February 2027, 1997
All This Useless Beauty
The myth of the rock critic.
By Margit Detweiler
I'm not a big fan ofbig-timerock critics. Frankly, most of them intimidate the bejesus out of me.
And there I was in New York City having lunch with some of the biggest: Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Ann Powers, Eric Weisbard, Barbara O'Dair, Chuck Eddy, Anthony DeCurtis. We were taking a break from the Dia Center for the Arts conference held last weekend called "Stars Don't Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth" (a musical mouthful in itself), an academia-meets-rock-journalism examination of commerce; the crowd; performance and image; history and memory; romance. To a music critic like me, some of these infamous music pundits were bigger than life myths themselves.
The crew went to a nearby brick-oven pizzeria. I couldn't help but imagine a what-if-they-dropped-a-bomb scenario: anchovies flying everywhere and, along with them, just about every major rock scribe. Like the gray-haired cantankerous Christgau, big mahaff music critic at the Village Voice, who took a bite of pizza and sighed, "I was really disappointed they called the panel,'The Crowd' and not 'The Audience.'"
I spent my lunch pingponging with Philly-based critic Chuck Eddy on bands. Ever the anti-critic, Eddy adores what he calls "fake alternative bands" like Weezer as well as '80s cheeseball popsters like Taylor Dayne and the highly "underrated" Quarterflash. I actually heard myself saying in this setting, "Can we talk about something other than music?" but couldn't even take my own advice and continued on with Beck.
"Odelay really is as good as the hype," I said.
"Beck's clothes are better than his music," said Eddy.
Myths are not true or false, but exist in a sort of fluid space of selective memory and exaggerated legend. That space is a perfect zone for discussion and opinion.
Listen to me, I'm talking about spaces. Next thing you know I'll be using words like "deconstructivist,""paradigm,""continuum."
We're talking about rock and roll here.
The worst of this kind of babble came from Deena Weinstein, a professor who specializes in theory and heavy metal. I scribbled on my notepad and held it up to Eddy, who sat behind me: "What's a binary?"
In black, with a ponytail knotted at the top of her head, Weinstein deconstructed the "function" and "myth" of commerce and its relationship to rock, rarely using any concrete image or description but in the rare instances when she did, she'd jolt me awake.
"Okay, now turn on the jukebox in your head and play the Buzzcocks' 'Autonomy,'" she said, believing she wouldn't have to explain much this white, sky-lit room, filled almost entirely with rock critics, would know the song right away.
The Saturday "Commerce" panel was the first panel I attended. I'd missed legendary rock critic Greil Marcus give his keynote speech Friday night and had to rely on others' descriptions. More myth.
Eddy said he didn't really follow it, but thoughtit was a beautiful speech.
Laura Morgan, a rep from A? records (who said she felt like a spy in the house of critics), thought Marcus' California-mellow intonation was lovely. With regard to "myth," he'd cited Elvis Costello's "All This Useless Beauty," a song about a woman looking at a painting and thinking about how it's an example of history and myth colliding.
"He himself is like a painting on the wall," said Morgan. "All the rock critics in the room were going, 'Oh My God, that's Greil Marcus.'"
There was a lot of useless beauty at Dia's conference famed critics talking, elegantly, in circles.
"I stopped doing panels because you got stuck in the same discussion over and over," said James Bernard, founding editor of hip-hop magazine The Source, who spoke at the "Commerce" panel. "But now that hip-hop is older, perhaps we have more things to talk about."
Would have been nice, but it never happened. Everyone seemed to have their own agenda, presenting issues rather than arguing them.
Bernard's points seemed prime for discussion. "The myth that the black gangsta is invincible plays into a very American ideal," said Bernard. "The Wild Wild West. . . All these kids I talk to think Tupac is still alive."
The most vivid talk on "commerce" was from Jon Langford of British punk band the Mekons. Langford was one of a few "artists" who spoke at the conference, including Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon and DJ Spooky.
Langford spun yarns about the ugly music business over loud music from his current projects the Waco Brothers and The Skull Orchard. Why not? A roomful of music critics why not promote his own work? He couldn't have worked his commerce speech better.
One of the better panels was "The Crowd." Led by Angela McRobbie, the panel was asked to consider how the crowd has been marginalized in music writing. Citing songs where the protagonist works all week to "be in the show," like "Flashdance" and "Dancing Queen," Chuck Eddy colorfully argued that critics too often ignore the people that go to shows.
"[Rock criticism] has to stop being scared of its own audience, and even be willing to risk insulting that audience sometimes," he said.
He cited an e-mail he'd received from a friend, Philadelphia Inquirer/ Philly Weekly critic Sara Sherr, as one of the best examples of rock writing he'd seen in a while. It was a never-printed review of a Korn show that talked vividly about her interaction with the audience: "Half the crowd was waving their arms like they just don't care and the other half was giving them the finger. . . Later Korn did a song called 'Faggot' which is just something incendiary and offensive and adolescent repeated over and over again: 'Faggot, all my life what am I.' But the ironic thing is that it's supposed to be about the singer's tormented high school years. And I wondered if the audience felt like the tormented or the tormentor when they were shouting that or maybe they just wanted to say a bad word."
It's the kind of rock criticism that's fun to read. But it requires that the writer go out and get involved in the shows something it seemed many of these critics weren't doing much anymore.
To prepare for her "paper," which cited Sgt. Pepper and Elvis-on-Ed Sullivan references, Ellen Willis said in her soft, sullen tones, "I did what I always do, I look at a lot of books."
Maybe I'm too much of the MTV generation, but when you're talking to a crowd about "crowds," presentation is everything.
DJ Spooky played a mixed tape made of readings from H.P. Lovecraft, Ralph Ellison, the '60s band The Silver Apples and a processed drop of water in Spooky's bathtub. His point a crowd is like a mixed tape bringing together disparate elements to make one whole.
I missed Kathleen Hanna give her talk which Evelyn McDonnell, former Village Voice music editor and co-organizer of the event, said was one of the best. "She was conversational, charismatic and smart. . . and she talks in that Valley Girl speak."
In a post-conference phone call, McDonnell said that, like me, she too felt uncomfortable in the room of rock scholars. "I'm somewhere between the university-based rock scholars and the media-based rock critics."
Me, I told, her, I'm just a glorified groupie.
"It was funny how feisty and rock critic-y everyone was being," said McDonnell. "It was kind of annoying to be honest. . . But Greil Marcus wrote us a really nice letter after the conference that he was surprised how passionate, prepared and involved all the speakers were."
Eventually, all the "papers," as McDonnell called them (guess it really was academia), will be compiled in a book by Dia. She agreed that some of the stuff was heady and even she couldn't follow it all. It will be good to read them in hard copy one more chapter in the mythology of rock.