to find at least one good thing about albums from certain labels. This is an eerie echo of the problems facing video games today as numerous review websites are being disclosed as either owned or deeply entrenched with the publishers producing video games. He is as articulate as ever about the dearth of good music in the scene and how much the scene has changed.

Yet he is also quick to remind the interviewer that his opinion should not be considered the final word. While visiting a radio station in Chicago he was shocked to discover the DJ was only allowed to play certain albums. Yet, after the DJ argued with him a bit, Bangs concedes that if this was the kind of music that people wanted to hear on the radio, who was he to judge? It is the critic’s job to tell the audience when something sucks, and sometimes it’s the audience’s job to tell the critic that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Bangs contributes it to the Andy Warhol dilemma that press and media create. If people are going to tell you that you’re awesome even if your work is soulless and stupid, then what is the incentive for creating soulful and intelligent work?

Bangs admits in the interview his tastes have changed a great deal since he was younger, that someone doing something offensive or outrageous for its own sake no longer appeals to him like it once did. The thing that attracts him to music now is when the work is three-dimensional — when it goes beyond just love or anger and instead explores a sentiment in all its complexity. I’ve edited out the “um”s from this next quote, but Bangs summarizes it by saying,

All I look for is passion. I don’t care what form it comes in. There are other things I look for. I look for somebody that has something to say. I think all of the greats in the history of rock ‘n’ roll or at least since it became rock and more an art form, had a vision. Y’know the Doors had a vision, the Band had a vision, the Velvets had a vision, and on down the line. Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, the Sex Pistols and the Clash, they all had a vision that they wanted to communicate. I mean like… an idea, a point of view that was unique and individual and y’know, they stood for something. They were about something. As opposed to just being love songs and looking cute and all that… more than that though… I just really look for passion. Even if it was still in music I’d look for it because that’s what it’s all about.

It’s not a bad sentiment, and it’s an accurate description of not only what a rock band should be about, but what any artistic medium should explore. Rock music and video games are both just another form of expression, irregardless of the fact that the player gets to join in that message in video games. They are still exploring fundamentally the same idea. Expecting an artist to say something with passion and coherence is perhaps, like Bangs explains, the bare minimum of what you seek in your work.

The interviewer does not hesitate to ask Bangs about the morality and ethics of destroying a band that produces an inferior work. Bangs is quick to explain that despite the few moments his writing has had an impact, he probably does not make much of a difference. Bangs postulates that if he were to tell you that the new Rolling Stones album sucked, you would still buy it. He admits that even he would still buy it. It’s the Stones, they rock, who cares what some critic thinks. His impact is far more important on pointing out the bands that are the next big thing than his opinion on what is popular at the moment.

Hearing Bangs explain himself as ultimately the cog in a machine rather than a driving factor is a humble moment. Rock ‘n’ Roll was founded by record companies to target teens who suddenly had excess income and were feeling rebellious, not independently because of a cultural artistic movement. It’s a sentiment that’s been shared by all of the great critics throughout time. Samuel Johnson, the father of literary criticism, wrote the book Rasselas to pay off his mother’s funeral debts. In it he satirized intellectuals, philosophers, and literary critics. The joke he made about critics involved a lighthouse keeper who had watched weather patterns out over the landscape for so long that he could predict them perfectly. The problem was that he had spent so much time up in the lighthouse that he began to think he was actually causing the weather as opposed to just observing it. So engrossed was he with staring at clouds and mentally forcing them to go where they would have ended up anyways, he never ventured outside to discover that he was bonkers and no one cared what he predicted. It’s a sound satire of a critic of any medium who believes they are doing anything more than predicting the weather and one that Bangs took to heart. A harsh review from him is not going to stop an album from succeeding, a positive review for something terrible is not going to change its dismissal. Rather, by acknowledging that his role has always been minimal, Bangs acknowledges that he is simply a part of the process.

It all boils back down to what part Bangs played that made him so famous during his life and afterwards. What function did he provide for rock ‘n’ roll that made him important? He wasn’t going to keep people from liking a band, he couldn’t stop the inevitable needs of artists and record companies selling them, and he ultimately wasn’t going to stop rock critics from selling out either.

Yet Bangs provides the most apt critique of himself in the collected essays. Referring to a comment Bob Quine made about his work, Bangs quotes:

I’ve figured you out. Every month you go out and deliberately dig up the most god awful wretched worthless unlistenable offensive irritating unnerving moronic piece of horrible racket noise you can possibly find, then sit down and write this review in which you explain to everybody else in the world it’s just wonderful and they should all run right out and buy it. Since you’re a good writer, they’re convinced by the review to do just that — till they get home and put the record on, which is when the pain sets in. They throw it under the sink or somewhere and swear it’ll never happen again. By the next month they’ve forgotten, but you haven’t, so the whole process is repeated again with some other even more obnoxious piece of hideous blare. You know, I have to admit that’s a noble thing to devote your entire life to.

The observation Quine makes about Bangs is an essential element to understand what he contributed to his medium. What Bangs did was tell people to listen to the music they had missed or ignored, making it sound cool so that they would appreciate its contribution rather than neglecting it altogether. He was a person observing the storm and pointing out what it missed, as opposed to where it should go.

What can the video game critic draw from the lessons of the critic of another medium? Stand up for the games that are critically panned for not fitting the mold. Criticize games that are stuck in boring molds and doing nothing but repeat what has already been done. Don’t get frustrated when things don’t change, because that isn’t your function. Like Johnson’s critic predicting the weather, talking about the games that are challenging and moving the medium forward is all one needs to do. These are all essential elements and represent what Bangs contributed to rock ‘n’ roll. Yet at the core of that is the idea of having an image about what that artistic medium should be doing and talking about the moments where that is happening. For every article or blog post about the failings of game criticism, there is an implicit idea about what video games should be doing and this defending or panning of a video game is what defines that vision.

There may never be a Lester Bangs for video games, but given the number of critics fighting for ignored games and celebrating forgotten titles, it seems safe to say that he is here in spirit.


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