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August 7, 2009

Hoary Cliches and Cardinal Sins

Jonah Weiner, my former colleague at the former Blender, offered a heart-rending example of the incipient schizophrenia of "poptimist" rock criticism with the lead of his July 27 essay on the death of music magazines for his new patrons at Slate, where I'd guesstimate he was paid as much as $130 more than us A-list freelancers used to make for a 135-word record review in Blender--and where the death of print is a cliche as sexy as the self-destruction of Britney Spears used to be back in Blender's heyday.

To the varied signs of the economic collapse we can now add a small but notable subspecies of urbanite: You'll recognize him (or her) by the ear buds burrowing into his head, the freebie SXSW tote bag slung over his shoulder, and the unintelligible mutterings about "melisma" and "twee-core" crossing his lips. If you see such a person out and about--likely wandering a neighborhood rich with coffee shops or, even better, two-for-one happy hours--remain calm but keep your distance. This is a music journalist, a type never famous for social skills, and he's in an especially bad mood these days.

Late last month, Vibe magazine announced that it was ceasing publication. The next day, word arrived that Spin was laying off a half-dozen staffers. In late March, Blender folded outright, and a few months before that, Rolling Stone trimmed its masthead. (Blender hired me out of college in 2002, and I worked there until its demise.) For this strange moment, at least, many onetime professional music nerds share a common experience with many onetime investment bankers: whiplash.


Second graf: the brutal facts you need to lay out to write any version of this piece, which I cited here in its radio and daily newspaper versions shortly after Vibe went under. Fine. First graf: bad college humor magazine version of a totally unempirical anti-rockcrit cliche I've been encountering since before Weiner was born. "Ear buds"--if everybody who wore ear buds was a rock critic, the music marketplace would be a much livelier thing, though I avoid them myself--the obsolescence of over-the-neck earphones is a pet peeve of mine. "Melisma"--a now justifiably familiar musicological term without which it is impossible to describe contemporary r&b like that of Beyonce, and if Weiner avoids it out of anti-intellectual pride, he's just indulging in his own version of hipper-than-thou, rock criticism's cardinal sin. "Twee-core"--well, I had to Google that one. 4720 hits, which ain't exactly a barrage these days. On the first page, the top one and one other linked to Weiner. Others referred to Los Campesinos! and the Pain of Being Pure at Heart, tuneful and funny alt bands whose out-front braininess might well offend a poptimist gangsta-sucker like Weiner. Not one was by a professional critic of the most minor standing.


Many editors--among those who think about such things at all, probably most--love this stupid cliche. They love to think rock critics are ridiculous. The reason is simple--they don't want to feel ignorant about pop music, although they are, or think about it, although they can't. Of course there are bad rock critics out there, but that's the last you'll hear from me on that subject in this post. Weiner doesn't qualify, although he seems to be working on it. Understandably, he's desperate for work. So he posits for such editors a version of "the reader," that unempirical figure via whom editors habitually personify their own prejudices: "Many readers who are otherwise passionate about culture have little time for music writing, irritated that it speaks in abstract, jargon-stuffed language about ostensibly mainstream entertainment."  "Not me sir," Weiner declares. "I have muscles and everything. Just get me Access. And at least a buck a word, please please please."


I'd analyze Weiner's three-pronged analysis of why music magazines are in trouble if I thought he was saying anything that was both new and true, but I don't, and his lead pissed me off so the hell with it. The basic reason is too simple to justify a full if low-paid essay in Slate (which is at least paying something for professional thought). Magazine business? In trouble across the board due to loss of advertising revenues, partly an internet problem and partly a mega-economy one. Music business? In trouble across the board due to loss of sales, partly an internet problem and partly more complex than anyone can figure out. Double whammy. I feel for all my young colleagues, Weiner included. At least I had a real run.

August 7, 2009 6:19 AM | | Comments (14)

14 Comments

From what I've read by him in Slate, Weiner occasionally writes some interesting stuff (I found his latest piece about the use of "no homo" in hip-hop fairly informative, though note that it was the first thing I'd ever read on the subject, so no idea if he gets it right or not) but "hipper-than-thou" does seem to be a preferred stance, and a recent piece on Black Eyed Peas's "Boom Boom Pow" [http://slate.com/id/2218177/] really got up my craw for that reason, especially this closing bit:

"The spryness of the music is in direct contrast to the ungainliness of the lyrics -- this is still a Black Eyed Peas song. Each member raps, offering up brags that veer from nonsensical... to demonstrably untrue (Will.i.am: 'I got that rock 'n' roll, that future flow!')."

Maybe I'm a bit pedantic in my reading of this (and for the record, I in general share Wiener's thoughts on earlier BEP records -- always found the forced funkiness of stuff like "Let's Get Retarded" somewhat assaultive), but the two things in there that annoy the hell out of me are: 1) the word "still" (as though he has to remind himself not to get too carried away by this song which he's just made a fairly eloquent case for); and 2) "demonstrably untrue"; well, WHAT is untrue, the part about Will.i.am possessing "that rock 'n' roll" (and why would he think that is so?) or the part about him possessing "that future flow"? I dunno... that he insists as much as though it's a given just really annoyed me for some reason. (The fact that I like the follow-up BEP single from the new record just as much -- a "rock 'n roll" track no less -- only added to my irritation.)

In the event that my first comment is accepted here, I should also add the real reason I wanted to jump in in the first place: your characterization of Wiener as a "poptimist" strikes me as odd and in need of some elucidation. I mean, insofar as I even understand the term myself, or that the term itself isn't ultimately kind of meaningless (I mean literally without meaning, or in the very least, ridiculously vague) my hunch is that Wiener does not really fit the description. But again, I confess to not fully understanding it to begin with (just as I suspect I am, in fact, one of these e-vil-critter poptimist types).

It’s a while since you’ve edited my writing, Bob, and the last time was much more pleasant for me!

I think you’ve misunderstood me. The tip-off is your assumption (accusation?) of anti-intellectualism on my part – the suggestion that braininess in music or in music writing offends me. I have never boasted about muscles literal or figurative, they’re low in my rock-writing value system, and there’s no flexing going on in this piece.

In the lead I’m drawing a caricature, but I’m caricaturing myself as much as anyone, and with that caricature I don’t mean to disavow or critique some wimpy, brainily ineffectual version of the rock critic while holding my nose (and biceps) high. If I’m invoking some noxious historical stereotype that predates my birth, it’s unintentional, and my writing, if not here then elsewhere, should make my perspective on the matter clear.

As far as headphones (the make and model you choose is between you and your Zune), they’re a necessary but not sufficient condition for the critic. “Twee-core” was chosen as the sort of hyphenated insider’s-insider phrase that I would regularly drop into some Blender review or other, and which our friend and my editor Rob Tannenbaum would duly pluck out – the butt of the joke there, college-humor-magazine grade or not, is me. (Whether I like Los Campesinos!, and what that says about my being a “poptimist gangster-sucker,” isn’t on the table). You and I agree on “melisma.” I use the word often, and pride or lack thereof doesn’t enter into the bargain when I do. It’s there in the lead to indicate the speaker of a semi-specialized language, and it’s “unintelligible” to the (unempirical) bystander in the same way that the investment bankers from the next graf are unintelligible when they talk about credit-default swaps. As far as the giveaway tote bag, I’ve got a bunch that I use for grocery shopping.

"Many readers who are otherwise passionate about culture have little time for music writing, irritated that it speaks in abstract, jargon-stuffed language about ostensibly mainstream entertainment." To this charge, Weiner does not declare, “Not me, sir!,” as you write. It’s a criticism raised against me with almost everything I write for Slate, most recently when I wrote about Limp Bizkit, the Black Eyed Peas, and Lady Gaga. Here’s a blogger laughing at my “high-octane critical prose about hip-hop” - http://www.theamericanscene.com/2008/11/06/prose-and-hos - a version of a dig I hear all the time.

More to your point, this is a criticism I don’t distance myself from, because it’s my job and my passion to write about music in abstract, jargon-stuffed language. I like it when my mom knows what I’m talking about in a piece, and there is good and bad writing, but a certain vocabulary is necessary for a certain level of thought. I’ve always felt that way and I've always said as much – sometimes, it happens, while defending your writing against smart people who complain that it’s unreadable.

The best that can be said about Christgau is that he's an independent intellectual whose literary style is very much at the center of the angsty grouse he's here initiated with Weiner. Christgau achieved that style with some institutional help from the Village Voice, but for the most part rock criticism has been the long discursive tail of the music industry -- a claim I have no doubt Christgau will dispute; go right ahead -- and has way too few critics of a stature to survive the collapse of print and "Read Only" music industry formats (e.g. the CD). One writer does not make a journalistic beat, and few besides have contributed to the anyway mislabled "rock crit" tradition. Sure, that's an opinion, but I've got 30 years of reading behind it.

The worst that can be said about Christgau is that as a parent eating his young he's not unwilling to blame the victim. And go into the kid's bedroom to do it.

Two things:

First, in reference to the brief yet uncomfortable Christgau/Weiner pot/kettle exchange, and as an Uncle Bob reader since Creem (not Newsday) who feels safe in saying that my music purchases have been happily 90% Christgau Guided throughout that duration yet acknowledges that this time Uncle Bob has made Dear Sigmund quite cozy in his grave, so deft was his demonstration of projection as one of the more common defense mechanisms, that on the subject of “twee-core”, “melisma” and the like . . . I love the very thought of “twee-core.” It has to be the funniest pop music convention since skinny ties (oh, might be the same thing, sorry), summoning such thoughts as, what are twee-core musicians like? Do they iron their t-shirts after they tear them? Do they let the audience spit on them? And what social dramas would twee-core lyrics address? Would they be profanity laced screeds about people who don’t balance their checkbooks; or anti-social rantings about the devaluing of public libraries? Twee-core is a hoot. I just wish I could use it in a sentence at work. Word-play in music writing puts the fun in functional. And if pop music can’t be fun, then Chuck Berry was wrong about Beethoven. That’s one of the reasons we like Todd Snider, George Clinton and Bob Dylan. They make stuff up we never thought of before using the same verbal pieces and parts we all use everyday. They make us smile, just like the thought of twee-core does. As for “melisma”, speaking of functional, let’s not lose sight of the vision of pop music reviews as teachable moments. There is an audience out here for it. In fact, if I’ve been disappointed about any one thing in pop music writing all these years, it’s how little I’ve learned about music per se. Yes, I’ve learned what melisma means, and counterpoint, and paradiddle, and I know roughly what to expect to hear when I read “flanged” and “second line” and “post-bop”, but that’s just the tip of the ice cube, folks. There’s more to the drink. It reminds me of the Wikipedia reference to an academic Joni Mitchell article that states “Mitchell was also highly innovative harmonically in her early work (1966-72) using techniques including modality, polymodality, chromaticism, polytonality, and strict pedal points.” What? Where? Click on Save for that article, that’s for sure. And let me search the specific song references, because if I can apply that to her music, maybe I can find the same thing in Taylor Swift or Smokey Robinson or The Wrens. And let’s throw George Clinton and Bob Dylan back into the pool as well. (Todd Snider is respectfully univited though. No reason to set myself up for failure.), and have my understanding of the craft expanded permanently as a result. Music is an emotional outlet for us all, but it has intellectual properties as well. Maybe that’s why I’ve stuck with Uncle Bob so compulsively over the years. As difficult as he is to parse sometimes, at least I learn something. This is a nearly untouched vein available to be mined more deeply in future pop criticism by those of you willing to take on the challenge. Did Kurt Cobain or Bob Marley use unusual intervals? Is that why Nirvana and The Wailers sounded so much better than their peers? If yes, then what were they? In what songs? Who else does something similar? If no, then what were their particular and unique musical composition skills? And what does it mean that the third and fourth lines of the chorus of “My Girl” are the same ascending notes as the first and second lines of the chorus, but doubled, or repeated, or something? And are those notes then used again in the verse after the bridge? Is that why it feels so warm and familiar? And where exactly in Polly Harvey and Rhett Miller’s songs are the traditional elements and where exactly are the elements that make them unique? Afraid to be academic, are we? Don’t dumb me down, smarten me up. Don’t have the skills yourself? Then learn, so that you may teach. I listen to and read about music for fun, sure, but I also have a desire to learn more about the art-form I love. Which then expands the world I live in. Teach me, sis and bro.

So in that regard, and second, and in modest defense against any pending charges of incipient color-ism in my pot/kettle line above, why did the Latin music thread started by Bob in February and abetted by Carlos Reyes and Andrew Casillas among others, die so quickly? Did no one else out there use the detailed lists and genre-specific links to do further research? I was at least expecting a resurgence on or around 5/5. But no, nothing. Do you have no curiosity about what you might be missing? I mean, even my 100% non-Hispanic Caucasian 25 year-old daughter has Calle 13 on her play list right next to Regina Spektor. Which is in keeping with my own head-shaking, newly found infatuation with Julieta Venegas (the head shaker is my wife), who my 23 year-old, also 100% non-Hispanic Caucasian niece claims as her “favorite Mexican singer.” And while I still can’t pronounce Aterciopelados correctly all the way through in one try, I sigh with deep contentment when “Panal” comes up on our iPod first thing in the morning now that I’ve down-loaded it to our wake-up folder. Casillas says Vengas’ “Lento” didn’t change his life. Well, it changed mine. Using that song as the most accessible border entry point, and therefore best example for this purpose, integrating Venegas, Marisa Monte, Bebe, Andrea Echeverri, Gloria Trevi, Alejandra Guzman, Ely Guerra, and Ximena Sarinana into my listening habits has been like buttah. One dimensional buttah to be sure. (They’re all female, white homies.) But a dimension I never had before nonetheless. I can’t go a week, heck, a day without thanking the writers of that thread for what they have taught me.

Robert Christgau has no credibility on anything. This was a guy who, in the 1970s, waxed on about Stepin Fetchits in pop music, such as the O'Jays, and yet called King Crimson one of the 10 worst rock bands of all time.

He liked his pop music stupid, simple and...preferably with black musicians in that sort of Maude Findlay way. He was the perfect embodiment of a Trotskyist and Maude Findlay the more one thinks about it.

Why doesn't Christgau just die like the ultimate rock critic idiot, sorry for the redundancy, Lester Bangs?

"An independent intellectual" is hardly "the best that can be said about Christgau" unless you mean that from the ground up he has constructed a form of criticism that is empirically subjective, which by then we’re talking about the depth and resilience of the writing itself. Which might even be a compliment, and which is beside the point. Is it relevant whether or not rock criticism this specific can survive the collapse of print with so few contributors in the context of a blog article? And why is that such a positive thing? Doesn't every other art form have its own "long discursive tail," whatever you might deem that to be?

Jones, my compliment to Christgau (and I know of no higher than to be an independent intellectual, et tu?) may be beside your point but it's not beside mine. I think we agree with each other, until you ask, "Is it relevant whether or not rock criticism this specific can survive the collapse of print with so few contributors in the context of a blog article?" by which you lose me. Very few writers concern themselves with rock writing as a discourse. I wonder why that is. I don't think it's a good thing. From Freud we think of sex positively, and while you or I may too, that doesn't mitigate the need to think independently about psychoanalysis.

I came to the argument merely in defence against what seemed to me a pretty biased sentiment. Stated matter-of-factly, as you just did, I concede that it's a point well made, even if extinction of a rock criticism seems to me like wishful thinking on your part (correct me if I’m wrong).

It seems hardly worth adding, since ain't nobody looking, that I love rock criticism as a genre, have for a long time, once practiced it, no more care to see it abolished than wishin' were caring. I read here because I'm curious of what it's becoming. If rock crit were Christgau, Bangs, Willis, and -- oh, let's say -- Lenny Kaye, discourse might not even be an issue. We could treat 'em all like they're Samuel Johnson. It's not working out that way, so perhaps my view of the field is as wishful as you say.

Robert Christgau gives Black Eyed Peas an A, and puts it in his top ten list? I dont understand? Its not cool to eat mcdonalds and watch nickelodean, ok if you're taking a road trip, but dont put it on your top ten vacation spots that i should visit.

Robert Christgau thinks Soulja Boy's debut album is an A - effort. Hey, I'm fine with that, but you better justify your reasoning. And does he? No, he's Robert Christgau, and Robert Christgau does not bother with inconveniences such as "reasoning", or "coherency".

This guy needs to take a look at Roger Ebert's work. Critiquing is not an art; it is supposed to help the reader decide whether a piece of art is worth his time and money.

I don't know what Anon's comment has to do with my post, or why he (I assume) couldn't just go to my site and figure it out himself, but it is my pleasure to reproduce the reasoning in question while pointing out that most English speakers say "coherence," not "coherency." And since I'm here already, let me also say that were I to compare the Black Eyed Peas to a hamburger, it would be a bacon cheeseburger I once had at a diner off I-95 with the bun done just right.

Souljaboytellem.com [ColliPark Music/Interscope, 2007]
Boy do the haters get busy on this 16-year-old. But scrutinize the "superman" matter (look it up) and you'll see that even if he thought he was sneaking something outlandishly filthy onto a pop record, his fans thought he was inventing a dance that involved flying, thus furthering the presumption of innocence so crucial to his cute. Unlike his crunk forebears, he's not into pimping or dealing or even strip clubs--"Booty Meat" is as explicit as his carnality gets, and not only is he looking not touching, he's hoping an amateur will "turn around just like a pro." He's still boy enough to worry about those F's, and the most winning of his many winning songs was written to, and on, his Sidekick 3. There are enough sonic strokes here to keep the wrong bizzer in ringtone rappers for a year. But Soulja Boy's spiritual secret is that with less subcultural support than, say, Be Your Own Pet, he's reached the top of his world on a few tips from ex-partner Young Kwon and the loyalty of human sidekick Arab. You can hear how tickled he is about it. A-

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