In which I muse about something which is hardly “news,” but never not a bloody distraction.
TIMOTHY WHITE: You spoke to me earlier, in the taxi, about the incestuous, elitist qualities of the British press as opposed to the rock-crit self-importance of some of the American press. Do you think the music press makes any significantly positive contributions to the overall environment?
ELVIS COSTELLO: If they’re not actually informative — which in different ways they are, I guess, on both sides of the Atlantic — and merely negative, then they set up something to work against. Fighting the American press is like disobeying your parents, because they’re so pompous. Critiques in the States usually have the tone of book reviews a lot of the time. In live concert reviews they treat you like opera!
“Mister Costello did this” …and so forth.
WHITE: There’s the famous instance of Meat Loaf being referred to in the New York Times as “Mr. Loaf.”
COSTELLO: [Laughing convulsively] Aaah! Mister Loaf! Mister Loaf! That’s fantastic! Mister Loaf! [catching his breath, wiping his eyes] The rolling buzzards!
– From a 1983 interview, originally Musician, I think, reposted on the Elvis Costello Home Page)
Couldn’t help but think of this 30-year-old conversation when I attempted to read Simon Reynolds’s recent piece on David Bowie in the New York Times.
- “In the video Mr. Bowie…”
- “Mr. Bowie’s strongest album in decades…”
- “For most of the 21st century Mr. Bowie had disappeared…”
- “The album… asserts Mr. Bowie’s continued relevance…”
- “Meanwhile Mr. Bowie’s stature…”
- “Mr. Bowie has always had an ambivalent attitude…”
And so on, and so on. And so on: 41 instances of “Mr. Bowie” by my “Ctrl-f” count, 41 instances of a word (granted, only a two-letter word, so 82 letters in total, plus an additional 41 periods, equalling, hmm, 123 characters overall) which could be dropped from the article entirely. Forty-one words, which, if mercifully dropped, would not only not ruin anything in the piece itself but would actually improve the tone, or maybe I mean the voice, of said piece considerably, by deflating its ridiculous (“they treat you like opera!”) ostentatiousness. (That it is Mr. Bowie and Mr. Reynolds we’re talking about here doesn’t help matters, I admit.) You might say that, as a stylistic (editorially-imposed) convention, all of this is irrelevant to the content of the writing itself, but if you believe that, you also probably believe that someone who doesn’t like distorted guitars can still enjoy a My Bloody Valentine or Sonic Youth record — you know, “for the notes.” I don’t mean to do Reynolds’s piece a disservice by harping on all this. Not that the Times loony editorial policy didn’t already take care of that for me.
4 thoughts on “Ain’t that Mr. Mister in the newspaper?”
Weirdly, I don’t like this piece about the Bowie album because there’s really no mention of the music. It’s all about the lyrics and Bowie the persona. Bowie the fashion. If it’s about the new album include some stuff about what the music sounds like.
I say weirdly because Simon Reyonds stands out for me because I think he wrote a really evocative piece on Tusk in one of the retro British music mags. When describing Sara, I remember some nice musical description.
Anyway -just my two cents.
Totally (well, semi- at least..) off topic: Without weighing in on the actual merits of new Bowie album – first listen, though, it is a bit of a snooze; hoping that impression will change – I continue to be perplexed by the amount of ink so-called “heritage” artists received purely on the basis of their having a new product to flog. Whatever happened to listening to the album first and THEN deciding if it was worthy of coverage beyond the obligatory review? Bowie of course is guaranteed gavel-to-gavel coverage because, well, he’s effin’ Bowie! But using the Lou Reed/Metallica example, you can see where that type of attitude and approach gets us. Blurt published a major piece on that debacle, an enthusiastic article at that, and I now wish I had more closely followed my instincts that it was a stinker and passed on it, regardless of its newsworthiness at the time. It was a solidly researched, wonderfully written piece from a journalistic point of of view, but as an editor with a stake in that ever-elusive credibility quotient, I remain embarrassed every time I think about it.
As a guest on a radio show a few years ago I cried “the emperor has no clothes!” as regards then-recent releases by Lucinda Williams and Richard Thompson, both of whom had recorded major snoozathons. I was summarily ripped a gaping new arsehole by the listeners specifically because… drumroll please… it was effin’ Lucinda Williams and Richard Thompson! “How dare you!” was the prevailing sentiment.
One last thought: Bryan Ferry. Jazz Age. Roaring Twenties-styled big band versions of Roxy Music. No vocals. A Bryan Ferry album. Really?
editor, Blurt Magazine
So glad you brought all that up, Fred. It feels weird this time around with the Bowie album (which I haven’t heard) because the desire for it to be a great record seems to be at a higher pitch than usual among critics/fans. I mean, I don’t recall such high expectations around Bowie albums in the ;90s, though it’s not like I was paying attention (was anyone?). Further evidence of a web effect? (i.e., we all need something to gab and pronounce about?) Or maybe (as I suspect) the thing isn’t wretched, it “shows promise,” etc., so there’s a little something there for folks to grab on to so they can chime in on the legend, what they perceive it all means, etc. (That might be why, as STeven mentions, there’s no mention of music in Simon Reynolds’s review. I don’t get the feeling that he’s reviewing a record at all with that piece.) The last Bowie album I give a damn about fwiw is “Heroes”; I never got much into Lodger or Scary Monsters, though they each have a few good tracks. And I notice the new one is being compared to *Lodger*. So… I’m not anxious to delve in.
That being said — and I’m glad you brought this up as well — I’m a total hypocrite when it comes to Ferry. I didn’t pay attention to him for nearly 20 years, but his music (and more specifically, his voice) has been interesting again to me, since the late ’90s, so I do delve in, and I judge him worthy of my attention before hearing a note (not that I’m dealing with this, as you are, from an editorial perspective, which is a whole other ball of wax). In my defense, he’s probably the last pop person I actually care about on that level. (The Jazz Age, as I noted in a recent podcast about it, is worthwhile as a kind of goofy novelty move. I’m sure I’ll never listen to it all the way through again for as long as I live, but it’s not without its pleasures — “Avalon” is actually a revelation.)
Isn’t this about the 12th “best Bowie album since Scary Monsters“? And god help me if another critic calls him “The Thin White Duke” again. It’s like there’s a Bowie Review Template out there that got passed around about 1988.