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Rock Lit Lite

Rolling Stone or SPIN? SPIN or Rolling Stone: Alanis Morissette ponders the cover-story dilemma.

Bands, magazines and writers all share the blame for the demise of rock criticism

By Gina Arnold

"It was another spectacular L.A. early evening in late '74 with the sun still high in the sky and, well, it just had to be said. The Hills were alive with the sound of music. Beverly Hills, that is." Thus opens the first piece in The Dark Stuff, a collection of essays on rock by English writer Nick Kent--and if that doesn't make you want to read on, maybe you don't like to read about rock at all.

Of course, if you don't, it's not surprising. After all, things have changed quite a bit since critics like Kent and his American counterpart, Lester Bangs, roamed the rock world writing wild-eyed essays like the ones in The Dark Stuff.

Nowadays, serious readers of rock lit tend to eschew the factual-but-torpid prose of Rolling Stone and the pretentious attitudinizing of Spin, preferring instead to troll for information about new music in the infinitely less literate areas of fanzines, the Internet or college radio.

And that's a pity. Once a bastion of impassioned "new journalism," rock writing has in the last decade grown more and more sterile, until it has finally degenerated into a form closer to film writing, i.e., ass-kissing celebrity profiles and prerelease superhype of expensive projects.

At least film critics are still, for the most part, autonomous. If a daily critic hates a film, he or she says so in no uncertain terms--and such criticism can sometimes have an effect on a film's success. Record reviews, alas, have less of an impact on an artist's sales than video or radio airplay does.

Artists still strive to be written about, because name recognition and "buzz" help a band to stay on the radio and to keep nightclubs full of fans. In recent years, however, the antagonism between artists and the media outlets, between media outlets and record labels, and even between artists and their own record labels, has made the job of being a rock critic something less than it was in the days when Bangs and Kent moved freely among artist, imagination and typewriter.

These days, your standard rock article is sluggish and cliché-riddled. This sad decline is partly because there are now so many media outlets that cover rock & roll--from dailies and weeklies to fanzines and glossy magazines and even television programs--all clamoring for time with an artist.

When a band debuts, it is forced by its label to talk on endlessly about itself to a million faceless writers. The result is hundreds of boring stories with the same questions and the same quotes--all copying one another's angle, which, more often than not, is manufactured by a publicist.

Few bands allow critics near them for long, and no wonder. The critics themselves are obnoxious and untrained, and often have little interest in the band or its music. Their job requires that they interview x number of bands, good or bad. Access to bands is now restricted beyond a few minutes on the phone or, occasionally, a brief, colorless meeting in a record-company boardroom.

Of course, rock criticism has always had its share of philosophical problems. For one thing, it tends to attract only a certain type of rock fan: the overeducated white male, whose favorite type of music is plain old guitar rock. You therefore see reams written about bands like Wilco, the Jawhawks, Bruce Springsteen, Pavement, Sonic Youth, the Pretenders, Yo La Tengo, Pearl Jam, U2--all groups created in rock critics' own image--and less than nothing about techno, dance, jazz, country or even bad pop. (Rap is ghettoized, left to its own publications and reported on in the mainstream press only when there's some incident or a rap star is arrested.) There must be something well worth saying about an ultrapopular act like Boyz II Men, but no bespectacled rock critic has the time or inclination to say it.

But the real culprit in the death of rock criticism isn't record labels pushing artists too hard or rock critics being bad writers. In fact, its demise can be laid strictly at the feet of the major rock magazines. Far from being interested in good writing and/or adding insight into a band's music, rock magazines are now hell-bent on having "power." Power means the ability to make or break a band, which is something that the print media, hog-tied as it is to an ever-shrinking market of literate readers, has a great deal of trouble maintaining.

Oddly, instead buoying up their sinking credibility by writing shocking exposés about famous artists or by tearing down sacred cows, most magazines have gone the other way, attempting to put themselves hand-in-glove with the record industry by bowing to the industry's every wish.

Thus, rock magazines have developed certain formulaic criteria for stories, criteria that cripple writers at the outset. These requirements go beyond merely praising any band writers are told will "soon be big" (rather than, as they did in the old days, deciding who would be big themselves).

In a more sinister way, publications have become the tool of the record industry by agreeing to review a record or interview an artist so that the story hits the stands exactly upon the record's release date. This is why you'll see the same faces on a host of magazine covers in a given month. Most of the interviews will have taken place in the same two-week period, prior to the artist having toured or sold many records yet, and so the stories themselves will be stilted and dull.

This kind of media blitz tends to overstretch the artist's time and results in bizarre pacts and controversies between record labels and magazines. ("We'll give you an exclusive interview with so-and-so as long as you promise to cover x-and-such.")

The exclusivity clause is particularly bizarre: Artists are often told they must choose between being on the cover of Rolling Stone or Spin, and either choice tends to be wrong. Last summer, for example, Liz Phair chose Rolling Stone, thus monumentally pissing off Spin, which then refused to review her record or mention her name in the year-end polls.

Rock sensation Alanis Morissette fared a tiny bit better when she had to make the same choice. She picked Spin, allegedly informing Rolling Stone that it couldn't run her on the cover while Spin was on the stands. But Morissette was in a better position than Phair, since her record was already No. 1 on the charts. Rolling Stone, however, was so eager to have her on its cover that they simply took it upon themselves to break her promise of exclusivity to Spin, thus showing how bogus the promises are.

With records, this mania to be timely can lead to even worse results. Countless obscure records get ignored as everyone rushes to review the new Springsteen, U2 and Prince; come the next month, publications then say it's "too late" to review last month's ignored releases.

Moreover, in their eagerness to get reviews in prior to a record's release date, publications often ask writers to review unfinished product. I was asked to write a lead review of Soul Asylum's Let Your Dim Light Shine album for a major publication, using an unmixed tape direct from the studio, and given two days to do it in. One result was that I gave the band the benefit of the doubt, adding a couple of points on to the "score" that I otherwise would have left off.

Scores themselves are another bone of contention. Most publications rate records on a numerical or star scale--as if they were term papers or something. This system discourages readers from reading --if the surfeit of clichés weren't discouraging enough. It also fundamentally changes the role of the critic. Kent and Bangs primarily thought of themselves as writers. But these days, most critics consider themselves mere consumer advocates--a position that presumes that one person's opinion can shape culture. A glance at the charts and playlists of radio stations, full of acts like Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton, whom critics loathe, will debunk that theory in an instant.

But the aforementioned issues beg the real question about what makes the current state of rock criticism so boring. Is it perhaps symptomatic of the corporatization of the times, which makes the raw material given to a writer so banal as to be almost useless?

After all, what a difference there is between the gaudy belligerence of a Led Zeppelin and the boring behavior of Pearl Jam, a band that doesn't exactly lend itself to hilarious and fascinating stories, a la Johnny Thunders, the Beach Boys, Sid Vicious and Roky Erikson? The essential blah-ness of current rock stars is certainly one reason Courtney Love, a very minor artist with only two artistically dubious records out, garners so much press. She is just so much more interesting to write about than bands like Live or Candlebox or Weezer.

Another reason is that, with the notable exception of Love, many bands don't want to be written about, believing, like Pearl Jam, that action speaks louder than words, or like Green Day, that large-scale fame is extremely unpleasant. And that may be a true, and even an admirable, perception for a person to have, and to act on. But in a rock star, such silence is also damaging--because it bores.

As a journalist, I am bored by articles that contain no facts, no interviews, no rebuttals, no controversy--and more and more rock stories are like that (this one sure is). I think bands that avoid doing press do themselves a big disservice, because when rock criticism deliberately bypasses the truth, it also avoids posterity. By trivializing the kinds of articles written about them, these bands are writing themselves out of history.

For me, rock writing has always been a form of entertainment writing, like fiction or, perhaps more accurately, sports writing. In any sports story, someone wins and someone loses, and to the writer, it ought not to matter who, since the trick is in the telling of the tale.

It's the same with rock writing. I write about rock because it is the thing I feel most strongly about--and because, like film and art, rock music reflects our culture. Writing about rock is a form of writing about pop culture--and a form of writing with its own set of rules and standards.

But all is not entirely lost. One of the best rock stories I read last year was one in Rolling Stone by Mim Udovitch on Weezer. In the course of writing her story, Udovitch--who also writes about such diverse subjects as film, women's issues and health--suffered the twin curses of the modern rock writer: Weezer is a boring band with no particular personality and only one album out, and leader Rivers Cuomo refused to speak to her. Yet such is her stylistic genius, she managed to turn both these negatives into strengths.

As that story shows, a really good writer really can produce a fascinating story about even the most boring of bands, particularly if they followed the advice of Joan Didion, who once said that the difference between a good writer and a great one is cruelty.

If rock writers could bring themselves to be cruel rather than fawning to their subjects--and, of course, if they were encouraged by the publications they write for to be so--then we might see another golden age of rock writing, like the one that spawned Lester Bangs and Nick Kent, and which, in its turn, has inspired so many would-be critics to pick up their pens.

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From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 1995 issue of Metro

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