Some friends of mine from Portland just got a downright venomous review in the Willamette Week. (For they’re protection, I won’t reveal who they are. But their name rhymes with “times” and is synonymous with the phrase “10 cents.”) These guys are special; honest and true, and immensely creative. So I’m gonna take a deep breath and count to 10 before I say anything. And while I’m counting, you can go read the review in question if you like.
Okay, Mr. Willamette Week reviewer. (We’ll just call you “Jeff Rosenberg” for the sake of this blog.) I haven’t yet heard the new album of which you speak, so, maybe… just maybe, it is as horrible as you say. Maybe the guilty should slink into your office with tails between their legs, and apologize for putting you through such an excruciating 40-minutes.
But I doubt it. Something tipped me off that your listening experience, and subsequent communication thereof—as authoritative as it rings—was not entirely honest. What was it? What could it be?
Oh, I know! The first line: “Dimes, can you spare a brother?” Such a lead! I am floored by such wit!
Beware the so-called music journalist who kicks things off with a play on words, or a pun. From there, he crafts his article in service to a nasty disposition and oh-so-clever tone. In this case, it reads like a talk-show diatribe. (I could hear Keith Olbermann’s voice in my head, delivering one of his “Special Comments,” selecting the hapless Portland band as the day’s “Worst Persons in the World.”)
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve gotten plenty of bad reviews before, and I’ve learned that it’s counter-productive to jerk one’s knee in defensiveness. I was compared to a “mediocre Meat Loaf” once. It hurt at first. But later, I looked for the kernel of truth in it, and dug a little deeper on my next album.
But still, I thought I had seen the last of this kind of journalism at the turn of the century. Back in the early 90′s, without the equalizing impact of the internet, the Music Biz was arranged more vertically. Fewer people had the nerve to go for it. We worked in a cloud of anxiety about “making it.” (Both artists and writers alike.) Local indie-rags had good reason to feel they were bastions of the cutting edge against the Big Music Industry. So they were on a mission to weed out wannabe’s, imposters, and imitators.
But even “back in the day,” it was misguided and cruel. Much of the writing served mostly to announce to the readership just how smart the writer was, and how important his taste. Merely having opinions about music was held in higher esteem than actually having a body of work. And although these writers claimed to serve the world of art and music, they were just as art-killing as the commercial end of the biz. They looked around their neighborhoods for anybody who was generating enthusiasm and starting to believe in themselves. Then, they clamped down on the vermin until it stopped squirmin’. “We can’t let this happen. If this band makes it, it will be further proof that the taste of the masses is diseased.” (There was little respect for the artist doing his or her best to make progress, trying to make a living.)
In my song “Hipster,” I call it “stamping out sparks and slamming doors.”
But as the biz becomes more horizontal, more local artists are free to explore their craft without comparing themselves to one side or the other—the Big Commercial Industry or the so-called cutting edge. Do writers really have time these days to pick on bands they hate? What’s the mission there? What of value is being offered to the readership, when an article is filled with clever verbiage to express distaste? What does this say about why you got involved with music in the first place?
I, for one, did not enter the world of music in order to hate it more colorfully.
I read on. And, maybe I can see a faint hint of an explanation of how my friends seem to have missed the mark in moments. Perhaps they did not create a masterpiece like those of Colin Meloy from The Decemberists… Wait a minute…. What was that? A name-drop! Mr. Rosenberg declares he’s seen “history geek indie folk” before. And, alas, poor young Portland band, you are no Colin Meloy.
This, I have seen before. A music “expert” who has made orthodoxy of his taste. If something in you reminds him of something else that he likes very much, and if you don’t do it just like that “something else,” you do not measure up. And you’re gonna pay! And that price comes in the form of verbal stompage. Don’t you know that you’re doing it wrong? (And if you wanna do it right, go do it like this other guy I just mentioned.)
In this case, my friend Johnny, the singer in question, doesn’t deliver his lyrics with “eccentric diction,” as Colin Meloy does. Johnny is not a proper geek, I suppose. Is the reviewer serious? In order to be a believable history geek, one must sing oddly and awkwardly.
That’s where the reviewer lost me for good. I suspect that he misunderstands style for substance. (Though I’m sure he doesn’t think so.) He is no “expert” at all, just another clever writer who feels more articulate the nastier he gets. The article is self-stroking. It sounds like he’s talking dirty, referring to “Elias Fucking Howe.” Yeah, he’s gonna make this sweet, “undeniably lovely” band his bitch, leading up to a rude climax in his last utterance: “If our predecessors had been this wussy, we never would’ve made it out of the 1700’s.” (Now, I know the guy listens to talk radio. Just at his fever pitch moment of pure loathing, he invokes our pioneering forebearers. Sean Hannity, eat your heart out.)
I close with further excerpts from “Hipster.”
You know you always had an eye for the cutting edge,
Your razor sharp tongue became a weapon.
But now there’s not an honest bone left inside of you.
How could you let it happen?
…You know you always had an ear for the new wave.
Somehow it washed you out.
And now there’s nothing left for you to come by honestly.
So what it was all about?
What is it all really for?
Stamping out sparks and slamming doors.
What is it all really for?
You don’t even know…
It’s about respect for the artist and the pursuit of art.