On Rock and Roll Criticism

By Brian Vargo

To this day, rock and roll criticism, even at its best, has yet to find a convincing voice. It still, by and large, isn’t sure how seriously to take itself or the music it purports to criticize.

One thought on “On Rock and Roll Criticism

  1. Vargo’s insights are interesting, and I think he’s about half-right. My problem with what he’s saying–that rock ‘n’ roll is a form that hasn’t developed any standards by which you can judge it, unlike classical music–comes from my belief that rock ‘n’ roll has always had standards, just like European “classical” or baroque music, whatever you want to call it. The musicians who played what is undeniably rock ‘n’ roll in New Orleans and in Memphis in the ’50s and early ’60s had plenty of standards–agreed-upon right and wrong ways to play the material they chose.
    Huey PIano Smith had standards, even if you think that Jim Morrison or the critics who wrote about Morrison in 1968 did not. Where rock critics generally go wrong is not recognizing that simple fact–the fact of professionalism. There’s absolutely no difference between a New Orleans drummer or piano player’s obsession with performing in a strictly delineated way and a Bach or Mozart specialist’s, or Bach or Mozart himself for that matter, who is busy playing that old-time Euro music.
    Rock critics certainly recognize this fact, unless I misread Christgau on George Jones or Bangs on Sam Phillips. There are standards out there–which is to say that music is always psychologically foregrounded, even when it’s some house track going on for many minutes without the harmonic language of previous eras.
    But why worry about “taking it seriously”? What does that even mean when you’re talking about popular culture? That it moves large numbers of people who have no idea why they’re being moved, and who need critics to tell them why?

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