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March 24, 2010

Snobbery, Projection, Resentment

In the wake of the disheartening death of Alex Chilton, I've been revisiting a lot of his music and also reading up on some of his achievements; and the other day I read the monograph on the Big Star album Radio City (a part of Continuum's intriguing "33 1/3" series of short books on landmark albums) by Bruce Eaton, a one-time musician who played with Chilton on a few occasions. The book is largely an oral history of the making of that album as told by the group's members and associates, and it's replete with the kind of wonky technical detail that's often catnip to me. Eaton is a sharp editor and a better-than-competent explainer, but I found him kind of tiresome when he deemed to express himself. The first part of the book is rather steeped in fake-nostalgic reveries for the old days when musicians were musicians and could actually tune and play their analog instruments and write real songs, and yes, please do get off my lawn you damn kids. And in the book's coda, Eaton goes on an extended riff about "rock snobbery." This involves a post-gig hangout with Chilton in the late '70s during which Supertramp's hit "The Logical Song" comes on the jukebox. Eaton is all ready to sneer at the thing when he sees Chilton bobbing his head to it. Once he gets over his initial shock and confusion, he processes his problem as, well, everybody else's problem. "[R]ock snobbery is an exercise in aural flagellation--a way to punish yourself because girls ignored you back in high school." Ooh, snap. "What gets lost in all this rock snobbery is a simple point: music is meant to be enjoyed." Finally: "I stopped paying attention to record reviews and pouring [sic] over new releases after that."

I bring this up not to beat a dead horse but rather as just another example of an odd tendency I've seen more and more of over my quarter-century of doing something that sometimes resembles criticism--that a lot of people look at the critical impulse, and the work that it sometimes produces, as some kind of attempt to kill their buzz. And, beyond that, to force-feed them stuff that they don't like. It never occurs to Bill Eaton that the fact that he needed Alex Chilton to approve of a Supertramp song before he could do likewise actually says more about Eaton's own insecurities than anything else, as far as I'm concerned. But no, Eaton insists--it's your fault, rock snob. And/or rock critic. Similar currents run in film appreciation circles. I recently had a rather furious argument with a querulous online film writer who posited that the high regard in which the director Douglas Sirk is held is largely due to a conspiracy of "monks" and "dweebs" who want to shove what he sees as a bunch of treacly, badly-acted melodramas down the throats of good, honest film lovers.
I honestly don't get this. When I was an teenage consumer of rock criticism, looking at the work of Lester Bangs, James Wolcott, John Picarella, and my fellow "ARTicles" downward-nudger-of-discourse Robert Christgau, I was a tender lad of relatively unformed sensibility, so yes, reading them DID go some ways toward defining my tastes. By the same token, I wasn't ENTIRELY unformed, and I did have my preferences. My greatest aesthetic affinities were with Picarella and Bangs; Picarella had a sharp ear for the intricate guitar-based music (his Village Voice piece on The Feelies back in 1978 was a landmark evocation of what was then their sound, which would evolve into something rather different by the time they made their first album) that was my aural drug of choice at the time (still is, a bit), while Bangs' head for noise, anarchy, and the Eno-approved avant-garde was right in line with mine. Wolcott, and particularly Christgau, frequently disliked records I revered, but that didn't make me hang my head in shame or question my taste or hide my enthusiasm. I read them, and respected them, because they were ultra-sharp writers who knew how to construct an argument. They entertained me, and taught me something, even as they were tearing down a piece of work that I was crazy about. And when Christgau gave me my first assignment at the Village Voice back in 1984, it was for a record that I was crazy about, and had pitched him, that he himself didn't particularly care for. Does this particular manifestation of a live-and-let-live ethos even exist in the publishing realm anymore?

In any event, even today it's the same for me. I'm sometimes infuriated by the opinions of New York Times' critic Manohla Dargis, but I continue to read her avidly, not just because she's a pal, but because she's a gas to read. So is the late Manny Farber, whose recent collection is full of pronouncements I take serious issue with...but I go through the pieces like I'm plowing through a bowl of M&Ms. The resentment towards critics and criticism that I seem to encounter more and more frequently seems to stem from a conviction that "If I disagree with what you have to say, you're just not worth engaging on any level," combined with "And stop trying to sell me that bill of goods while you're at it." And, as I said, I just do not get it. Do you?
March 24, 2010 5:46 AM | | Comments (10)


The only time I would react defensively to a critic was when, for instance, John Simon would accuse somebody like Robert Altman or Jean-Luc Godard of relying on cheap tricks to "dupe" fans. Not only was it worth it to continue reading Simon for his illuminating praise of Bergman, Mazursky, etc. (as well as getting a hearty laugh out his put-downs that I did agree with), but I would also have to admit, on later viewing, that while I still regarded them as geniuses (and Simon as unfortunately shortsighted in their regard), Altman does occasionally fall back on lazy tricks, and Godard was more interesting in the Sixties, when his pronunciamentos were less self-righteous, somehow more intense and more playful at the same time (the romantic in me attributes this to his daily struggle throughout that decade with the image, mind, and body of Anna Karina).

Back on topic, I've long found it amusing that people who claim they never read critics and prefer to make up their own minds are almost always the first to fall for a flashy advertising campaign.

Critics are the only people not entitled to an opinion.

There does seem to be a more immediate defense mechanism and a certain amount of pedagogy that goes into reading criticism. I think you hit on it deriving from insecurity, one that comes from a lack of insight or deep engagement in the material. When you feel the artist, as in the muse that inspired the work feels like they're sitting next to you in the theater smiling along as if to say 'pretty good, no?' you can experience a transcendence. That then can be applied to how you encounter other works in a given medium. We fail to appreciate on an intrinsic level, an aesthetic level, and then on some other political, mythological, or spiritual level. We then turn our ire to the critic, who seems pretty self-assured in their assessment and think 'this guy sure is full of himself, what am I lacking?' But I can relate. I recall being younger and reading a negative review of a film I quite enjoyed and thinking 'Am I missing something?' But it's a desire not to seem, or feel, stupid. The easiest way to do that is to dismiss or fall in line. The better way is to ask questions.

This subject -- which bedevils me, too -- has been the source of many blog posts for me in recent years. As you put it: "a lot of people look at the critical impulse, and the work that it sometimes produces, as some kind of attempt to kill their buzz. And, beyond that, to force-feed them stuff that they don't like." Now, public school officials have been legally endowed with responsibilities to act in loco parentis in certain respects. Music critics? Never. Critics do not have the power to send anyone to their room, kill their buzz, or force-feed them music or movies or vegetables they do not like.

Never understood the argument that critics are somehow "ruining" enjoyment that people have already had, are having, or expect to have. How can that be?

As you implied (or did you just come out and say it, I don't remember) in your last ARTicles post, I think a lot of the current disdain for criticism stems from the dearth of writers online who can actually construct a sentence, much less an argument. There are some people who enjoy reading criticism for it's own sake. But the glut of people passing themselves off as critics is probably discouraging that pursuit at the moment. Likewise in the political realm, where readers align themselves only with those who agree with their politics forsaking anyone or anything which actually challenges their beliefs.

All of this will fix itself. Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crud) still rings true, but so does the cliche that the cream always rises to the top.

In your last two pieces, you point out quite well how you've experienced the joys of critical engagement, whether as critic or punter in the cheap seats. That's what troubles me in the Almond piece you took down and the marshed mellows of the "wow, man, critics=buzzkill" crowd -- viz., the denial of criticism as an act firmly grounded in pleasure. Good Lord, what else is it? It's pretty low-paying as self-aggrandizement goes, and anyone who can even theoretically divorce the critical act (and/or reading about it afterwards) from life as it is lived, with all the emotions, frailties and idiosyncracies human flesh is heir to, is simply talking about something else. Like self-aggrandizement -- in a self-aggrandizing manner, no less. I'm sure I don't need to go chapter-and-verse with this crowd on the true, unsuperficial pleasures to be gained from the examined life occasionally referred to as "criticism".

I just want to know what Eaton was pouring over those new releases? Milk? Molasses? Paint thinner? Some concoction of his own devising created in a lab so secret that critical buzzkill could never penetrate it?

Lovely post. You explained something I've long wondered about -- why some readers take reviews so personally. Eaton makes it clear it's because he's a lifelong adolescent: he's looking to reviews for approval and a sense of belonging. Yikes!

Alex Chilton's career is a good place to begin thinking about the problem of criticism as it's practiced on popular art. The Big Star records were perceived as revisionist when they appeared--reviews always cited British Invasion albums such as the Zombies' "Odessey and Oracle" and the Beatles' "Rubber Soul." Along with that, anyone who had lived through the late '60s and then heard the Big Star records could discern West Coast rock as it was done around 1967 and 1968, such as Moby Grape, Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds. In 1972 and 1973 that kind of revisiting of earlier and supposedly simpler forms of "rock" music was pretty common, not only in the stuff that became cult music or half-forgotten, like Blue Ash, the Raspberries (who, sure, had one big hit) or the Flamin' Groovies, but in acts like Bowie and Eno. The tropes may be a bit different, but I hear "Hunky Dory" and "Radio City" as pretty similar. What made Big Star different was the sense of a real, local tradition that had obviously informed its making--the discipline and understatement of Memphis soul, you could call it. Whatever else you could say about Blue Ash, Bowie or Eno, I don't believe you could sense much of that kind of local, specific underpinning in their music. It was more or less placeless, global pop derived from the omnipresence of the Beatles. Every town, as we all know from the endless revisionist revisiting of any number of supposedly revelatory obscurities labels like Numero Group champion, had a power-pop band, or a garage band. I'm not saying this is a bad thing at all, as sociology. But there were an awful lot of critics, some good, some not so good, who tried to tell people that the real rock 'n' roll impulse had been lost in the early '70s and that these sort of bands were its saviors.

It is, in my opinion, an awfully hard thing to get right--if indeed there is a right answer. Here in my home town of Nashville there is basically no real criticism of music, because everyone here understands how irrelevant it is to the actual business of making and selling music. That's why Altman's movie set in Nashville remains a very sore subject around here, because everyone thinks Altman's subject was music when it was politics, business--perfectly obvious to anyone who has ever sat through the film once.

Thank you for posting this. I read the book for the same reason you did, and in fact also because I visit a forum frequented by the author. I was pretty miffed by the same passage about the Supertramp song and the subsequent baiting of, for instance, people debating the merit of Sandinista! ... as though discussion is somehow a bad thing.

Sorry for this rambly comment but I was relieved to see someone else was as annoyed as I was about this.

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