[Sidebar] April 22 - 29, 1999
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Writer's block

Rock criticism in crisis?

by Matt Ashare

Greil Marcus

A couple of years ago I drove down to New York for the weekend to attend a conference at the Dia Center for the Arts titled "Stars Don't Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth." All or most of rock criticism's big guns were going to be there: Greil Marcus, Anthony DeCurtis, Ann Powers, and Chuck Eddy, to name four who were scheduled to speak. And since it was being co-organized by former Village Voice music editor Evelyn McDonnell, it was a good bet that folks like long-time Voice critic Robert Christgau, then Voice music editor Eric Weisbard, and any number of editors from the staffs of Spin and Rolling Stone would be on hand. If nothing else, it seemed like a fine opportunity to put a face to various bylines I'd been reading for 10 or 12 years.

Now I won't bother you with the details of how intimidated I felt upon arrival at what turned out to be a rather intimate little conference, except to say that I'm not usually shy about offering opinions, particularly when the subject is pop music, and I didn't raise my hand to speak once that weekend. But I will mention that from my point of view as one of a very few outsiders in attendance, the New York Rock Critic Establishment seemed just that -- an established inner circle of peers with some sort of implied official standing. So when Chuck Eddy delivered a paper in which he likened rock criticism's in-group to a schoolyard clique "jealously guarding their walls against outside threats," I got his meaning. I even chuckled a bit when he postulated that "nonconformists join a genre, name their genre `alternative' or `rave' or `Generation X' or `speed metal' or `rock criticism' or `literary theory,' and then become conformists," because, well, rock criticism did deserve to be on that list.

Eddy's essay, along with two dozen others that grew out of the Dia conference, has now been published by New York University Press in the book Stars Don't Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. It includes writings by artists (former Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, Mekons leader Jon Langford, and Paul D. Miller a/k/a DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid) and academics (professors Lawrence Grossberg, Dave Hickey, and Angela McRobbie). But ultimately it's a book about rock criticism, about the ways in which music is analyzed, interpreted, consumed, and evaluated by the so-called pros, about chipping away at those "jealously guarded walls" to catch a glimpse of who's hiding back there.

Whatever critical analyses of rock criticism Stars Don't Stand Still has to offer, however, have been overshadowed, at least in New York, by the appearance of a somewhat more controversial document aimed at the rock-scribe establishment -- "The Rock Critical List." Penned under the pseudonym "JoJo Dancer, a/k/a the Gay Rapper," and initially sent by fax to a select group of journalists and publicists in the New York area in late February, the JoJo letter has since surfaced in slightly abridged form on the Internet (spin.com has it archived on its new World Wide Web site) and is being sold for a buck at the See Hear Fanzines & Magazines store in the Manhattan. As of yet, nobody has stepped forward to claim authorship of the heretical missive, in which JoJo cruelly and amusingly lambastes and lampoons the likes of New York Times writer Neil Strauss ("No writer better exemplifies music criticism's pathetic, post alternative slide into irrelevance than this balding, dickless imp"); Robert Christgau ("Funk Doctor Bob's late-era writing has been tripped up less by his sadly clotted prose and populist autism than by his total lack of feeling for today's most important youth musics"); and Rolling Stone music editor Joe Levy ("Hey Big Spender, we know you can get a table, but can you get a fucking clue?").

Personal attacks notwithstanding (is there a better way to get people's attention?), "The Critical List" does offers some healthy food for thought to the Rock Critic Establishment in the form of a wake-up call -- sort of like Martin Luther's 95 theses nailed to the virtual door of what critic Robert Palmer once called "the Church of the Sonic Guitar," only with more expletives. The Village Voice offered a fair measure of JoJo's impact when it ran three separate articles on "The Critical List" two weeks ago and got a letter back from one San Francisco reader who opined, "Don't waste column inches analyzing the shit you're sitting in." In other words, calling JoJo "the most intriguing media parlor game of whodunit since Joe Klein penned Primary Colors" (Jeff Howe in the Voice) is an exaggeration -- millions of people aren't going to read "The Critical List," and Hollywood won't be paying top dollar for the screen rights. But it does bring to light a real crisis in criticism, not just because, as JoJo puts it, " `the youth market' is too hormone-sozzled and passionately fickle to appreciate anything past a moony, quote-stuffed feature about why [insert brain-drained artiste] is the greatest thing since peanut butter and jelly in the same jar," but because JoJo's already gotten quite a bit more ink than Stars Don't Stand Still in the Sky ever will.

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