Bigmouth Strikes Again: Eight Mistakes that Music Critics Make
We rock critics should have leathery skins and sore throbbing eardrums and calloused typing fingers, and we should accept little in return but the possibility of more great new tunes coming our way.
This may be a shocking and heretical statement, but writing record reviews is very simple, and it's no wonder hardly anyone gets paid for it. Freelance critics are just in it for the writing practice and the hipster-networking, maybe with an eye toward getting published in the Village Voice someday (and I'd like to take a moment to note that this tedious ambition is so annoying and ubiquitous among rock scribes that an anti-Voice backlash is surely on its way). All you need really is a pair of ears, some basic knowledge of grammar and hype, and lots of time on your hands. If a trust-fund kid can't get a gig playing bass at his indie claque's practice space, he writes record reviews instead.
Fair enough, and you can usually spot the good music critics because they're motivated by passion and responsibility, not boredom and ambition. And as record reviews proliferate across the electronic ether like a ropy virus, I get depressed at their shyte quality, their echoing monotony, their cowardice and apathy. Ronnie D. Lankford's recent column A Promo Whore Just Like the Rest is an excellent indictment of these new trends, and after reading it I felt like a new Joan of Arc (the French heroine, not the annoying post-rock band), ready to don armor and do battle against the slithering doldrums that our writers have found snaking into their cerebellums. Rock criticism is vital and important, a way to cultivate new forms of taste, to propagate righteous aesthetics, to counter the market. It should always be alert and vigilant, ready to dig out new sonic paths or excavate old ignored ones. We rock critics should have leathery skins and sore throbbing eardrums and calloused typing fingers, and we should accept little in return but the possibility of more great new tunes coming our way.
I've made some mistakes along the way. We all have: it's a learning curve, this rock-writing thing. First we imitate Christgau and Bangs, then we imitate Spin and NME, then we forget what the hell we were trying to do in the first place, then (after several hundred reviews) we find our own voice. Well, some of us do. Some bail out; others turn to writing press kits. Some stalwarts continue hyping, lying, mushmouthing, and being generally annoying. Still, I'd like to say I've learned from my mistakes, and that's the purpose of this column. Here are the Eight Biggest Mistakes That Music Critics Make, intended to supplement Lankford's own list on how we critics can bring out our inner asshole. And yes, these mistakes: I've made them all. In fact (for all you pomo kids out there) I believe on at least two occasions I make the mistake while writing about it, below. Keep your eyes peeled.
Fear of Fans. I bet that one key reason why so many critics tread gingerly around a crap album is that they fear an assault from the band's fans. Religious fanatics are out there, and whether you dis the White Stripes or Def Leppard, you're bound to get someone's dander up. Some of my colleagues have gotten spam assaults, chatroom-flayings, and even death threats, and probably we often deserve it (well, not the death threats). Take, for example, Adam Gnade's Anti-Complacency review http://www.anti-complacency.org/features/0209hankwilliams.html, a forced-gonzo (see below) piece that definitely brings out the author's inner asshole. Not only does Gnade offer the sage advice that Hank III should kill himself, but he says this: "I hope homeboy's fans can smell the shit they're stepping in, because I sure as hell don't want it tracked on my clean carpets." Now that's someone begging to get his ass kicked, and although I mostly disagree with Gnade's assessment of the album, I admire his absolute refusal to coddle artist or fan when scribbling a review. And guess what? As a result of the review, Gnade received death threats and even an attempt to trick him to a gig in order to "jump him". But he soldiered on, kept writing about crap albums as well as brilliant ones, and he's a walking-talking testament to the value of a thick skin when rating tunes. That's the lesson: when writing a review, ignore the hardcore fans. They know more than you, they will haggle you over trivial debates, they will slay you over factual errors, but they will never trump your own considered opinion of the music at hand.
Boring = Brilliant. I've often been astonished when my fellow music writers seem to find greatness in some of the mushiest, dullest, most barren places. Critics who claim that Unwound's snooze-button prog-stoner double-turd Leaves Turn Inside You or Yo La Tengo's ether-soaked gauzepad And Then the Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out are either band's "all-time best album" really do seem to have some Irish lace gathering round their eardrums. Same goes for those who voted the latest Wilco and Beck oatmeal-safe duds to the top of the critic polls in 2002. Unfortunately, I see this nonsense all the time, and though I like a lot of boring stuff myself (Dirty Three, Go-Betweens, Aphex Twin) I still think there's a distinction between good-boring and bad-boring. Pseudo-artistic content-free lazy-melodic albums like Leaves Turn Inside You and Sea Change are bad-boring, and there's no excuse for exalting the stuff the way some rock critics do. I really don't know where this critical belief comes from: possibly an excess of Good Taste (see below), combined with a religious loyalty to the band in question. Sometimes I think these indie boors laying down tracks with threadbare content and evanescent hooks are just trying to impress music critics anyway, which is all the more reason for us to step quickly around their audio lawn-turds.
Sloppy Relativism. You have critical standards: stick to them. Don't praise Ghostface Killah as a righteous poet, then dis Elliott Smith as "sexist" (and yes, I've seen one critic do this) unless you're willing to defend and elaborate this obvious contradiction. It's critical suicide to to turn yourself into an easy target for withering cynics. Keep your principles and standards simple and pure.
Reissue Nostalgia. As far as I can tell, most rock critics locate their earliest memories sitting in the hallway of their college dorm. This must why almost every review of a reissue is illustrated with a freshman-year anecdote, and I have officially decided that undergrad storytime should be banned from record reviews forevermore. To me, the fact that the writer went to college and listened to music is a given. To relate a hoary bull-session dormroom tale in a music review is a sinister cop-out: pandering to collegiate nostalgia and ignoring the possibility that college ain't exactly accessible to everyone in our great nation. Review the tunes, not your memories. To me, there is no reason to write up a reissue (which was undoubtedly reviewed heavily at the time of its original release) except to recontextualize and listen with fresh ears. In other words, nostalgia should be cast from your mind when you write about the album.
Good Taste. This may sound absurd, but writers with Good Taste are inevitably the worst critics. Yes, yes, all critics have "good" taste, or at least they have faith in their own idiosyncratic eardrums. But Good Taste is something different altogether: it's a combination of middlebrow sentiment, political correctness, multicultural blandness, and moral jitters. Fear of violence and speed and sex and cusswords are somewhere in there, too. Good Taste is what makes a critic love Lauryn Hill but fear Li'l Kim. Good Taste means putting Willie Nelson ahead of David Allen Coe in the country-music canon. The only way to be a truly discerning critic is to brave the elements: slap on albums by ANTiSEEN, Def Squad, Cyndi Lauper, Anal Cunt, Commodores, Star Death, Pink & Brown, Voivod, Johnny Paycheck, Ja Rule, Iron Maiden, Hanson, .38 Special, Blink 182, and see what you like. (Just for the record, I like all of 'em except Ja Rule and Anal Cunt). Don't stick to the safe critically received Beck'n'Wilco mulch or you're gonna dull your ears too fast. Good Taste is for brainless elites. Go for bad taste first, then work your way up.
Aiming toward Cognoscenti. OK, so you've got the new Joan of Arc disc in the mail. How are you going to review it? Should you assume that your audience already owns all the other albums and wants to know what this one sounds like? Or will you let it just pop out of the box as fresh music, and write your review accordingly? The answer is obvious: the convinced fans will probably buy the album, and your job in this case is to pitch your review to the unconverted. (This applies mostly to albums that are good. Crap albums -- such as the new Joan of Arc -- should be stunned and gutted before an audience of fans as often as possible. See "Fear of Fans" above). Never write a review solely to impress the band's fans, because who else will read it?
Forced Gonzo. In Nate Patrin's definitive essay, Your Guide to Spotting the North American Rock Critic, he gives a brilliant description of the omnipresent Lester Bangs imitator at every webzine and popcult site round the web: "While it's a good thing to have both an unbridled enthusiasm for the joys and pleasures of great music and the ability to make words fly off the paper like some sort of headphone-encased William Burroughs, the Gonzo is almost always a pale imitation and, on certain unfortunate occasions, a boorish asshole." I wish I could add to that, but . . . well, I'll tell ya when I see someone hittin' the caps-lock and grooving on the run-ons, I can always tell (as Patrin can, too) that the writer is a grad-school imitator, not a booze-guzzlin', pill-snatching, chick-obsessed, blotty-faced, cockroach-infested-apartment asshole like Lester. And these forced-gonzo reviews are inevitably unreadable and lifeless. They reveal nothing, snatch nothing from the formless void of sonic smog.
The Promo Syndrome. When a friend lends me a CD, I am usually more critically "objective" than if I buy it myself. If a borrowed disc sucks, then it sucks, and I'm glad to say so. Why? Because when I buy a disc, I need to force myself to believe that the money was well-spent. So if an album is iffy on first listen, I try and try to make it worth my while, otherwise I envision that precious $14 circling the toilet. Sometimes this has led to a serious crisis. For example, when I bought the first White Stripes album and it kept rubbing me the wrong way, and I couldn't dispel from my ears a pencil-neck collegiate variation of the House of Blues, and I stormed back to the record shop after a few days to see if I could get a refund (no go), then slunked home and guzzled whiskey and cranked up some Lifter Puller for sonic recompense. But this has nothing to do with my main point, which is that when you get a promo CD in the mail, you feel a need to treat it with kid gloves. "It's free! How nice of the label to send it, I'll treat it with the proper politeness!" Don't cave in to this tempting fallacy. As a critic, you are serving the listening public, not the record industry, or even the artist. Yes, there is something to be said about keeping some critical encouragement alive for "emerging artists": if their album sucks, try to find future virtues in it (because hopefully they'll read the review and act on your suggestions). But otherwise tell it like it is. Don't let free product mollify you.
Now, after laying out this list before you, I trust you all to do the right thing and tell me exactly how many times I've made these dumbass mistakes in my own work (I count 22 so far). As Morrissey sang, while I bobbed my Walkman-head in the lunch line freshman year at Buckley Hall, "Now I know how Joan of Arc felt..."