Some of you may recall “The Rock Critical List,” a xeroxed (read: actually photocopied, on paper) screed about the state of rock criticism that made the rounds ten years ago via various record stores in North America and the U.S. postal service (for a short time, it was also available on SPIN‘s website — it was in fact one of the first things on the web I ever linked to). Thing set off a brief firestorm, resulting in a three part Village Voice feature [1, 2, 3] and much sniping among insiders about the true identity of the list’s anonymous author, “JoJo Dancer aka The Gay Rapper.”
In Same as it Ever Was, Daniel Nester marks the tenth anniversary of JoJo’s rant with a lengthy recap of the story along with interviews with some of the key players involved.
What follows (after the jump) are some comments I sent to Nester about the “RCL” after being asked for my two cents on the matter (I’ll spare you the jokes about the value of two cents CDN when placed up against the mighty U.S. penny). Unfortunately, the “RCL” itself is nowhere to be found online, though a badly formatted version of the list section (which is only one portion of the entire piece) can be found here.
As event and as concept, I thought the “RCL” was a hoot, exactly the sort of pin-em-against-the-wall prank enclosed circles such as the one inhabited here can always use a little more of. The whodunnit aspect didn’t intrigue me as much as it did some others, mostly because I’ve never had a close inside track on this world; for instance, I was (and for the most part still am) only passingly familiar with the byline, and not the actual writing, of prime suspect, Charles Aaron (was anyone else ever seriously considered?). At the same time, the anonymity didn’t bother me as I figured it was the only way JoJo could get away with it and still live to publish the follow-up (speaking of which — I’m still waiting for the “second annual”). Oh yeah, it was a fun read, too. Scabrous, angry, silly, funny (“Hey Big Spender, we know you can get a table, but can you get a fucking clue?”), snide, blasphemous, idiotic, clever, shallow — ugly in spots, unreasonable throughout, but full of punk-zine type of energy and usually good for a laugh at least.
But reading and thinking about the “RCL” ten years later, I’m not nearly as swept up in the energy of the piece as I was then. It’s not just that this sort of blood-and-guts display now strikes me as a little more clichéd but that there’s not a whole else going on besides spleen-venting — that is, beyond an exuberantly stated, “we suck” (duh… but why?). The anonymity doesn’t sit as well with me now, either. The problem isn’t that it’s a chickenshit thing for someone to do — again, I think the ploy is entirely justifiable in some respects — but rather, the fact that this person, whoever he/she is, didn’t take full advantage of their anonymity and really provide some good, strong stuff to chew on. I mean, I’m surprised now by a) how un-detailed and vague most of these critiques are (one entire sentence devoted to two writers, Matt Diehl and Toure); b) how many red-herring ideas are bandied about (cf. Kogan’s dead-on Voice piece about the thing for further explication); c) how disingenuous are some of the assertions — i.e., Dancer’s labelling a quote from Joshua Clover/Jane Dark about Malcolm McLaren — admittedly pretty corny — “incomprehensible,” when in fact it’s entirely comprehensible, unless you want to pretend that you have zero idea what a phrase like “cold-rocked a party” means (given what appear to be JoJo’s deep hip-hop connections, I doubt this was a foreign language); and d) just how off-base a few assertions seem — key word being “seem,” because maybe Dancer did in fact have a point — often I suspect as much — and he’s just not explaining it to the rest of us dummies. For instance, he calls Rob Sheffield a “once-brilliant wit,” then pins him to the ground with the tags, “fawning” and “cynical.” The first strikes me as a prissy mischaracterization of “enthusiastic,” the second strikes me as fairly ludicrous, though maybe if JoJo had given some inkling as to why he felt this way I’d, you know, have a fucking clue. Anyway, if there’s a betrayal at work in “RCL” it isn’t to critics but to criticism. I think in total now I’ve read “RCL” four times, and the truth is, I still have very little sense as to why Dancer believes the whole shebang was such a mess, and why the critical list of “hacks” were the problem and not the solution. There’s an awful lot of steam blowing out a JoJo’s ears. Not un-entertaining, for sure, but not terribly enlightening either.
Finally, the name-calling stuff just undercuts what JoJo says, especially ten years removed from it all, when all such insults do is obscure the real issues that you’d think prompted this screed in the first place. Not that I’m a puritan about such things. Reading along just now, I couldn’t help but compare it to Richard Meltzer, a personal hero who has called damn near every rock writer and/or editor he’s come into contact with over the years a “pigfucker” or “whore” or some other cool expletive (sparing but a few close cronies along the way). Reading Meltzer at his most vituperative can be like having layers of your skin peeled off, but I can’t say I ever recall him stooping to pointing out perceived physical defects in his targets (fat/bald/etc.). Or maybe he did and I just forgot (I’m certain he didn’t do it regularly). And anyway, there was always clearly a point to his doing so, whether you agreed, whether he was merely being paranoid, etc. Perhaps the most telling effect — or non-effect, as it were — of “RCL” is that none of those targeted, at least to my knowledge, responded publicly*. I’m presuming that few, if any, of them were bothered or hurt by the insults. It seems much more likely that JoJo’s liberal tossing about of epithets (based on… personal grievances? who knows?) were simply cues to not bother taking seriously any larger points he was trying to make. Which is too bad — because I suspect he wasn’t entirely wrong.
* According to Nester’s piece, some folks mentioned in the list did respond publicly at the time in The New York Observer.