Friday, September 25, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Rock 'N Roll Critic: Lesson 6

Welcome to So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic, a ten-part instructional feature that will provide you with all the tips and tricks you need to become a real life music reviewer. As a matter of process, I've taken these lessons from exhaustive research into printed music reviews in Entertainment Weekly, Q, The New Yorker, Musician, Rolling Stone, and Spin. Additionally, I've looked into the uberhip perspective of Pitchfork.com. I also read many pieces by the godfather of music reviewing, Lester Bangs. And finally, I have not shied away from an examination of my own work here on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds.

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Lesson 6: History Never Repeats


If this were a how-to manual for musicians instead of music critics, this lesson would be about quitting when you're ahead. I would tell you that the minute you create an album that is simultaneously loved by critics and purchased by millions of people you should retire. If that happens to be your first album, even better. I don't care if you love making music and want to continue. Quit. You can be the Harper Lee of musicians.

The reason for this advice is directly related to the advice I'm about to give those future critics. That is, in short, you must always use a musician's own history against them. There are two parts to this lesson:

1) As a continuation of Lesson 2, which taught you to take every opportunity to make comparisons to other artists and songs and never judge a new album or song on its own merits, this lesson will teach you to always judge a new work by an artist against his or her older works, make comparisons to their older songs and albums, and never judge a new album or song on its own merits. This also allows you to show off your extensive knowledge of the artist.

2) You should use your review to propagate the accepted storyline and cliches that have been assigned to the artist. The specifics will vary, but basically all of the storylines read like this: Artist starts out well, builds their reputation some amazing beloved albums, then the artist makes a couple of missteps, then they lose whatever it was that made them great, and every subsequent album is a desperate attempt to get it back.

Let's look at each part in detail, with examples from real life music critics!

When an established artist makes a new album, as a critic you basically have two paths to choose from. You can a) compare it (favorably or unfavorably) to older work, or b) say it sounds nothing like the artist. Or you can cover your bases and do both. Alan Light, writing for the New Yorker, took that route in his review of Bruce Springsteen's 2001 album The Rising. He spends the first 25% of the piece talking about Bruce's older work, with no less than 8 songs and 4 albums mentioned before he comes to this conclusion: "The Rising is like nothing that Springsteen has ever done before." And yet, less than a paragraph later, while discussing the song Mary's Place, Light compares it to 1973's Rosalita, describes the chorus, and then says, "This is the part in a Springsteen song when the music should lift of irresistibly - but nothing happens." Then he adds, "All the signature Springsteen narrative and detail has been stripped out." As you can see, Light is clearly not letting the new songs be judged on their own merit.

Finally, Light spends the penultimate paragraph of his review finding "resonances with Springsteen's earlier work" which is basically just an excuse to show off his intimate familiarity with the Boss' catalog. That's something that every critic should master. Lester Bangs certainly could do it. His review of Miles Davis' 1981 album The Man With the Horn contains no less that 21 references to older Miles Davis songs and albums. Ray Cummings (writer for Minneapolis' Citypages) follows in those footsteps in his review of Sonic Youth's 2009 album The Eternal. Cummings spends most of his piece imagining the band's oeuvre as an "uber-leftist liberal arts curriculum" and giving one-sentence synopses of each of their records on his way to a simple conclusion: The Eternal is your standard Sonic Youth album.

Our friend David Fricke (whose work we focused on in our Midterm lesson) also knows this lesson well. In fact, he even applies it to artists who are attempting to move on with new projects. In his review of Velvet Revolver's debut album, he refuses to let the reader forget that the band is comprised of former members of Stone Temple Pilots and Guns 'N Roses. In fact, he compares or alludes to GNR or STP no less than 10 times in his review.

David Browne is another master of using his preconceived notions about an artist to make judgments. Take his review of Elvis Costello's 2002 album When I Was Cruel, which he begins with the line, "On When I Was Cruel, Elvis Costello is himself again" or his comment in his review of Kid A where he says the album "doesn't sound like Radiohead." These two examples, despite their similarities, also show the divergent approaches you may take as a critic. In the case of Costello, Browne is clearly pleased that Elvis decided to start meeting the expectations set by his past work again and praises him for it. Browne is also praiseful of Radiohead, but in this case for defying expectations. Why the seemingly opposite standards? As a critic remember that you set your own rules, and aren't even obligated to follow them.

Browne's colleague at Entertainment Weekly, Marc Weingarten, is on the same wavelength when he opens a review of David Bowie's 2003 album Reality with a question. "Where have you gone, Thin White Duke [Bowie's nickname, by the way]?" One might wonder if both Browne and Weingarten believe that rock stars are regularly replaced with impostors, like what allegedly happened to Paul McCartney in 1966. Otherwise, why so much questioning of identity, of people being away or "not themselves." Well, as I said before, it's basically inevitable that a once-beloved artist is going to "lose it" at some point in their career. They might get it back briefly, and once in awhile that will make for a great review from you, but once "it" is lost "it" is pretty much gone for good. Even a band ceased to be "vital" or "groundbreaking" 20 years ago, the critic is obligated to continually lament the fact that the artist is just not as good as he or she used to be.

This brings us to the second part of the lesson. Every established artist has what I call an "accepted storyline," a set of ironclad truths about an artist's career path and the various albums within it. It's sort of like a musical Cliff's Notes. For example, in the David Bowie accepted storyline, Never Let Me Down is one of his worst albums. So whether you've heard it or not, you can safely deride it, as Fricke does when he says, "And, yeah, mere is plenty of music out there today that sucks big time (Did someone mention Never Let Me Down?)" in his review of Tin Machine. It's also safe to say that even though we critics hate anything that's popular, when an album isn't popular with the buying public we aren't above using that as ammunition against a band. Alan Light's review of The Rising that we looked at earlier has an example of this, wherein our critic finds it necessary to bring up that Springsteen "has had only one album reach No. 1 on the charts since Tunnel of Love (1987), and it was a greatest-hits album released in 1995." His point? Springsteen needs a comeback.

But you have to be careful as a critic, because the storyline can be fluid, especially when it comes to recent history. Take the example of R.E.M., whose last four albums have caused consternation for critics attempting to construct a storyline. The common factor we have here is drummer Bill Berry's departure after the band's 1996 album New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Every critic recognizes this as a red dot on the timeline. If the reviews of the band's 2008 album Accelerate are to be believed, it took the band a full 11 years and three meandering albums to return to form. David Fricke (again!) said that, "Ultimately, the best thing about Accelerate is that R.E.M. sound is whole again, no longer three-legged but complete in their bond and purpose." Pitchfork's Joshua Klein is not so unabashed and believes the band should have ended with Berry's departure. However, he does admit that the album is a "move in the right direction" and contains a "glimmer of renewed relevance."

It's not enough to praise Accelerate though; both reviewers, in prime storyline-creating mode, choose to denigrate the previous three in the process. Fricke isn't mean enough. He merely calls Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun "wounded but determined." Klein, on the other hand finds those three albums to be "not quite rewarding," "uneven," and "lackluster," respectively.

Storyline told, right? Well wait, it gets a little tricky. See, if we go back and look at Rolling Stone's actual reviews of those previous 3 records, we'll see that other reviewers have actually been telling contradictory storylines. Rolling Stone's Ann Powers gave Up four stars when it came out in 1998, and was inspired to wax downright lyrical: "The music that Up most often recalls is Nightswimming and So. Central Rain, Wendell Gee, and Pilgrimage – the stuff of countless personal epiphanies as R.E.M. made the romance of the inner world as compelling as all the lust and rebellion that rock had mustered throughout its loud history. Up continues that romance, on a morning after that promises a good day."

When Reveal came out, Rob Sheffield found it alluring and called it "an album of gorgeous, woozily sun-struck ballads." Finally, Barry Walters tackled 2004's Around the Sun and said, "that intrinsically R.E.M.-y vibe makes a tentative, muted comeback. Unlike 1998's Up, on which the band crafted beautiful but belabored studio experimentation, and unlike 2001's Reveal, where they relaxed but didn't deliver many memorable melodies, R.E.M. here resemble their classic selves." Each critic tried to create a storyline. Powers was sticking with the "R.E.M.-can-do-no-wrong" approach, Sheffield felt Up took too long to grow on a listener and didn't seem R.E.M.-y enough, but that Reveal was a return to form, and Walters tries to dismiss the first two and call Around the Sun the comeback. And we already know what Fricke said about the next album, and you can probably imagine what the next critic will say about the next album!

My point here? As the critics, we get to create the story, or the history, if you will. Readers will believe you because you're what's right in front of them at the current moment. Sure, other critics may come along and try to change the story, but you have to recognize that it's the nature of the game.

At the beginning I advised fledgling musicians to quit while they're ahead. I'm going to heed my own advice. Join us next week for Lesson 7: Pretzel Logic. It's sort of a catch-all, covering 3 important mini-lessons that will pave the road to our final lesson and exam. Until then...

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