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Names—boldfaced, literary, award-winning names, names that meant something to the right crowd—had been floated.
Eddie Vedder. Tim Robbins. Both big fans. Sarah Vowell. Again, huge fan.
These were names brainstormed by Sub Pop Publicity Director Steve Manning and his charge Sleater-Kinney—names of those who could write the band’s biography for new album The Woods. Manning thought his label’s most well-known current artist deserved a bio that would make people take note.
The Woods was Sleater-Kinney’s first album for Sub Pop, as well as its first recorded by It producer Dave Fridmann. Every leaker and gossiper had gushed that this time, the band had changed its sound. So the bio had to be written by someone special. When Vowell demurred, citing scheduling concerns and the label’s looming deadline, band members suggested Rick Moody. They told Manning that the celebrated author of The Ice Storm was a longtime fan. He knew their history. They knew his e-mail address.
A week later, Moody, the winner of a Pushcart Press Editors’ Book Award, the Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize, the Addison Metcalf Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, turned in his Sleater-Kinney bio. Nearly two thousand words. Manning thought it was long. Long—but wow. “I’m clearly not going to attempt to edit someone like Rick Moody,” Manning recalls thinking. “I showed it to the band. They thought it was amazing….After spending an hour with it, there was nothing I would consider taking out. It was so well-done.”
The packaging is well-done. A four-color booklet on cream card stock, with retro-styled artwork of Lichtenstein skies and Sleepy Hollow trees, it’s the coolest commencement program you could ever get. But Moody’s words, the ones left free of the editor’s scalpel, are not so well-done.
Moody’s lines slap at you like annoying, wet children blubbering for attention. You can swat kids away. But you can’t get rid of Moody’s rockist clichés so easily; they’re so rampant as to suggest a fetish. Two sentences in, he tries to prove the significance of Corin Tucker’s wail by giving us…Patti Smith.
As Moody tells it, “At first, it appeared that the weaponry, the system, the strategy, consisted of a lead singer who had an uncanny urgency to her voice, more so than anyone since Patti Smith, enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”
Please, not Patti. And please, not the hair-on-the-neck thing. Moody goes on to describe not a band but a classic-rock mash-up. The bio amounts to an EMP exhibit of Rolling Stone– isms. Document-era Peter Buck, take a bow. Nod your crusty heads, Mr. Garcia and Mr. Page.
“This is to say that you should not be afraid of new things, dear reader, which in this case amounts to a really much more ambitious idea of how the studio can be used,” Moody writes in full hype mode. Why the warning? If the record really does jam like Led Zeppelin II, then it’s going to sound like seventh grade. That’s baseball cards, bar mitzvahs, and a lot of old-school comfort food on the classic-rock station. Nothing too scary. Nothing we need Rick Moody to prepare us for.
And he’s just one of several literary rock stars posing as rock critics. Dave Eggers has a semiregular column in Spin. Jonathan Lethem weighed in on the passing of Joey Ramone for the New York Times. An entire cast of McSweeney’s cultists have been writing essays on their favorite tunes in an ongoing orgy of self-love billed as “SHORT ESSAYS ON FAVORITE SONGS, INSPIRED BY NICK HORNBY’S SONGBOOK.” And Hornby himself has insinuated his neocon fogeyisms into both the Times and the New Yorker.
All of these literati attempts at criticism don’t signal undue influence by culture-studies departments everywhere. Nor do they suggest that today’s novelists and memoir-slingers are hipper than their predecessors. No, they point to the fact that real rock critics are fighting for space and that informed opinions are underpaid and underutilized in mainstream media outlets. They mean that criticism has become cameo—stunt casting.
“They’re scenester dilettante guys,” says one longtime indie-rock publicist. “It’s exciting for them to have a piece of it. They just want to go to a party with Karen O….They’re not music people.”
Hornby didn’t start the trend, but the lad-lit author gave his brethren their watershed moment when the New Yorker published his Kid A review, on Oct. 30, 2000. The novelist had parlayed the success of his High Fidelity into a gig as the magazine’s rock critic in what amounted to a brilliant promotional tie-in. He took the opportunity to middlebrow-beat readers to death. Imagine Nora Ephron swaying to the plaintive strums of Aimee Mann—described by Hornby, naturally, as “Beatles-tinged.” But it was Hornby’s takedown of Radiohead’s glitch-pop that became infamous.
The review outed him as lazy—and he admitted as much: “You have to work at albums like Kid A. You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to the paranoid millennial atmosphere….In other words, you have to be sixteen….Kid A demands the patience of the devoted; both patience and devotion become scarcer commodities once you start picking up a paycheck.”
You can quibble with Hornby’s faux populism, his rejection of a critic’s basic job description, or his complete misreading of a band’s recordings and appeal. But that would be missing the importance of his review: It showed other literary authors that you can get away with anything. All you need is a buzzy book and you too can be a rock critic.
Hornby and his ilk—and their audience—were the first generation to grow up completely under the influence of rock music. So Jonathan Franzen explained his post– Oprah’s Book Club status as jumping from tiny clubs to playing stadiums and told a BBC interviewer that the Mekons served as his muse. Being effusive on the merits of the Mekons or the sonic digressions of Wilco offers a benefit you can’t get from writing for the New York Times Book Review: a bigger audience, one that may buy that Wilco book and read that tedious essay.
In a column from December 2004, Eggers used a Pixies concert to flash back to his college days and declare, in that second-person, chickenshit way of his, that “Doolittle was your Sgt. Pepper’s.” He never actually got to writing about the show itself. In 1995, Moody celebrated the release of David Bowie’s Outside by declaring in the New York Times that the has-been’s latest “just might restore him to his position of eminence at those American high school dances.” It was both overreaching and overwrought, not to mention laughably misguided. Somewhere, even Cameron Crowe is blushing.
Overness, of course, is the flaw of every freshman critic. Eventually, with the help of a tough editor, a more developed ear, or a better understanding of musical history, the young commentator stops awarding a Grammy to every backpack rapper or postrocker with a concept album. The problem with author-critics is that they’re critics who refuse to be critical; purple prose is their abiding principle. “I think criticism, more often than not, completely misses the point,” wrote Eggers in a much-forwarded e-mail exchange with the Harvard Advocate in May 2000. “The critical impulse, demonstrated by the tone of many of your own questions, is to suspect, doubt, tear at, and to take something apart to see how it works. Which of course is completely the wrong thing to do to art….Do not be critics, you people, I beg you.”
Don’t call him a whiner—because then you’d be a critic.
A colleague once joked that the title of the author’s Spin column, “And Now, a Less Informed Opinion,” may have been a pre-emptive dis on the part of the magazine’s editors. On seeing the superhyped Yeah Yeah Yeahs and thinking that Karen O actually appeared happy (!), Eggers wrote, “She confirmed what we all suspected: that Karen O is the most original performer in music. Who could ever challenge her for that title?” He goes on to digress about his childhood—a frequent crutch in his columns—before crowning alt-folkie/harpist Joanna Newsom the shit: “I picture her looking like Emily Dickinson. Newsom lives, I imagine, like a feral woman-child. Her dwelling is somewhere rural, and by a lake. But on a hill. On a hill, by a lake. The house is old, crackety, painted red like a schoolhouse. Maybe it is a schoolhouse!” Didn’t he get the promo shot?
Eggers’ navel-picking style has been adopted by most of the rock-crit dabblers published by his McSweeney’s magazine and Web site. Take that column inspired by Songbook—a soggy thing that would’ve been better left unread on the IKEA coffee table. Of the 41 entries produced over the past three years, 14 invoke listening to a song in a car, 12 are dipped in heavy nostalgia, nine reference college or grad school, eight mention crying upon hearing a song’s beauty, and one begins, “In a linguistics class, I learned…” One links listening to Belle & Sebastian with feeling empathy for African-American slaves—“[n]ot to stretch an analogy.” One is a “dedication to Billy Corgan on his 37th Birthday.”
Aside from the narcissistic prose, these authors share with Eggers a lack of desire to engage with any culture outside their own alt-pop, college-rock, new-folk, Time-Life-classics orbit. In a recent Dusted feature, Moody praised the Roots’ Phrenology thus: “I know this isn’t their most recent album, The Tipping Point, but that album has too much drum machine on it. I dislike drum machines. In fact, I am resistant to most hip-hop, because I like melody.”
Melody—specifically, hemp-clothed melody—is in abundance in the new music issue of The Believer, McSweeney’s less quirky, famously snark-free sibling. The issue came with a CD that featured bands that not only sound similar but also dress out of the same closet, listen to the same music, and smoke the same shit. Inside, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein interviews Karen O and Moody confesses a love for outsider Christian folkies the Danielson Famile—and, of course, his own record collection: Beefheart, Tony Conrad, and “the most experimental David Grubbs.”
Moody, though, is a much better writer than the average blogger or Webzine contributor, a clutch of whom have dubbed the author “douchetarded.” The future of rock criticism may indeed be online, but the writing is still made by a thousand Baby Bangses. Especially at sites like Pitchfork, which presents its inimitable pastiche of gushing, snarky, and ill-wrought five days a week.
And Pitchfork, at least, is cultishly influential. A recent rave on the site put Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self-titled debut in the No. 1 sales spot of online retailer Insound. The retrofied New York band—think David Byrne fronting the Shins—released the album itself and has yet to tour extensively. Matt Wishnow, president of Insound, says his site has sold more than 1,000 copies of the disc, which makes it “one of the fastest-selling records in the history of Insound.”
According to Nielsen Soundscan figures, Pitchfork faves have done quite well with minimal mainstream press coverage. The Fiery Furnaces’ Blueberry Boat sold 30,000 copies. Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People sold 75,000. And the Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Pitchfork’s favorite album of last year, sold 167,000 units.
“It’s huge,” says Wishnow, “the fall of the rock critic as celebrity that we used to know—the Greil Marcus, the Chuck Eddy, the Christgau. Peer opinion and access to peer opinion have been so elevated and multiplied that people tend to know about [records] from a trusted voice before the rock critic even does. In most cases, the rock critic finds out about it after the average Insound or Pitchfork or blog reader knows about it.”
Pitchfork-driven sales figures suggest that criticism has gone the way of the radio dial—into niche marketing. The Web is the reservoir for poorly written reviews of obscurities. The lit mags do poorly written nostalgia pieces for the NPR crowd. The working critics get marginalized to the back of the book, to dwell in the pages not pawed by 13-year-old boys trying to detect the dark shading that might be Jessica Alba’s nipple.
All you have to do is flip through any music magazine—Rolling Stone, Spin, Blender—to see the editors’ patience for real criticism. The majority of Entertainment Weekly reviews are only 75 words. In Spin, many reviews are whittled down to a couple of sentences before being anonymously dispatched with a grade. That means fewer words to suspect, doubt, tear at, take a record apart to see how it works (or doesn’t). Fewer words to change the way someone thinks about how and why art is made and experienced—which is, after all, the real purpose of criticism.
We’re left with this sad fact: The only high-profile rock criticism consistently worth reading can be found in a magazine whose mascot is a fop looking at a butterfly through a monocle. The New Yorker published a Lethem memoir about listening to Brian Eno that offered more insight into its subject than any of his so-called criticism. And the magazine respects in-house rock critic Sasha Frere-Jones enough to give him room to write long. He’s allowed to follow his ear, covering everything from semi-obscure grime to MF Doom to Keren Ann, all of which he’s required to make accessible to an audience that’s probably more likely to buy The Mussorgsky Reader than any book about Wilco.
Even better, he doesn’t blow a big word-count on recollections of high-school dances or dedications to Billy Corgan on his birthday. He’s become one of the most thoughtful rock commentators around—and he’s never even written a novel.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Max Kornell.