The Ignoble Prizes: Worst Music Writing of the Year
By Jason Gross
- Joseph Carducci: "Chubby's Importance is Inflated" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 3, 2004)
Granted that it might be unfair to pick on a letter to the editor, but this one's a howler. The argument is that Chubby Checker shouldn't be honored because he used drugs. And the same goes with the Beatles and other bands who did the same. Which leaves us to ponder, which entertainment figures of the 20th century could we continue to admire under this criteria? Not to mention which conservative talk-show hosts or major league baseball players or presidents of the United States... As far as I know, this is only the name-sake of the guy who wrote Rock and the Pop Narcotic, and not the man himself.
- Nick Crowe: "Rap's Last Tape?" (Prospect, March 2004)
It's amazing how much is left out and forgotten here, but that just means that the writer doesn't know crap about rap, including rap's thriving underground, how hip-hop iconography has infiltrated other cultures, and how not all modern rappers are about bling-bling and violence. And not a word about Jay-Z. Also, popularity has killed rap? Did it kill rock? And not a word about the Streets or Dizzee Rascal? How about his potshot that rappers as multi-millionaires is a concept irreconcilable with rap itself? Didn't rap boast about money and women back in the day? Does he actually think that it would be better if all rappers did actually live in ghettos? I'd ask Harry Allen to consider an article-length response/rebuttal, but it wouldn't be worth his time.
- A.J. Daulerio: "Rock And a Hard Place: Seth Mnookin, Media Reporter" (The Black Table, March 4, 2004)
Nice to know that having sex with Robert Christgau and Chuck Cloisterman is taboo for some journalists.
- Brent DiCrescenzo: Beastie Boys To the 5 Boroughs review (Pitchfork Media, June 15, 2004)
The Beasties are hardly the only platinum band that don't offer easy access to every publication out there. If you've been around for a little while like Pitchfork, you should be able to figure that out pretty quickly. Documenting the frustrating dances with their gatekeepers seemed pretty heroic to some people but I just found it sad and shabby: every writer deals with this annoying part of the business at some time but most think to spare the readers all the details (which might be one of the few reasons to be thankful for the print magazine's ever-shrinking word count). If this is really why DiCrescenzo decided to pack it in as a music writer, then he actually did the right thing--he was tired and it shows. Even the retraction that Pitchfork had to print after this was better than this article.
- Jeffrey A. Dvorkin: "Hip, But Inscrutable: Music Reviews on NPR" (NPR, June 30, 2004)
NPR's own ombudsman complains that their music critics are too esoteric. The problem is, the examples that he quotes are pretty smart and insightful and seem like they'd only be inscrutable to someone who didn't know anything about music, much less the average fan. Does NPR really think it's in its best interest to dumb down its journalism? Let's hope not.
- Jim Fusilli: "She Doesn't Need Michael Moore as Backup" (Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2004)
Maybe it's easy to pick on the Journal because it's not known to be a haven of quality popular culture coverage (which conservative publications are?) but ridiculous howlers like this deserve mention. Linda Ronstadt noted that Michael Moore was "someone who cares about this country deeply and is trying to help" at a casino show. How un-American is that? The end result is that, "a few unruly members threw drinks, ripped up Ronstadt posters and demanded their money back"--quite a riot, eh? And for all that, Ronstadt is reprimanded for speaking her mind during a concert. Fusilli's prescription? Shut up and sing. I wonder if he'd be as unsympathetic if Linda cheered the NRA or pro-lifers? Even Sunday morning demagogue John McLaughlin--himself far from a liberal patsy--said that Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon had a right to speak out at the Oscars a few years ago. My prescription for Fusilli? Shut up and don't write.
- John Harris: "The Bland Plays On" (The Guardian, May 8, 2004)
Not exactly news that U.S. culture is trying to gobble up the world and pity the poor, well-meaning superstar who tries to buck the system they're a part of. All of which doesn't explain that there is actually some good and great music being made in the States or that acts in other parts of the world almost always want nothing more than the money and perks that American superstars get.
- Daniel Henninger: "F-Word Fight Isn't Over Fee, Fi, Fo or Fum" (Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2004)
Seeing fit to dismiss everything that the FCC clamps down on as lowbrow trash that deserves to be censored, he conveniently forgets that bad taste is (or should be) protected by the constitution. If they'd apply the 'deceny' rules to filter out some of the highbrow art he loves, would he be just as much a cheerleader? If he's right that the decency police are a myth, does that mean we can disband the FCC?
- Brad Hirn: "Rock's Endangered Species" (Sick Among the Pure, July 2004)
Seems pretty heartfelt and sincere but also pretty confused--a lot of points seem to meander and aren't thought through enough. Michael Azzerad: "It's funny how naive that guy is--most of that piece could have been (and pretty much was) written twenty years ago. Also, someone should tell him that Siamese Dream was released by a major label."
- William Hogeland: "Emulating the Real and Vital Guthrie, Not St. Woody" (New York Times, March 14, 2004)
As Carl Wilson points out (regarding how Billy Bragg doesn't 'get' Woody Guthrie's true essence), "This is an almost comically inverse thing to say about Bragg. I couldn't count the number of times he's said Woody wasn't a saint (like, in those words) or emphasized things like his flying saucer interest or his wanting to get down with Ingrid Bergman...Not to slight the Rockets, tho' I'm not much of a fan of Blue Sky. But Hogeland sounds like he's ignorant of the very existence of the Mermaid Ave discs." By the way, a much better article that goes in search of Woody was David Hadju's New Yorker review of Ed Cray's Guthrie biography (March 29, 2004).
- Bernard Holland: "The Sound of Passing Time" (New York Times, September 19, 2004)
Even if you can parse the prose, good luck figuring out what he's trying to say because Holland himself can't tie together his own loose threads. CDs don't have the clarity of vinyl, granted, but why do we need to hear this twenty years after the fact? Yes, a lot of reissues are coming out and that's more confusing than helpful to some, but again, why do we need to pause and reflect about it at this particular moment? And what do these two things have to do with each other? Should we go back to cylinders or 78s so we can be truly happy?
- Nick Hornby: "Rock of Ages" (New York Times, May 21, 2004)
Admittedly, enough writers have already picked apart this soppy ode to ye good ol' days and thoughts about how music ain't got that swing now. You'd be amazed how many first time writers begin essays with the same premise. Shouldn't this guy know better by now or does he want to show off how out of touch he really is? Sad to see that being a best-selling author makes any of your opinions newsworthy. Also, it's depressing that such an essay is going to help harden the attitudes of his (and maybe even a younger) generation towards new music, as if this blather is indeed the truth.
- Graham Kibble-White: "If I Ruled the World" (Scotsman, June 30, 2004)
Just in case you needed some evidence or ammunition that rock critics are the effete insider bullshit artists that many people think they are, former Q editor Andrew Collins is there to provide it.
- Devin McKinney: "Can't Get Fooled Again" (The American Prospect, July 28, 2004)
A very cynical piece of defeatism: Every rock star sells out now (which, by the way, is not even true), so stop complaining. This does mine some pearls of wisdom, but if McKinney thinks it doesn't matter that Pete Townshend still needs to grub for money for his songs and then give them up to allergy medicine commercials, the boy's got a hole in his soul. Also, slapping around Paul McCartney and Carole King because they have political causes and aren't anarchists is totally ridiculous. Not to mention that for all his crying about the apolitical rock landscape nowadays, this completely ignores all the online anti-war songs that came out in the last year. Plus, if McKinney thinks that politics and political ideology are a coherent set of beliefs, he hasn't been reading the papers lately (for starters, ever wonder why many anti-abortionists still want to make the death penalty into nationwide law?).
- William Osborne: "Marketplace of Ideas: But First, The Bill: A Personal Commentary On American and European Cultural Funding" (Arts Journal, March 11, 2004)
Yes, this is listed as one of the best pieces of writing as well, but that doesn't excuse all of its lapses. Pop music is conservative today? (As opposed to when?) New York's outer boroughs are culturally deprived? (Poor Brooklyn.) Jazz at Lincoln Center is the fault of white hipsters and not just Wynton? Eminem is a racist who feeds into stereotypes? Oh, and Europe is thrown in America's face as a perfect model, without any problems at all--good to know.
- Michael Powell: "It's All About The Content" (FMBQ, July 6, 2004)
The FCC Chief is obviously lost and wandering after the courts beat back his blessings of Clear Channel's monopoly. Good luck trying to follow his 'logic' here. A good runner up would be "Don't Expect the Government to Be A V-Chip" (New York Times, December 3, 2004) where he defends all of his right to find indecency while refusing to define what it means.
- Devon Powers: "It's the End of the World As We Know It, and I (Don't) Feel Fine" (Popmaters, June 23, 2004)
It's really painful to list this here since (like Calvin Wilson below) Powers is a very smart, thoughtful writer otherwise. Though she earnestly struggles with why music and/or journalism about it have lost their way, this sad, confused kiss-off basically revolves around lamenting how political extremism is lost in music today, which is why it's not supposed to matter anymore. That's a very heartfelt sentiment that's held by many people but it's also a huge fallacy because it doesn't explain all the great pop music that wasn't directly connected to any political agenda, or why there have been a spate of anti-war and anti-Bush songs in the last year or so.
- Bruce Boyd Raeburn: "Louis and Women" (Best of New Orleans, September 7, 2004)
Hateful as it was to turn down funding for a conference just because of a paper that questioned Satchmo's relationships with women, the object of contention itself is basically an academic version of VH1's Behind the Music. Even then, Gary Giddins contends that Raeburn is misreading a quote from his book--in this election season when the truth gets twisted constantly out of shape, this is probably par for the course. And how about this quote that's given credence here: "(Armstrong) establishing phallic authority with that most piercing of instruments, the trumpet." I don't often agree with Stanley Crouch nowadays but this is indeed "psychobabble."
- Tom Strini: "Classical Musical World Being Pushed to Periphery" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sept 11, 2004)
Serialism and multi-culturalism as villains, plus assertions that rap has no melody (tell that to Outkast) and doesn't use live instruments (tell that to the Roots), plus totally ignoring the surging convergence of modern classical music and rock (Sonic Youth, Tortoise, Radiohead). Could somebody buy this guy a subscription to (insert name of almost any pop music magazine here) before he writes another column?
- Neil Turkewitz: "Copyright, Fair Use and the Public Interest" (Cultural Comment, December 2004)
Not surprising that a head suit from the RIAA would tell the industry what's in the public interest without including the public in the equation at all. At least when Hilary Rosen wrote mindless editorials like this, she was so wrong-headed that she was funny.
- Various Writers "Don't Believe the Hype" (The Guardian, December 4, 2004)
Oh those cheeky Brits...Snarking on the cherished heroes of rock! How bold. Not that Jim DeRogatis didn't do it better and more thoroughly (see superior scribing) or that a self-involved say-nothing like Dale Peck doesn't do this better, but even if most of the writers here actually believed what they wrote (debatable), their 'arguments' are even less convincing than your average TV soundbite. They do manage to get off a few good jokes here and there but the targets are so easy and obvious by now (bashing the Beatles/Elvis/Stones was maybe cool back in the punk days) you'll be excused if you can't read the whole article. Not surprisingly, they don't have the chutzpah to go after any current favorites (say, Franz Ferdinand), or any rappers.
- Calvin Wilson: "Marketers Have Made the Concept of Cool For Sale" (St. Louis Post Dispatch, March 15, 2004)
The avant-garde is dead? Rap didn't have cool in the '90s? Dylan's been doing the same thing for the last 40 years? Did this guy just tune out the last decade or what? Hopefully, this was just a bad day for Wilson as he's usually capable of much smarter and insightful writing, like "What Art Says About 9-11" (Post Dispatch, February 14, 2004).
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