2007 Year-End Thoughts
Notes Towards A Supreme Criticism
mean to learn, in the language of where I am going,
Barely enough to ask for food and love
– James Merrill
A notable way in which Stylus has toughened my sensibilities is by forcing me to reconsider the importance of a good haircut to making quality music. Exceptions like several seventies beardo nazis and the Replacements aside, all my favorite acts understand grooming. A dip into my archives here will reveal grievances against bands like, say, the Killers, who, briefly, flattered me, and lasting admiration for Pavement, Duran Duran, and Brad Paisley. About the Alpha and Omega, Bryan Ferry, I will add nothing. I'm still waiting for Mos Def to catch up. Jens Lenkman has possibilities. Scritti Politti have rediscovered them. Kanye West shops at Nordstrom's. Next time he goes, remind him to bring Ne-Yo along.
These sundry observations are important. One of my favorite movie characters of the last twenty years is a mysterious, vulpine Cold Warrior in Oliver Stone's JFK known simply as X, played by Donald Sutherland. After more than two hours of conspiracy monkeyshines and Joe Pesci sporting Groucho Marx mustaches drawn over his eyes, Stone stops the film so that X can deliver a torrent of information that indicts everyone from LBJ to James Monroe in the Kennedy assassination. What's striking is that X's motives are never clear; what is clear is he can't even spell "patriotism." He knows everything about everyone yet reveals nothing. Thanks to Sutherland's demotic mastery, I like to think that X was motivated by nothing more than amusement. Washington's a dull town in the summer. He wanted to get a rise out of Kevin Costner. And the contemptuous twinkle he bestows on Costner (whom he calls "Bubba" in either smug encouragement or just smugness) could kill a baby. The bovine innocence that Costner is called upon to project has no place in Sutherland's world.
I write about music because it gives me pleasure. Writing, that is; the music part is incidental. I often remind myself that by this point in my professional career I should have been a pair of ragged claws in a Midwestern university's English department, using "privilege" as a verb and chiding my students for not finishing The Golden Bowl; we would, however, share a laugh at how often Henry James uses "ejaculated" in dialogues. Since most postgraduate writing seems written by people who don't much like writing, I've allowed a distraction to become a habit, in quiet protest. But I keep my distance. I'm certainly not the only critic with colleagues who seem to spend a considerable portion of their days downloading music, which totally mystifies me. It’s a quixotic gesture on their parts whose nobility I'm not prepared to admit. Consumption is not thinking. I think a lot about other things besides music: good Scotches, robust sexual tension between students and me, the predatory spume of The Corner's contributors (a hobby I share with colleague Ned Raggett). Despite increasing confidence in rockcrit as a craft, I want to vouch for happy dilettantism. For quiet promiscuity. The distance it enforces between me and the object of scrutiny produces my clearest thinking. There's a sense in which taking music and music listening too seriously causes silt to form in your brain. If you doubt this, spend an hour talking to young rockcrits. Woodrow Wilson, not immune to messianic priggishness, remarked that the worst part of being president is meeting people who insist on telling you what you already know.
Often what I most want is to ensure that listening to music doesn't adulterate writing about it. Wallace Stevens composed a rather average poem in his autumnal paladin mode called "A Clear Day And No Memories." The suggestiveness of its title is the nearest to an invocation that I, a determined enemy of the transcendent, am likely to utter. I recently told my friend and Stylus colleague Mike Powell, "I can understand the virtues of automatism." Think about it: push a button, and a review emerges. While it’s impossible to sever effective criticism from an engaging style, style at best brings notoriety and is a burden if not a danger at worst. We all imitate ourselves, and don’t kid yourself into thinking it only happens when you’re under pressure (in a social context, though, it has advantages). As the subject of much good-natured kidding from colleagues about my supposed formalist tendencies, I find a lot of pleasure in that austere New Critical prose style of the 1950’s, even if this austerity often congealed into fustiness; and only Allen Tate might chuckle if he read it in a blog. Still, its determined impersonality redresses the pull towards subjectivity which this post-blog world has made inevitable; and my attraction to impersonality is rooted in my distrust of commitment.
As puzzling as this sounds, let's remember that it's not a concept lost on the most compelling performers. Mick Jagger admitted as much in his 1995 version of those comprehensive John Lennon Playboy interviews recorded in 1980. He mildly complimented the Rolling Stones' sixties work as a "good waste of time" or something. Jagger's purported indifference to his band's achievements is exactly the way to go—if he doesn't take it seriously, why should we? Now, while I believe that rockcrits are smarter than rock artists, the rigor demanded of our profession butts against deadlines and—ominously—our ravenous consumption so that criticism ossifies into a conflation of received opinion, cliches, tautologies, and, most fatally, a reluctance to abandon principles. Few artists are unworthy of a second thought. A third thought, even. There’s nothing I’ll defend today that I wouldn’t condemn tomorrow. Let me be clear: there's a difference between non-commitment and disengagement. Lots of good critics eschew the former, no good ones embrace the latter. Engage—with discrimination.
Stylus is dead, but my heart, as Celine Dion reminded me, will go on. It gives me great pleasure to have helped a handful of talented, hungry young writers, which is why I offer them an invaluable bit of advice: when your temples start to throb, step away from the computer. My admiration for Todd Burns for keeping this enterprise going this long, despite physical evidence that he was turning into Emperor Palpatine, is boundless. My colleague and great friend Thomas Inskeep deserves credit for encouragement and malice, tolerating my twice-weekly chai jokes, and thinking that I want to hear how great Maze and Frank Beverly are. At all times I remember the competition and sex jokes with Mike Powell, in whose heart textured disdain and rapture intertwine oddly and marvelously. Mallory O'Donnell and Josh Love have offered laughs and advice as tensile as their prose. But I don't worry about any of these guys; I do worry for them, though. They don't share my affection for haircuts, and I'm running out of time to convince them.