Productive Ways Not to Like Music

“Over the past two decades, the impulse to talk shit about bands and the people who like them—the impulse, that is, to delegitimize other people’s pleasure (yeah, you know me)—has largely, though not entirely, disappeared from my critical consciousness. So has the anger I used to feel rise up into my mouth like thrush when unworthy artists got a free ride on the respect wagon. This has plenty to do with getting older, and with having a parallel (mostly—the sides touch a lot less than I thought they would) career as a sometimes musician. Plus therapy, medication, resignation, assimilation, etc.

“It also has to do with the particular shape of online argument about music, which, like all forms of online discourse, has become simultaneously hugely personal and weirdly abstract.”

Sean Nelson introduces a new column in The Stranger. Sounds like it might be my sort of thing.


In Defense of Schlock

In a 166-word blurb in the 1983 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, Dave Marsh, the Bruce Springsteen biographer and guardian of rock-critical orthodoxy, gave one-star reviews to all of Journey’s albums while emptying his rucksack of insults: “Stepford Wives rock,” “calculated,” “nitwit,” “plodding,” “banality,” “utter triviality,” “exploitative cynicism,” and worst of all, surely, by Marsh’s lights, “Paul Anka and Pat Boone.” Rolling Stone’s regular magazine review of Escape, the album that opened with “Don’t Stop Believin’,” was no kinder. Critic Deborah Frost’s contempt boiled over into mixed metaphors (“a veritable march of the well-versed schmaltz stirrers”), with special scorn aimed at the lyrics of “Don’t Stop Believin’”: “Lord knows how many weary pilgrims have managed to tramp down the memory lane of adolescent lust without the side trip that Journey make to the dank hole of dreck-ola … addressing their audience as ‘streetlight people.’” Frost wrapped up her piece with a vision of Journey’s obsolescence: “Maybe there really are a lot of ‘streetlight people’ out there. If so, my guess is that they’ll soon glow out of it.”

In Defense of Schlock Music: Why Journey, Billy Joel, and Lionel Richie Are Better Than You Think, by Jody Rosen in Vulture

Journey, rated by Dave Marsh, in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1983
Journey, rated by Dave Marsh, in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1983

Epic Tuesday Reads #4: Five Years, Two Million Words

In the last five years, there have been nearly 3400 songs covered from over 60 countries, with about 30,000 individual paragraph-long reviews from us adding up to about 2,000,000 (two million) words. It’d take you a week solid to read the site from front to back. We don’t recommend you do that, so here are some highlights from our first five years. Feel free to share your own in the comments!

– The Singles Jukebox celebrates five years

Epic Tuesday Reads #2: The Trouble With Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Chart

Ideally, any effective genre chart—be it R&B, Latin, country, even alt-rock—doesn’t just track a particular strain of music, which can be marked by ever-changing boundaries and ultimately impossible to define. It’s meant to track an audience. This is a subtle but vital difference. If an R&B chart tries to cover whatever might be termed R&B music, you get into the subjective, slippery business of determining what, or who, is “black enough” for the chart. That wouldn’t be appropriate for Billboard, a purportedly objective arbiter of the music business.

The goal is not to racially profile record buyers, either. Instead, by tracking the R&B and hip-hop audience—those who seek out black radio stations and maintain a steady diet of beats, rhymes, and soul, regardless of their own ethnic makeup—you get a much better read of the pulse of actual fans of the music: those who live and breathe it, week in, week out. That used to be what Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart did. It’s not what it does anymore.

Chris Molanphy, in Pitchfork, does what he does, and then some, with a fascinating delve into the changing nature of the r&b charts

Epic Tuesday Reads #1: Geeshie & Elvis

The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie: On the trail of the phantom women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace.
By John Jeremiah Sullivan

N THE WORLD of early-20th-century African-American music and people obsessed by it, who can appear from one angle like a clique of pale and misanthropic scholar-gatherers and from another like a sizable chunk of the human population, there exist no ghosts more vexing than a couple of women identified on three ultrarare records made in 1930 and ’31 as Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. There are musicians as obscure as Wiley and Thomas, and musicians as great, but in none does the Venn diagram of greatness and lostness reveal such vast and bewildering co-extent. In the spring of 1930, in a damp and dimly lit studio, in a small Wisconsin village on the western shore of Lake Michigan, the duo recorded a batch of songs that for more than half a century have been numbered among the masterpieces of prewar American music, in particular two, Elvie’s “Motherless Child Blues” and Geeshie’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” twin Alps of their tiny oeuvre, inspiring essays and novels and films and cover versions, a classical arrangement.

“On Women Writing About Music”

 

“Allow me to set a spell in my rocking chair and reminisce about the days when I was coming up in the music writing world. This was the late 1970s, early 1980s. At the time, music writing was truly a boys’ club, with few women I could look to as rock critic role models. Ellen Willis, Ariel Swartley, Janet Maslin. Lisa Robinson and Sylvie Simmons. That’s about it. My mentors and editors in the music writing field were all male. And somehow, even in those prehistoric days, I was never made to feel lesser, stupid, objectified or that my opinions were undervalued. If it were not for Kit Rachlis, Milo Miles, Dave Marsh and Mark Moses, I would not have had a career. They were my champions and they treated me as an equal. Was I just extraordinarily lucky?  Maybe so. It’s depressing that some young women writing about music today feel so unwelcome in the job and the scene that they love, are subjected to more open sexism and flat-out workplace harassment now than I was then. We’ve gone backwards and I don’t know the answer to this problem, except to keep fighting for equality.”

Joyce Millman at her invaluable blog, The Mix Tape

Singles Jukebox Comment Competition

The Singles Jukebox turned five this week, and to celebrate this achievement, they’re having a contest:

“So for the next three weeks, we’re having a comment competition! The best comment on any entry posted this year will win a $30 iTunes voucher, or equivalent… The competition closes at 11.59pm Friday April 4, U.S. Eastern time. So think long and hard, put fingers to keyboard and write us your best jokes, your best disagreements, your best reviews, and your best bits of lyrical, musical, chart-related or statistical analysis. Keep it clever, keep it relevant to the entry you’re posting it on and keep it civil.”

It’s a fun idea. It’s also one of the biggest pay cheques any music critic will receive in 2014.

Sweet, Green Icing

“MacArthur Park” (not “MacArthur’s”, as [Richard] Harris insisted on singing) is a dreamy, musically complex, highly impressionistic song about Webb’s break-up with his girlfriend. The lyrics contain some unforgettable metaphors for loneliness and shattered dreams, including a cake left out in the rain — an image that a lot of people seem to find either hilarious or bewildering. In 1992, columnist Dave Barry asked his readers to vote on the worst song of all time and “MacArthur Park” won. I beg to differ, but, whatever.

– Joyce Millman, Tales from the bargain bin: “MacArthur Park” edition

Nice piece, though my own 1968 bargain bin classic remains “Classical Gas,” which has never not sounded scary to me (and though I like Harris’s song, I consider Donna Summer’s version definitive — maybe she’s the Pet Shop Boys to his Village People?). I’m racking my brain, though, trying to remember the last time contemporary pop radio even admitted a song as over-the-top/left-field as this. Early Meat Loaf, maybe?

From the Desk of Steven Ward

[Steven Ward started an interesting thread on Facebook recently with the following inquiry, and we thought we’d bring it to the, uh, masses as well via rockcritics.com.]

OK rock critic friends. I have to ask. Why oh why do you hate The Eagles so much?

It can’t be that they are so popular/loved by the public? If so, you would hate Michael Jackson and Prince for the same reason and critics go on and on about Jackson and Prince (and rightfully so).

It can’t be that all The Eagles ever did was make music that was a more mainstream, top 40 version of what The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers did years before them? Otherwise, you would attack Michael Jackson for the same reason, saying he amplified what Marvin Gaye did before him?

What about now versus then? Critics hated Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin during the ’70s but love them now. Not so with The Eagles.

It can’t be that The Eagles are prog, because they aren’t.

It can’t be that The Eagles are too technically proficient on their instruments like Rush. (Critics like them too now all of a sudden.) The Eagles played in a style almost as basic as the Sex Pistols and The Ramones. (I know about Joe Walsh, but he is an exception)

The Eagles crafted really well done songs with amazing harmonies.Why oh why do you hate them so?

eaglesRS79-04

Supplemental reading:

1. Quit defending the Eagles! They’re simply terrible (Stephen Deusner, Salon)

2. Rush: How I learned to forgive — and even like — the most hated band of all time (Rob Sheffield, Salon)

On the fundamental pleasure of hating stuff

A regular reader suggested this might make for appropriate/interesting reading:

Why I Hate the National – And how I decided it’s OK to hate the bands that I hate.
By Carl Wilson, Slate

In the end, it simply seems too repressive and stultifying to demand that we give up entirely on the fundamental pop pleasure of taking a side. Too often that instinct has manifested itself in discarding important genres, or valid modes such as sentimental or aggressive music, and especially in masking a social prejudice as an aesthetic one — hating artist x as a stand-in for hating “the kind of people who listen to x.” In this case, though, I’m the kind of person who listens to the National — adult, white, middle-class, liberal-artsy. If the competition is merely intramural, merely Beatles-versus-Stones, I get to choose my colors.

I think I might actually have some thoughts on this, but like everything else these days I probably need someone else to get the ball rolling in the comments section to actually begin to formulate a coherent sentence about any of it. All I know is, whenever I think of The National, I think of

 

Bad Friday Reading #2

David Bowie once mentioned me in a complimentary way from a stage, in New York City, in the later nineties. This was one of the great unlikely moments of my professional life. It was in the did-I-hallucinate-it category. It was in the did-that-actually-happen category.

Rick Moody on the new Bowie record. It gets worse — about 6,000 words or so worse. Good luck.

Weekend Read: Barry Manilow

I was a kid. I cared about volume. And the tears that flowed as (in Band) we went for the crescendo. From the radio I wanted to hear the big chords, the big drums, the big horns. I didn’t know there was a such a thing as being manipulated by the right pauses — I liked Clive Davis’ ear and Clive Davis’ work and I didn’t know yet who Clive Davis was. Michael Jackson was a world apart, a king, but my regular high school favorites were Prince and Rick James, and by the time I hit college, aside from Run-DMC, Sade and Luther Vandross, I was about Whitney Houston, who in 1978 was singing backup disco for the Michael Zager Band. This was seven years before Davis would re-apply what he’d learned making hit after hit with Manilow to the woman who would become one of the most loved and bestselling artists of all time. Listen to Manilow ballads, then listen to Houston ballads. Check, as we used to say in hip-hop, the technique. If it wasn’t broke Davis saw little need to fix it. The songs Davis made with Manilow and Houston are the songs I loved. Besides, what other way had I to judge? My mother, after all, had to tell me when I was 13 who Booker T. Jones Jr.’s dad was. I thought like I used to think about all songs when I was young — that every artist’s song was purely autobiographical, and so 100 percent meaningful. And if I categorized at all, it was based on what radio station played what. So I thought Barry was rock ‘n’ roll — and not rock in a “white” frame. Rock in a frame marked “real.”

Danyel Smith on Barry Manilow at NPR’s The Record.

This is a sprawling (overused word, I know) piece that, because I’m so preoccupied with other stuff right now, I haven’t absorbed fully, but it is dynamite, the kind of music-critical piece I tend to fall hardest for, blending as it does the personal, the historical, the contextual, the musical, and, perhaps by inference — it is Barry Manilow, after all — and in the best way possible, I mean — the revisionist.  The sort of piece you can tell the writer has kept stored in her head for 20 years.

 

Critical Collage: Rush vs. the Critics

A by no means comprehensive or conclusive survey of a Canadian power trio who once upon a time (much less so now) got under the skins of more rock critics than any other rock or pop artist going.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

rush-creem3
Creem, June 1981

“For the record, those three are drummer Neil Peart, who writes all the band’s lyrics and takes fewer solos than might be expected; guitarist Alex Lifeson, whose mile-a-minute buzzing is more numbing than exciting; and bassist, keyboardist and singer Geddy Lee, whose amazingly high-pitched wailing often sounds like Mr. Bill singing heavy metal. If only Mr. Sluggo had been on hand to give these guys a couple good whacks…”
Steve Pond, review of Rush live in Los Angeles, Rolling Stone, 1980

Geddy Lee’s high-register vocal style has always been a signature of the band – and sometimes a focal point for criticism, especially during the early years of Rush’s career when Lee’s vocals were high-pitched, with a strong likeness to other singers like Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. A review in the New York Times opined that Lee’s voice ‘suggests a munchkin giving a sermon.’ Although his voice has softened over the years, it is often described as a ‘wail.’ His instrumental abilities, on the other hand, are rarely criticized.
Wikipedia entry on Rush

rush-rs-guide
Mark Coleman and Ernesto Lechner, The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, 2004

Continue reading “Critical Collage: Rush vs. the Critics”