… written in the early 1990s under circumstances I can no longer recall (hence the references to Guns ‘N Roses and Ice-T — then cutting-edge but now Old Folks Music and barely familiar to anyone under the age of 35 — and Frank Zappa as a living person existing in the present tense).* Nevertheless, I still stand by it, and I still tell my Hothouse Project students much of this stuff today — alongside, of course, much more.
Goes something like THIS:
Notes On Dancing About Architecture
1. It may or may not have been Frank Zappa who dismissed rock criticism by suggesting that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ (perhaps it was Prince Charles, who himself has had many and merry a dance about architecture); but it was certainly Zappa who claimed that rock journalism is ‘people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.’ Zappa himself talks better than most rock musicians; he’s certainly been interviewed by many people (some of whom can actually write), and presumably the only rock fans whom he thinks can read are those who buy his own records; but he undoubtedly represents the views of a great many musicians. Any practicing rockcrit can quote examples of musicians who considered writers to be persons of vast acuity, immense musical knowledge and almost terrifying personal integrity as long as those writers were publishing favourable judgements on the recorded products in question. As soon as the critic registers a negative viewpoint on the artist’s work, (s)he is magically transformed into a deaf, ignorant reptile with no other agenda than the ruthless destruction of their betters. Certainly, there is considerable confusion about exactly what rock criticism is; and the first step to resolving that confusion is to discuss two of the things it isn’t.
2. The first thing that rock criticism isn’t is reviewing (except when Robert Christgau does it). Reviewing is a simple advisory service for consumers; letting them know what records are in the stores (or which tours are about to pass through which localities), and making recommendations as to which artefacts represent a sensible use of the rocking-dollar portion of the reader’s disposable income. The reviewer thus becomes a knowledgeable head waiter, prepared to tell the prospective diner what’s nice today – and what’s ‘off.’ This presupposes that the reviewer is either able to conceal their idiosycrasies and prejudices to a sufficient extent to serve as a neutral conduit for information, or else to make said quirks sufficiently obvious for the reader to make his/her consumption decisions whether in agreement with the reviewer or not.
3. The second thing that rock criticism isn’t is reportage. Description, colour, you-are-there: this is all good stuff, and it’s something that anybody who calls themself a writer – of any description – should be able to do. A sharp eye and ear for character, setting and nuance never did anybody any harm; at its best this kind of stuff is the sort of sketch-writing on which Charles Dickens honed his skills; at its worst it’s the kind of bland celebrity journalism which currently dominates all cultural discourse. The demand thus placed on the artist is to become a ‘character’: to have interesting drug habits, diet tips, tattoos and working methods, or to cultivate controversial opinions, beat up photographers and undress in public.
4. None of the above should imply that there is anything negligible about being a competent, knowledgeable reviewer, sympathetic (and/or confrontational) interviewer or snappy, perceptive descriptive writer. No-one who has not cultivated these skills is liable to last very long as a cultural journalist, unless they are appallingly well-connected within their chosen industry and are in a position to deliver ‘exclusives’ on a regular basis. (As a rule of thumb, anybody whose by-line appears regularly in important periodicals on stories about major entertainers despite style-free prose and inconvenience-free questioning probably falls into this category.) Nevertheless, this isn’t criticism.
5. So, what is? Criticism implies perspective: it means having a clear and precise vision (and not just an additood, dooooood) of where the work of the artist under discussion at any given moment fits into the history and current state of the art-form, how that art-form fits into the general state of popular culture, and what popular culture itself represents in view of the social and political realities of the time. A new record by Ice-T or Guns N’ Roses or anybody else is, to the reviewer, a state-of-the-art example of rap, hard-rock or whatever; and it may or may not be better or worse consumer-value than the last record by that artist or the latest by a comparable artist whose work could be considered better. To the celeb-journo, Ice-T and Axl Rose are controversial public figures guaranteed to toss out a few good quotes which can be pulled out of the feature and splashed acoss the page in 72-point type. To the critic, Axl and Ice-T may be exemplars of a crisis in masculinity among insecure adolescents; they may be symptoms of a decline in popular culture since the days of Sly Stone or Jim Morrison; they could be the result of a moral failure on the part of ‘responsible’ rockers since they both use the N-word about blacks and the B-word about women; they could be great popular entertainers who articulate the needs and concerns of the communities who support their work; one of them could be a brainless thug while the other is a great poet … and so on.
6. It doesn’t matter what the ‘line’ of any individual critic might be as long as there is one. What matters is the quality of the argument, and the resources that the critic brings to bear to back it up. While the reviewer counsels your cultural investments on a bang-for-the-buck basis and the celeb-journo describes the public (or private, or second-level-public disguised as ‘private’) face of a phenomenon, the critic does all of that … and then more.
7. On a good day, anyway.
* My friend Dave Rimme reminds me, “I commissioned that piece for the Berlin Independence Days catalogue 1992. As part of the deal you were also on a panel with Swells, Chris Bohn, Diedrich Diedrichson and others I can’t recall, moderated by moi.”
Aha — it’s all coming back to me now …
Read more about Charles Shaar Murray’s Hothouse Project “Journalism as Craft and Art” writing course.