Dirty secrets: Inside the mind of a rock critic

BY JEFF LEVEN

“Rock journalism is the phenomenon of people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk for the benefit of people who can’t read.” — Frank Zappa

I think I’ve read too many rock reviews. A few weeks ago I was skimming the weekly rant by one of Rolling Stone’s regular web columnists when I was struck with a profound and damning sense of the obvious. “This guy isn’t saying anything,” I thought. I went back through the column more carefully looking for incisive cultural analysis, unabashed wit, maybe even a little morsel of perspicacious social commentary. And, actually, no, it is basically this guy’s unqualified opinions, a few simple attempts to show you how many obscure details he can muster, and an encomium, ultimately, to his own tastes. And at that second I had one of those moments where you realize that not only does the emperor at hand have no clothes, but that you are also marching in the procession very buck yourself, and people might be starting to look at you funny. It occurred to me that, in these very pages, I am a rock critic, and, as such, am quite likely prone to be full of, well, to put it scientifically, excrement. Elaborately packaged and lovingly rendered, but excrement nonetheless.

So, to atone for my sins, I figured I’d give you the dirt on just how this particular parlor trick is done — lay bare for you the glue that holds together the gears that keeps the big machine of rock criticism running (2 points for anyone that catches the reference — more on this phenomenon later). So, without further ado, here it is, a step-by-step formula that can turn you, the average reader, into one of us:

1. Knowledge…expansive, useless, beautiful knowledge — The first and fundamental key to rock criticism is to know, or at least manage to sound like you know, a phenomenal amount of trivia about the artist in question. The best way to do this is either to read the promotional materials they sent you, spend five minutes on http://www.allmusic.com, or just use a cloud of vague but evocative phrases like “throughout her whirlwind career,” or “from his earnest roots,” all of which are usually true, or arguably true, or at least unlikely to get caught. You then need to make an effort to display this knowledge, preferably within the first few sentences of the review. Ex. (from my Wilco show review): “Back in 1994, the now-legendary alternative country pioneer band Uncle Tupelo …”

2. Comparison, Reference, Allusion and Cleverness — The second, and equally important key to rock criticism is learning how to milk the conventions of comparison. To begin with, it’s never worthwhile to describe the band in a vacuum. Sonic Death Monkey is not a pulverizing metal band. No, no, no, no. Much better would be to say that “Sonic Death Monkey sounds like Slayer meeting an unsuspecting Queensryche in a dark alley behind Tony Iommi’s garage.” This is not only eminently more clever, but also gives a shout-out to legendary Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi (who, believe it or not, was once with Jethro Tull — this is true — but see #1 supra). Realize that part of being a good rock critic is implicitly taking the attitude that it’s all been done before, most likely between the years of 1965-1974, but that the musically advanced among us can now revel in the ingenuity of derivative homage that current bands pay to the musical gods. Kinda like lawyers, actually — Iommi, Cardozo, same stuff, really.

3. Access the “hot lists” — When you make comparisons and allusions, it is important to realize that there is an acceptable standard canon of artists who are particularly necessary to mention if you want the appropriate rock critic street credibility. Most of these are “unsung” (except by rock critics) and tend to be 70s-80s new wave, punk and indie bands, as well as the occasional power pop pioneer. Salient names include: the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Big Star, Television, the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Stereolab, the Clash, the Velvet Underground, Mission of Burma, Fugazi, and the list goes on and on (did I mention the Velvet Underground?) …. These are all absolutely great bands, mind you (you honestly should check them all out), but they are also part of the canon. Don’t stray too far. Realize also that each rock critic is allowed one moment of heresy, just so we don’t all look like sheep. Every now and then you can, nay, should, say something oh-so-shocking like “Pink Floyd were a bunch of talentless stoners,” or “Jerry Garcia couldn’t sing his way out of a paisley bag.” Classic rockers make better targets, but the occasional cheap shot at Sid Vicious is also completely kosher. Also, realize that each rock critic is allowed to revel in one guilty pleasure — a band that would not normally be cool enough to speak of in anything other than nauseated tones, but for the purposes of being human, you are allowed to like. For most people this band is Kiss, although in a pinch Mötley Cru

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