On Rock Criticism’s “Peculiar Aesthetic”


“Rock in particular has had a rough time of it. First, there is an awful lot of money to be made on such peripheral things as The Illustrated Beatles (a marvellous compendium of 20th Century graphics, but hardly a revealing analysis), and second, there is a peculiar aesthetic prevalent among rock critics. For example, Richard Goldstein has a strong aversion to the analysis of Jimi Hendrix’s music and prefers instead to discuss his own psychological state as he watches Hendrix perform. The music is not as important to Goldstein as his reaction to the music. On the other hand, Ellen Willis of the New Yorker will ignore Peter Townshend’s music in order to talk about the social conditions that produced it. Nothing is wrong with these approaches per se, but one must keep in mind that rock is not what’s being discussed.”

Wow, I was searching the Google archives for “Ellen Willis” and stumbled on this eloquent pan of Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City, published in The Michigan Daily in March 1971 by Steve Schwartz (who I’m not at all familiar with). I love the pure Carducciness of that last line (though JC would surely bolden the word rock), and the piece stands as proof that “can we talk about the music, please?” arguments have been in existence in rock crit more or less forever. Schwartz also disparages Gillett’s focus on the “significance of the lyrics” and takes him to task for being weak on black music*. He goes somewhat off the rails, however, when he notes that “The music is not as important to Goldstein as his reaction to the music” — as if those are separate things! Still, the entire review is worth reading.

* Note that I’ve never owned, or read, a copy of Gillett’s book, so can’t speak at all to the accuracy of Schwartz’s objections, but that’s not the point here.

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