Friday, June 30, 2006

Music Criticism

The past few years, I’ve really let my music criticism chops falter, for a few reasons. I think the main one was simply that I’d rather enjoy music than try to dissect it or, in most cases, serve as a public-relations person championing a new, unknown artist. Ultimately, the freelance pay for doing reviews or articles is dogshit, takes weeks or months to show up, and you have to be a real hustler, or working as an editor at a publication, to make it pay off.

Plus, the more I did it, the more strange the field seemed. JS, the editor at my old paper, would occasionally give me crap for not badgering record companies to get free stuff. I’d mention in an email that I heard such-and-such an album was coming out in a month, he’d say why don’t you review it, I said sure, I’ll pick it up when it comes out, and he’d say cut the crap, call the record company now and get a free copy so your review can appear the week it comes out.

And I hated doing shit like that. One, I can’t stand asking people for free shit – especially record companies. The people working in PR there are desperate to make contact with music critics, simply to get the word out on their artists, and they foster an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” relationship. It just feels clammy.

Two, I can recall back at the college newspaper the big stink that was made over ethics. We had it drilled into our head that accepting any sort of gift as a journalist was unethical. Yet, when it came to CDs, live performances and such, the expectation was that a music critic should be given everything for free – so he could do his job. This has always been a fucked-up scenario to me. These are gifts. They’re free. Music critics get in the habit of calling record companies to get free shit. Sometimes they’ll review it, sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they’ll trash it. And then the PR person would get pissed. Maybe some suit at the company would get pissed, too, and threaten to pull valuable ad dollars from said publication.

It’s just a clammy process, and the critic learns to expect free shit, even if he’s not reviewing it. It becomes a badge of honor with friends who have to pay for everything. The record companies are often bombarding publications with free shit to begin with, much less requested items. In my mind, you can’t be impartial when you’re receiving gifts, and forget about the lame excuse that the writer needs the gift to do his job. I could understand if record companies had some sort of reviewer’s discount, but it would take awhile to get publications to pay for this, as they’re always crying poverty.

On top of that, it occurred to me after awhile that I didn’t like most of the music critics I was meeting. It wasn’t even the stereotype. David Lee Roth made the famous quote back in Van Halen’s hey day that most music critics like Elvis Costello because they look like Elvis Costello. Granted, there is a nerdy component to grown men and women being obsessed with music, which has become a teenage hallmark in our upside-down culture, one that most people abandon as they age.

You’ll find geeks in every walk of life. What bothered me more about music critics was the general demeanor: far-left leaning, sort of obnoxious and often mean-spirited as hell. The kind of people who abhor physical violence (and are in no danger of ever inflicting it on anyone else, believe me), but surely have dibbs on the often as-damaging mental and emotional variety. In short, the kind of guys you’d smack for being assholes, and they’d then call you a nazi for doing so (from a very great distance). Every now and then, I’d meet a sane music critic – some guy who simply loved music and was as well-adjusted as any other adult. But far more often than not, it would be a permanent 19-year-old, someone stuck in that always angry, fuck-the-adult-world-mine-is-better mode. Basically, grown men and women still hung up on the concept of cool, although they never were. Thus … you get these VH-1 specials repositioning the 70s as a decade of non-selling acts like the New York Dolls, Television and Wire, when the reality was Captain & Tennille, the Bee Gees and Bread. In essence, history is being written by the losers to reflect their better sense of musical taste.

It bothered me that my role was to critique something as opposed to creating it. I simply wasn’t a talented musician, and that’s something I’ve highly respected from the first record I bought to the thousands of CDs I now own. (I stopped counting at 3,000, but then again, I also started weeding out a ton of stuff around then, too, so I’ve lost count, and now with MP3s, who knows how much music I have.) I don’t think this expressed itself as bitterness so much as envy. It occurred to me somewhere along the line that via criticism, I hoped to elevate myself to some level in the music industry where I would be somehow viewed as necessary and nearly as important as musicians. When the reality was the only people who gave a shit were those picking up the magazine or reading the music section of a paper.

And I’d get wake-up calls every time I reviewed a show, again, with comp tickets, which would make me feel guilty if I didn’t like the show. It was customary for door people and club owners to be assholes about the comp seats or tickets. The worst I recall is a guy at the Bottom Line, who barked, “Who the fuck are you?” in my face when my name didn’t appear to be on the guest list. My instinct was to head butt this little hipster terd for his lack of manners, but luckily the promoter was right there, knew me and let me in. I could understand if I’d been rude to the guy, but I basically just said my name’s on the list, it wasn’t, and that’s when he proferred this witty quip. Nobody likes answering to rotten pricks like that – you do it all the time with guest lists, which are faulty as hell.

If the pay was better, if music critics were a little higher on the journalistic food chain (as opposed to the lower rungs), I might pursue it. But it felt like a drag after awhile, a bad hustle with little pay-off. I’d rather just love music than try to be another of the many people in the music industry who make money off it, but aren’t actual musicians.

On top of which … most of the musicians I met were total assholes! Basically worthless when they weren’t performing, egotistical beyond belief, often living in a small cocoon formed around their band and totally enmeshed in that strange little world that floats around performers. The best way to demonstrate this is to go see a band at a club or arena and try to get backstage. If you do, you’ll find the musicians performing being treated and acting like little gods. It’s not so much their fault as the countless people around them who create this aura of false importance. While I recognize it is important for an artist to be ready to perform onstage for paying fans, I also ask myself, how is this different from any other job? When you get ready to go to work in the morning, do thousands of people chant your name? A bunch of teenage girls offer to suck your cock? A gaggle of hangers-on beam at you as if you were baby Jesus handing out $100 bills?

I’d wager not. And for all I know, you might be trying to find a cure for cancer, or a garbage man. Or a rock star. Why should it matter in terms of importance? A job is a job. And the entertainment industry wraps itself in a cloak of false importance, when all that’s going on is entertainment being provided to people in their leisure time.

Once, a long time ago, I went to see The Replacements play in Pittsburgh. My friends and I drove down from State College, PA and got there very early, late afternoon for a 9:00 show. We parked near the club, and as we got out the car and walked by the back door, we saw Paul Westerberg sitting there, sunning himself and having a smoke. My friends averted their eyes – oh my god, we’re here to see him, and we're too cool to acknowledge this, look away, look away!

I stopped, said “Paul Westerberg! We’re here to see you play tonight!” And proceeded to get into a very pleasant conversation between well-versed fans and artist. I had forgotten my drivers license (I was just over 21 at the time), which I realized about halfway to Pittsburgh, and told Paul as much. He said, buddy, if they give you a problem getting in the club, come back in and knock on the door, I’ll get you in. We thanked each other and went our merry way – luckily, I got in that night without my ID. We went back to the car after the show, passing the back door, and all The Replacements were hanging out there, surrounded by sleazy whores, slobbering drunks and dislocated indie kids, all kinds of folk. Paul Westerberg sees me, pops up from his temporary girlfriend, sand says, “Hey, man, did you get in?”

And that whole scenario said it all to me – Westerberg got it. And I got it that afternoon, when I saw that this was just some guy lounging on some steps who would later play songs for people, me being one of them, and I’m glad I got the chance to thank him for doing this without all the hoopla. I like that symbiotic, very real relationship between artist and fan, and if I was smarter, I would have left it like that instead of trying to gain personal and professional respect from it.

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