Monday, December 17, 2018


If you insist on hanging with this tenuous thesis, what really killed rock music 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 experimental and academic sounds I matured with was now a younger listener retro-indulgence. Simply, styles change, and much of what is new at first seems ugly to an audience whose tastes are entrenched and internalized. Like in any other criticism, rock criticism makes the unknown explicatable, or at least momentarily comprehensible for the moment. Blaming writers, though, for the murder of 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 the album go double platinum.

Calling Robert Christgau a racist simply because he is not favourably disposed toward a particular Aretha Franklin album is ludicrous--I remember the review as well. I recall that his points were subtler than you make them. Punk is racist because it eschews black influences? It may be a matter of style, and that preference may have its roots in some lumpy, swirling matrix of cultural forces one may term "racist" in some inconclusive, knot-headed reliance on aimless lefty jargon, but the exclusion of African American influence in a piece of music does not make it "inherently racist" as you rather narrowly maintain, nor does it make it "stupid". 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 choose, non-vindictively, 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 why they 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 someone 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 stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty in the use of the word "dead": rock and roll are, as it always been in my experience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath of credible acts, bands, and solo, who keep the edgy rigour of the music intact, and vital. The dustbin of history is always full; what survives the clean sweep is anyone's guess. In the meantime, I reserve the right to be excited, engaged, but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original. Rather, I think it's criticism that's ailing, if not already deceased, as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to gossip magazine auteurs, Spin gives itself over to trendy photo captions. For the scads of "serious" commentary, much of it has vanished behind faux post- structuralist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at hand within an artist’s work is not being made. 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. But 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 insane, trivial exercise. My frames of reference are less broad musically--I'm a harmonica player of thirty-five years gasping experience in sometimes 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 let's 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, its 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 its early days as an outgrowth of LitCriticism, probes these elements and addresses why a blues guitar lick, roller rink organ, nasal vocals, over-mike drums, and abstruse lyrics convey meanings and provoke responses whose origins are mysterious.

It is felt, 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 withhold. 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 otherwise. The Garden of Eden was so much nicer before the corporate snakes moved in and loused it up for everyone, and that, regardless of musical terminology tossed about like throw rugs over a lumpy assertion, is the kind of junior-college cafeteria table-thumping that is demonstrably empty of content. Reading any good history of rock and roll music will have the music develop alongside the growth of an industry that started recording and disrupting increasingly diverse kinds of music to widen market shares. The hand of the businessman, the soul of the capitalist machine, has always been in and around the heart of rock and roll: every great rock and roll genius, every jazz master, each blues innovator has the basic human desire to get paid. Suffice to say that some we see as suffering poets whose travails avail them of images that deepen our sense of shared humanity see themselves still as human beings who require the means to pay for their needs and finance their wants, like the rest of us.

There has always been a marketplace where the music is played, heard, bought and sold--and like everything in these last months, the marketplace has changed, become bigger, more diffuse with new music and new technologies. Influence is an inevitable and inseparable part of being an artist, and a rock and roll musician is no less subject to the act of borrowing from something they like. Without it, going through the eras, right up and including the debate about hip-hop and its artist's 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 selves 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 soundboard jockeys' manipulating of buttons and loops, but I think 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, mix its particulars with it, and generate a newer fiercer noise. Anyone who argues that rock musicians are somehow responsible for the tragedy in Colorado are themselves a rock critic in the narrowest sense. There we have an impassable irony, and more ironic, 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 vulgarisms 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 the force of the Dominant Culture and Capitalist Imperative. Such is the kind of no-neck culture-vulture as I listened to a Marxist lit professor critique "Guernica" or Frieda Kahlo's 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 a 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--it's been going on for years. Again, it's the job of thoughtful critics, critics, or genuinely provocative to bring a larger analysis to bear on complex matters, to strive for a 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. It must be hemmed in by 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. As it is with any artist, the rock and rollers duty is to seek and express the truth they perceive in the comprehensible in terms that extend our notions of what the human experience is.

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