Was Creem a Bastion of Anti-intellectualism?

“The writers [Creem] propelled to stardom — Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, and Nick Tosches being three of the most celebrated — explored rock with a bombast that was smart but anti-intellectual, ‘amateurist and faux lowbrow,’ positioning themselves between the studious class of New York writers and the deference that came out of San Francisco.”

“If Goldstein represented the quandary of what critical practise should be in an age when mediation risked killing the very culture he loved, [early Voice music critic, Annie] Fisher provided an answer: return to pleasure and give up analysis (a stance that would be taken up, in a different way, by the journalists who helped to build Creem)

Both of these quotes are taken from Devon Powers’s Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism (pages 6 and 95, respectively). Of the many specious claims I’ve come across in the book (I like some parts of it, too, though on balance I don’t think the author really achieves the enormity of the task at hand), this is the one that most rubbed me the wrong way — i.e., the idea that Creem was this bastion of anti-intellectualism. Also, the idea that the “journalists” at Creem gave up analysis for pleasure (when really, the point, I think, was to not separate pleasure from analysis, to not even recognize a distinction). Labelling what Tosches, Marsh, and Bangs did as “smart but anti-intellectual” in a book entirely devoted to an important strand of the history of rock intellectualism… I just don’t get that at all. Not to say that there probably weren’t some writers in Creem who might have played that as a certain stance, or a certain move. There was always a “this-isn’t-art” argument lurking below the surface of Creem‘s trash aesthetic, not to mention a lot of fucking around, mocking the musicians, etc. I guess I just don’t read that as anti-thought; it was more about expanding how one could think about this stuff, how something could be analyzed in a way that didn’t necessarily scream “analysis” in bold letters. Lester Bangs typing on stage while the J. Geils Band played their set; this was just a different way to do it.

4 thoughts on “Was Creem a Bastion of Anti-intellectualism?

  1. Interesting to me, Scott, that you posted this query immediately after “Critics Are Strange,” as in some ways the answer to both questions is essentially the same. That’s part of the reason I haven’t gotten around to responding to Devon Powers’s charge of “anti-intellectualism” at Creem until now. The other part, Scott, is that you’ve already said much of what I would, namely that many of Creem’s writers hoped to essay seamless pleasure and analysis in their criticism of r’n’r.

    Hate to go Clintonesque on you here, but understanding this apparent paradox depends on the definition of “intellectual” — I planned to apply my intellectual resources, such as they were, to my reviews right from the start, but at the same time I wanted to rebel against those hyper-serious Cold War “intellectuals” in the generation just before mine, by bringing humor and sarcasm into my analyses.

    As I related in my rockcritics.com interview in 2001, my personal Oedipal revolt was against my 12th-grade English teacher, Stanley Plumly, as he truly encouraged me as a writer, and I learned a great deal from him, but at the same time I didn’t want to take writing as deadly seriously as he seemed to. When I was a younger teen, I’d been heavily under the influence of surrealist comic artists Carl Barks (“Uncle Scrooge”) and Walt Kelly (“Pogo”), and when I discovered that Lester Bangs (also a Barksian, as it turned out) was smashing out such adventurous screeds in the Creem of the early ’70s, I finally saw a way to combine my comic and critical impulses into one organic piece of writing. A “bozo dialectic,” you might say.

    I don’t want to patronize Devon Powers, as I haven’t read her book yet, but she’s thirty-some years my junior, which means she’s probably never known an intellectual scene without an overarching sense of irony. She didn’t live in the early ’60s, when we aspiring thinkers were still under the Cold War chill of paranoia over slipping into “middlebrowism” and not taking art seriously enough. (Just read the liner notes on the back of any given jazz album of that time to get a taste of that hyperseriousness.) So there was a good reason why a lot of us wanted to bring “anti-intellectualism” into our nevertheless-intellectual seeking.

  2. Hi Richard, Hi Scott —

    Just catching up now on the always-amazing work on rockcritics.com. I’m just diving in to Devon’s book now, so I’m going to wait until I read it to weigh in with more thoughts here, if I have any to add to your responses. Full disclosure, I know Devon from academic pop music studies world and admire her scholarship.

    For now, just a few thoughts:

    I think the “anti-intellectual” angle is showing up precisely because it is so crucial to the whole concept of what Scott evocatively calls “rock intellectualism.” What did it mean to be intellectual about a music that challenged the lines between simple, earnest intellectual stances and a kind of oppositional, anti-authority position? What I mean is that the intellectual is typically given a kind of authority to speak, but rock was all about challenging authority, so how to be a critic in that context? Moreover, the music challenged the assumed boundaries between sensorial experience and contemplation of ideas, it brought together ecstatic communal ritual and almost meditative solo listening all at once, and it seemed to smuggle profound philosophical ideas into the silliest, trashiest, most commodified, most corrupted grooves. How to write about that exciting, confounding experience without falling into the new kinds of pretentious marketing of rock as high art coming out of the corporate consolidation of the genre in the late 60s/early 70s (which turned it into the most Dwight Macdonaldian middlebrow thing it could be: kitsch masquerading as avant-garde art) or simply ignoring the serious power the music had as something that defied the assumed boundaries between high and low art, between serious pleasure and fun intellectualizing. A difficult (quite intellectually demanding) balancing act, I’d say, and one that, in my opinion the Creem critics didn’t do a half bad job maintaining at their best (Tony Reay aka Ice Alexander would say that they replaced a more earnest, truly countercultural milieu in Detroit prior to Creem’s turn away from local rag and to the national market as competitor to Rolling Stone…speaking of which, Tony, where are you? Are you still out there? Email me–I want to talk with you more!).

    On the note of Creem’s shifts in market position and orientation, the other related issue here, from my perspective, is how the act of intellectualizing relates to forces of commerce and political power: like, what does it really mean to be critical, if we think about it more carefully (dare I say if we intellectualize it!)? What does it mean to write criticism, to be a critic, in relation to those forces? How could—how can—pop music writing be critical in terms of speaking to, illuminating, and calling out structures of power? Could—can—criticism also affirm, or even map out certain ways of living, of being? Can it foster a kind of sensibility or stance for its readers (damn, for its writers too)? These, to me, are the seriously weird, and weirdly serious, questions that Creem’s anti-intellectual intellectualizing (or is it its intellectual anti-intellectualizing?) raised.

    One book that is good on this topic, I think, is Bernard Gendron’s From Montmartre to the Mudd Club, particularly the chapter on rock criticism.

    More of all this after more reading of Devon’s book. Look forward to your additional thoughts here too! And hope Devon will weigh in here.

    All best,

  3. Thanks for your comment(s), Michael. I’m hoping to reprint your own great Creem essay here soon, as part of my archives migration project.

    I’m guessing that Devon Powers, with her use of “anti-intellectual” in regards to Creem had in mind something like what you are suggesting (and maybe something like what myself and Richard were suggesting too), but, the problem is, it’s not at all clear to me because she doesn’t really elaborate (unless I missed her elaboration, which is entirely possible). To me it’s a bold enough statement — labelling Creem “anti-intellectual” — that it does require elucidation (particularly — again — given that it’s in a book devoted to the very subject of rock criticism and intellectual life). Right now, it dangles there, unexamined. (Obviously, Creem is not at all the focus of her book, so I’m not requesting a chapter devoted to the idea! Hell, a sentence would’ve sufficed.)

    I’m kicking myself for not getting my shit together with Powers book, though. I read it, and marked it up quite a bit, with plans to post some kind of review here, but I just can’t think/write coherently about this stuff anymore, except in bullet points or in comments boxes (in the margins, as it were). I hope someone else out there picks up the gauntlet and reviews it.

    Last point: I would say that Creem did more than a “half good” job maintaining the balancing act you mention, and I know at least one regular commenter (wait — we only HAVE one regular commenter) who’d agree with me, though that’s another interesting sideline conversation on its own (I’m not an uncritical reader of Creem by any means).

  4. Michael, it’s good to see you back on task in analyzing the CREEM phenomenon. I agree with most of what you say above, though I’d have to add that the “pretentious marketing of rock as high art” didn’t come just from the corporate record companies, though they obviously exploited the concept. Think back to the earliest rock critics — did Paul Williams ever take rock with less than absolute seriousness? And what about Langdon Winner’s instantly-absurd comment that “Sgt. Pepper” represented “the history and synthesis of Western music”?!? Primordial critics like them picked up that pretentious sphere, and the record companies ran with it. But after all, those writers had come up in the early ’60s, when if you wanted to celebrate anything “vulgar,” you’d better have damn good serious reasons for saying so. Because Dwight Macdonald and Lionel Trilling said so.

    Rock criticism as something I might want to do never appealed to me until Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs opened the door onto the concept that you could be intellectual and vulgar (i.e., “anti-intellectual”) simultaneously. Rick Johnson has pointed out that CREEM showed him in the early ’70s that it was okay to ridicule even your favorite bands while celebrating them, and how important that permission was to his own development as a writer.

    Best, Richard Riegel — From “America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” to “rockcritics.com’s one regular commenter.”

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