Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Rock Criticism

It may have been the overwhelmingly negative opinion of James Taylor among rock critics -- that is to say, among the rock critics at Rolling Stone, where I read most of the rock criticism I have read -- which caused me to begin to question the authority of their opinions and aesthetic sense. "Fire and Rain," "Your Smiling Face," "Mockingbird," "Shower the People" and other James Taylor singles -- well, I liked them, plain as that, even though the critics called them wimpy unbearable shit. "You've Got a Friend" was and is wimpy unbearable shit to me, but everybody slips now and then. Apart from that one song, it became more and more undeniably clear to me that I found the average James Taylor song on the radio to be more edifying and worthwhile than the average record review in Rolling Stone, or even the average above-average review in Rolling Stone.

It wasn't just James Taylor. Around the same time that Taylor began to be an unreconcilable point of contention between myself and the rock critics -- that is to say, in the 1970's -- I also came across a couple of remarks from great musicians: Frank Zappa calling rock criticism "people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read," and Lou Reed complaining about working on an album for a year and a half only to have some asshole in the Village Voice (Robert Christgau) give it a B-.

And Christgau, most people would agree, is one of the best rock critics.

John Peel -- or Sir John Peel if you prefer, he was actually knighted -- was considered by many to be the very best rock critic in the world, and he didn't seem to think much of rock criticism, devoting more of his career to being a radio DJ.

Mystery Trainby Greil Marcus is probably the most highly-regarded book ever written by a rock critic. Like my growing and increasingly disturbing awareness that I simply couldn't accept the critical consensus regarding James Taylor, and Zappa's pithy dismissal of rock criticism in general and Reed's of Christgau, and Peel's disappearance from his rock-critic columns in favor of the DJ booth, Mystery Train is a product of the 1970's. I own a copy of it. I've never really known what to make of it. Marcus' description of how Little Richard disrupted an episode of the Dick Cavett Show when it was becoming quite pretentiously silly is well-written, and his interpretation of Richard's motives for the disruption -- because some other guests were beginning to pontificate in a very silly way about art, and he knew that he was the only artist on the stage at the time, and that he knew that his artistry was far more important and enduring than the fact that a couple of of those other people thought he was silly -- that analysis of the incident on Marcus' part is not entirely unconvincing. But other parts of the book, unfortunately, consist of unbearably silly pontification about art.

Part of the pointedness and venom of my current disdain for rock criticism (I realize that many other names for it may be preferred these days, but when I stopped being able to take it seriously that's what it was still called) is a deflection of my shame at having taken it so seriously for so long. But I was only a child! How was I to know?

But is there a point to all this vapid rambling? Well, no. And perhaps that's the point. And perhaps Duke Ellington said every single thing there ever was to say about any sort of music criticism when he answered the question, What is good music? thusly: "If it sounds good, it is good."

Indeed. Cazart. Believe your ears regarding music and do not let your reading eyes hand you any wooden nickles.

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