Critiquing the critics: Steve Jones on the value of rock journalism
By Simon Warner (February 2003)
In late 2002, a new volume appeared on the shelves–the first coordinated attempt to gather a group of serious essays on popular music journalism, an area that has excited millions of us as readers but one that has only now, somewhat belatedly, begun to attract the close attention of the academy. Although Simon Frith in Sound Effects (1983) and Roy Shuker in Understanding Popular Music (1994) had acknowledged the power of the rock press,their accounts had been part of a bigger overview and necessarily truncated.
However, Pop Music and the Press, edited by Steve Jones, invited writers from both sides of the Atlantic to offer an analysis of an extensive body of print commentary that is certainly as old as the end of the 19th century–Billboard dates from 1894, for example–but one that has been regarded for many decades as an entertaining adjunct to the main meat of the business–music and money–but little more than that.
The rise of the alternative press in the mid-1960s, in the US, the UK, and elsewhere, and the New Journalism, particularly in America, changed the way the pop press worked and transformed the manner in which rock magazines spoke. No longer merely for the industry, a service to the trade, magazines like Rolling Stone, Creem,Crawdaddy, International Times, and Oz, then Melody Maker and New Musical Express, started to regard rock music, specifically, as a key sign in the cultural landscape of the times, a harbinger of possible social transformation, and maybe even a challenge to the industrial hierarchy which manufactured and promoted it.
The intriguing contradiction that rock could be both revolutionary symbol and conveyor belt product, to be mass produced and mass consumed, made the new and serious critique of the music–its sounds and its gestures, its styles and subcultures–by writers like Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh and others in the U.S. and, a little later, British journalists like Mick Farren, Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and Richard Williams–all the more engaging.
And, if it was primarily a fresh wave of rock criticism (learning, it must be said, from the socio-political readings of folk and jazz from the years after the Second World War) that began to carve out a territory and a readership from the late 1960s and through the 1970s, by the 1980s the hothouse of hip hop had begun to cultivate its own body of journalism–the founding of The Source in 1988 is an important date in this history–that would similarly give insightful attention to the postures and substance of the rap revolution.
A few months post-publication, I spoke to Steve Jones, Professor of Communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago and previously author of Rock Formations: Popular Music, Technology and Mass Communication, about the book he’d overseen and what he hopes Pop Music and the Press will add to the discourse of popular music journalism and its scholarly exploration.
Simon: Why do you feel this collection is needed?
Steve: Probably the main reason is that so far no one had done it. I take rock criticism to be a fairly serious thing, actually. I think it tells us a lot not only about music, but also about music’s relation to society, and it can tell us a lot about a variety of social and cultural issues to which music may or may not be related, but that are worth writing about. To put that another way, I don’t see anything wrong with music criticism serving as social criticism, or even with music criticism serving as an excuse for social criticism.
So, having said that, what was on my mind when conceiving the book was that it would be worthwhile and interesting to take a serious look at music criticism’s history, its texts, at critics, and so on, as broadly as possible.
Simon: Is this an academic book or aimed at a wider readership?
Steve: It’s really aimed at a wider readership, though just how wide it can be is left to guess. On the one hand it’s published by a university press, so obviously there is an academic audience intended at least in part. But with most anything I write I try to use whatever skills I may have as a journalist to make it readable. It isn’t journalism as such, but it isn’t highly academic writing, either. My hope is that music critics will be an audience for it, as will readers of music criticism who have an interest in the criticism along with the music.
Simon: Has academe finally caught up with this cultural area?
Steve: Well…yes, and no. It has caught up with it insofar as it seems easier now than before to make the case that we should study the popular (if for no other reason than that it has consequences, though just what those consequences are is still hotly contested). But studying the popular is still enormously undervalued in comparison to studying…well, most anything else. There are at least some research centers dedicated to the study of popular music, and there has been a steady stream of books and articles about it (though I don’t know that it’s one increasing in size). There is an international scholarly association, the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, a bit over 20 years old, and a couple of academic journals that publish research on the topic. There are even some places that teach popular music production, analysis, theory. But more than anything else popular music has probably sort of filtered into a variety of disciplines beyond music (where it has traditionally had at least some role in ethnomusicology programs), most notably sociology, communication, English, and a few others. What may be most notable about it in an academic setting is that it provides a good site of analysis from which to try to understand numerous social, cultural, political, economic, etc., phenomena.
Simon: Why have US writers–Christgau, Marcus, Lester Bangs and so on–managed to carve such a niche in the American psyche–or is this just a British misinterpretation?
Steve: If it’s a niche that’s carved anywhere it’s one in the minds of other critics, largely, and in the minds of diehard music fans. But I don’t see it carved in the psyche of a larger segment of the population. If anything it’s movie critics who have a larger hold on it, but not rock critics.
Now, if the question is whether U.S. writers have carved one in the psyche of rock critics generally, I think it’s largely because US critics have probably had a fair bit of license to roam. Most of the well known ones have practiced a form of the New Journalism as much as they’ve written rock criticism per se. And there’s probably an argument to be made concerning the export of U.S. rock criticism alongside U.S. rock music.
Simon: Is rock’n’roll criticism then, post-1966, an arm of the New Journalism or is it simply an extension of the culture industry?
Steve: Many of the 1960s critics who’ve hung on into the 1970s (and beyond) were writing for counterculture publications in the US, and many must have at least been reading the New Journalism just judging from their style. Now, did the New Journalism influence them to write, influence their writing, cause them to be more popular than other critics, or all of those?
In part the answers to such a question depend on what one means by the “New Journalism.” If it’s intended to denote a less “5 Ws and an H” approach [see author’s “Note” below] to journalism, an approach that it eschews, when it cares to, traditional writing styles like the inverted pyramid, concerns itself with context, then in many ways rock criticism was very much part of the New Journalism. But if one means it in terms of, say, investigative reporting of a particular stripe, very personal reporting (e.g., many of the hard-hitting very personal reports from Vietnam), then probably not so much. I can think of few examples (Bob Greene’s “Billion Dollar Babies” being one of them) that fit that mold.
The thing that provides the connection between rock criticism and the New Journalism to me is that the experience of music, even when it’s at a mobbed festival with tens of thousands of others, is intensely personal. To get across that personal experience one cannot by definition hew to the “Old Journalism” that strives for objectivity. That’s true both in the case of reviews of live performances (for example, a review that starts out with a classic “Old Journalism” lead might be “At 8:59pm Michael Philip (a/k/a Mick) Jagger walked out onto the stage of Chicago’s United Center to begin a one-hour and 48 minute long performance of classic Rolling Stones music in front of an audience of 15,052 people.” Now, that’s not to say that a rock critic couldn’t do that, and in fact, for a change of pace, might affect that style in some way, perhaps for part of a review.
But it wouldn’t fly for most rock fans, because it wouldn’t get across to them what it was like to be there, what the show was like, what the people were like, what the music was like. And there is no single formula one can follow that gets that across. That’s what I found challenging and frustrating as a critic, and that’s what I find most enjoyable about reading criticism. It combines the journalistic necessity to get the facts across (because the facts do matter, as any critic who has ever fudged them even a little knows from the incessant phone calls, letters, emails, from fans who want to set the record straight) with the music fan’s need to get across the “flavour” (if you will) of the experience.
It’s part and parcel of why music is a social phenomenon (and for me anyway greatly explains online music trading)–we want to share music, plain and (not so) simple. I’m reminded of one of my favourite lines from the movie Almost Famous, when Lester Bangs [Phillip Seymour Hoffman]says, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Now, I’m not saying music critics are uncool (although I’ll point the finger first at me and say that I am not cool, and most rock critics I’ve known are not “cool” by mainstream standards for that term (though they’re damn cool by my standards)). What I’m saying is that music gives us a means of being social, of being with one another, of being expressive, even if it isn’t music we’ve made. The best rock criticism is that expression.
Simon: How influential has UK writing been on this landscape?
Steve: That’s hard to say by any objective measures. On a personal level, what was influential for me was reading music weeklies, actually being able to get my hands on a newspaper that came out weekly and was entirely devoted to coverage of music, and was a national newspaper, so from that perspective NME and Melody Maker were enormously influential. And I was beginning as a critic in the late ’70s/early ’80s when most of my musical interests were focused on the UK (and to a lesser extent New York City).
What was influential, too, in retrospect, was the way in which music was taken seriously, differently than it was by US writers. There were considerably more connections between music and society that U.K. critics were making (must’ve helped that at the time I was a student of Larry Grossberg’s and reading everything Simon Frith wrote that I could get my hands on). The relationships between music and everyday life, the mundane, were quite clear. In contrast U.S. critics, while noting the social impacts of music, had a tendency to want to find a “big picture,” what one might call “Woodstock syndrome”. While U.K. critics did not, of course, miss the generational significance of punk rock, they also delved into discussions about school, the dole, neighborhoods, etc., whereas so far as I recall most US critics only saw it as a generational thing, and seemed almost taken by surprise every time punk surfaced in some particular local guise (e.g., in Athens, Georgia).
Simon: Have the recent developments at Rolling Stone and the rise of Blender, not to mention the death of Melody Maker in 2000, signalled the close of an era of serious rock commentary?
Steve: I think it’s the close of an era of a certain type of serious music publication. It struck me about ten or so years ago that I was finding much better writing about music in the annual “music issues” of non-music magazines like the New Yorker, GQ, Details, than I was finding in Rolling Stone, Spin, Melody Maker, etc. I’m sure there is a variety of reasons that music magazines have become for the most part lifestyle magazines, not the least being economic factors, but the magazine industry itself has undergone significant changes in the last few years.
Now, concomitantly (but probably coincidentally) I do see, and hear, considerable serious rock commentary in other venues, including online. One of the areas that I deliberately didn’t write about in Pop Music and the Press is music criticism online, because I think it’s too soon to know what shape it will take. On the one hand there were some good new venues for rock critics (like SonicNet, Perfect Sound Forever), and on the other hand there are a lot of individuals doing things with blogs that are quite interesting. It isn’t so much that no one has established themselves as an online version of Rolling Stone as it is that I’m not convinced that people are interested in having one source to go to so much as they may prefer using band sites and fan sites to stay in touch with what they care about. And that isn’t criticism.
So, I’m sort of watching along with everyone else, not ready to make any pronouncement along the lines of “rock criticism is dead,” but kind of keeping the shovel nearby (’cause it’s handy to have around for things other than dirt).
Simon: Where are the women in this world–is rock crit a patriarchy?
Steve: It’s a patriarchy, but there have always been women. I think at every magazine and newspaper I wrote for there was at least one woman, but women were treated as insufficiently different…that is, they were “one of the guys,” and whether that caused them to have less of a presence than they might otherwise, or whether it was caused by patriarchal tendencies, well…yes. And I think it still does.
Simon: Is there an international pop press (i.e., non-English speaking) that deserves coverage?
Steve: I think there is, and one of the things I wish I could have done with Pop Music and the Press, but had neither the time nor sufficient page allotment from the publisher, is to take a look at both non-English rock criticism and the influence of U.S. and U.K. rock criticism in other countries (Bruce Johnson, Roy Shuker, a couple of other Australian academics have looked at the music press in Australia and New Zealand). A couple of the chapters do delve into this but really only briefly, and I touch on it in my intro. So far as I can tell there hasn’t been research on it, not even of the informal sort. But given how much I travel, I know it exists, I’ve spoken to people in other countries about it, but the language issues, among other things…let’s just say that it would be a major undertaking to do something even remotely comprehensive, and while it would be fun and interesting I’ve got a long list of other things to try to do in the next few years.
Note: The principle Steve Jones is describing is the way journalists traditionally investigate a story, using a series of questions as their investigative framework: When, Where, Who, What, Why and How?