American Idiot

I’m jumping into this late, but I have to toss in my $20 worth. Now, I love a dog-n-cat fight between a “rock critic” and a “rock populist” as much as the next guy, but the universe of this fight, the world it inhabits, is so limited that I need to get the hose. This is mainly sad, sad in the way of characters who lack self-knowledge to see their own inevitable falls, sad in the way of possibilities left unacknowledged.

It’s not an irony for a “rock critic” to complain about bad popular taste, it’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy for a person who’s writing and taste are pluperfectly mediocre to declare that other people have bad taste and can’t write. It’s a tragedy for a “rock critic” to complain about about how he wants to be exposed to things while he has no idea at all that the universe of human music-making is vast and rock covers a narrow niche. And it’s personally infuriating to hear a smug hipster in a so-2003-fashionable trucker hat complain about anyone’s taste.

Christopher R. Weingarten writes about rock for The Village Voice and Rolling Stone. Which means he reviews popular, commercial product for two publications which have no idea how middle-of-the-road they are. Can we finally put a stake into the heart of the idea that rock music is any kind of protest or rebellion in the larger scheme of things? Once one gets past Elvis’ hips, the Beatles’ haircuts, Dylan going electric and everyone else swearing and expressing anti-social fantasies, one is left with lots of good music which, for good and ill, fits into our social lives. That’s the nub – popular music gives us pleasure inseparable from the time and place when and where it becomes a part of our sense memories. and the context of those memories includes our peer groups and our sense of self, as an individual and member of a larger whole, and where we straddle the fuzzy line between standing on our own and belonging. Pop music becomes a huge part of that sense of self, that social identity, and as social identity there is a great deal of “us” as better/cooler than “them.” As we mature, we hopefully lose a lot of that oppositional sense and our pleasures become more expansive.

Except of course for the professional “rock critic,” who maintains a health level of immaturity, and listens to music but hears it as a matter of how it fits into their immature self/social image (“I like it”) or how it doesn’t fit (“it sucks”). That’s not criticism and unless one belongs to the critics peer group, it has no value. How one gets paid for that, though, that’s a scam I’d like to get into.

This makes me wish I were one of the people taking away Weingarten’s livelihood, but I’m not, because, unlike him, I hear music and write criticism about it. His project to write about 1000 recordings in 2009 says it all right there – he may be listening to them, but what can he possible hear? Recent sample: “439)Elfin Saddle/Ringing For The Begin Again: Asthmatic Kitties swinging at lightning bugs.#5.5;” words that have no meaning. A tale, told by a tool, full of sound and fury, signifying something awful; and ignorance of and lack of love for the greatest art, the best music.

The best music across all genres reveals itself through time and repeated exposure, it needs to infect the mind and the soul where it eventually uncovers unexpected ideas and reactions. It is an art that exists only in time and demands the listeners time. And with hearing, criticism becomes a matter of discerning meaning and meanings, and evaluating how well the music fulfills both. The best criticism can fit a work into a larger cultural and historical context, meaning it is informed with knowledge and experience, and also makes the question of “like” and “it sucks” irrelevant. Critics cannot and should not ignore their personal tastes, but to be of any worth they must be able to acknowledge that a work does something well, even if what it does is not their taste – it may very well be someone else’s, and the critic should be responsible to those readers.

Please don’t think I’m Crumbler’s crowdsourcing side – I’m not. The crowd is also the herd, and the herd gets things wrong all the time. It is dominated by group-think, conformity and free-floating enthusiasm. Calling the herd “indie” still makes it a herd; “indie-movies,” “indie-music,” the labels don’t actually indicate any independent thinking, more like genres that demand conformity to a certain method, attitude and/or sound in order to belong to the clique of cool kids. Crumbler and Weingarten are really just throwing out signifiers at each other to try and prove how the one is better/hipper/cooler than the other. It’s tedious, childish, shallow, idiotic. But that’s the “rock critic” vs. “indie crowd” food fight. It’s not only not criticism of any kind, it’s a demonstration of the depressing fact that for too many people rock music is the only kind of music that exists in the world. I imagine that these two would sneer at people who only eat at fast food restaurants, but what are they debating, metaphorically, other than the relative superiority of McDonald’s over Burger King? I’ll do my own cooking.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.