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?