The accidental evolution of a full-time theorist
By Phil Dellio
On page 145 of The Accidental Evolution of Rock'n'Roll, Chuck Eddy writes that "Liking music 'in theory' is what turns most rock critics into liars." I'm not sure if that includes me or not--Chuck and I disagree about music ten times as often as we agree, and although Chuck always assures me that I'm exempt from these proclamations, I suspect he really believes that "in theory" is the only possible way that someone might like R.E.M. or the Beatles or Hüsker Dü (as Chuck presumably once did, when he put Flip Your Wig in a year-end Top 10), and that therefore I'm susceptible to the same delusions as anybody else. Which is fine--wrong, of course, my opinions are forged far outside the realm of theory, but seeing as I've basically said the same thing about people who deify James Brown and George Clinton, I can't really complain if the accusation's thrown back at me. What really jumped out at me instead in Chuck's words was the phrase "in theory" itself. It stands to reason that someone who views music that way must have a theory to begin with, and I can't think of anyone who has more theories about music than Chuck. Sometimes they're theories about music criticism--e.g., liking music in theory is not good. I agree.
Here are some theories from Chapter 2 of Accidental Evolution, "Introductory Soapbox Speech: Why It's Good To Be a Hack":
Eight theories in a four-page chapter--there are a few more that I left out, some of them variations on the above. A few of these theories I agree with wholeheartedly, the first two especially. I think theories #5 and #7 are entertaining and meaningless. I wouldn't want to be trapped by any of them, to start viewing music from inside the theory. That, as I see it, would be the literal definition of what it means to like something "in theory."
Does Chuck get trapped inside his theories? A lot of times I think he does, and when he needs to climb out, he doesn't necessarily abandon the theory--sometimes he just invents a new one. A few years ago in Radio On (this is not a review of Chuck's book; it's a bunch of thoughts--and a couple of theories--about Chuck), Chuck was all over Salt-n-Pepa and R. Kelly for all the sex in their music: "Call me a prude (or just the dad of a nine-year-old), but I'm getting sick of all the gratuitous sex stuff in movies/TV shows/songs aimed at teenagers. I think it's a big lie--where are all these teenagers who are supposedly having sex all the time?" With Salt-n-Pepa's videos, Chuck found "their taste in male bodies pretty damn clichéd--why don't they ever lust over any fat or skinny guys?" The theory seemed to be that too much sex in pop music, especially when it comes in the shape of good-looking people, is a lie. Skip ahead to Chuck's Pazz & Jop ballot from last year, and Sebadoh gets nailed in the name of a very different theory: "One of the things that always bothered me about indie rock was its chronic fear of sex--no pretty bodies in the videos, no body in the rhythm or the voices. It's like it was all proud to be celibate, which to me just made it prudish and monklike." I imagine Chuck would say that the key word in his first complaint is "gratuitous"--there should be just the right balance of sex in pop music, and neither Sebadoh nor the Salt-n-Pepa of "Whatta Man" have found it. Or maybe the key words are "aimed at teenagers": Salt-n-Pepa aim their gratuitous sex stuff at 15-year-olds, which is bad, while Sebadoh aim their timid sexlessness at 23-year-olds, and that's bad too. Or maybe pretty bodies only belong in Sebadoh videos, where you wouldn't expect to find them--the "Olé!" theory of pop music, discussed in Scott's recent Popped interview with Frank Kogan. (In fact, if I understood Chuck's ballot properly, Sebadoh's failings have to do with a theory whereby you're supposed to make music that runs counter to your feelings and the type of person you are--like Axl Rose, who has "the courage to be a bad boy" despite himself. Notwithstanding that Axl Rose always struck me as a high-school bully pure and simple, I find something Francois Truffaut once said a little more comprehensible: "On days when I'm feeling merry, I shoot merry scenes, and on my gloomy days I shoot gloomy ones.") I have a different theory of what unites "Whatta Man" and Sebadoh for Chuck, one that bridges such seemingly contradictory views without the complicated juggling act.
Another of Chuck's theories has to do with the fallacy that in pop music, only "meaningful words" can equal meaningfulness: "I guess I'd say that when 'to mean' means 'to matter,' music MUST 'mean' to 'matter.' (My favorite songs sure mean a lot to me.) But where 'to mean' means 'to have words translatable as something important,' music must not necessarily 'mean' to 'matter' (though sometimes it helps)." A perfect example of this theory in action is bubblegum, which "had preposterous words that didn't make any sense nor pretend to, though sometimes the gobbledygook hid some quite ribald sentiments." This is another theory I count as a good one; I also get lots of meaning (which I couldn't explain if you asked me to) from lyrics that are either silly, obscure, or indecipherable, and probably so do most people who listen to music. I get lots of meaning from "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which I assume must be one of the songs Chuck has in mind when he wades his way through his feelings about Kurt Cobain: Chuck likes him, sort of, "even when he's just reciting his usual meaningless gobbledygook...Cobain was obviously blessed with a talent for pretty melodies and gnarly guitar parts if not comprehensible lyrics, so it's not like I avoid his outfit's output on PRINCIPLE." Or maybe "Smells Like Teen Spirit" isn't one of Nirvana's gobbledygook songs, even though it seems like the most obvious candidate: on page 117, Chuck throws a party where he actually does figure out what "Teen Spirit"'s all about. This is two pages after Chuck says he gets no more out of Nirvana's songs than the guy in "In Bloom" who sings along but doesn't know what it means. So: meaninglessness is the best way to be meaningful, except when meaninglessness is meaningless, which may or may not apply to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which may or may not make Nirvana worth avoiding on principle.
When I try to make sense of Chuck's opinions on Nirvana--and he seems preoccupied with them--my head spins; trying to separate the pretty melodies (Kurt Cobain makes Chuck think of his Dad, who also committed suicide) and the gnarly guitar parts (Weird Al Yankovic "blessed Nirvana with damn near the only honest rock criticism they ever received" when he targeted "the meaninglessness of [their] silly post-Burroughs songwriting schtick") from the not-comprehensible lyrics is hard work. The only thing I know for sure is that I've never had to go through such contortions myself in trying to decide whether or not I liked something. There's really only one place where equivocation of that magnitude even makes sense to me, and that would be somewhere that exists "inside theory." Two more Nirvana theories, mirror diminutions: "For us non-X-ers, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was like 'Ice Ice Baby' in 1990 or 'Achy Breaky Heart' in 1992--a surprise crossover, a fun bopping novelty tune," and "kids who bought Nirvana's hype already look back at it with the same bemused affection that people my age look back at 'My Sharona.'" I would love to know who all these kids and non-X-ers are that Chuck consulted. I belong to the second group as much as Chuck, and I've never once thought of "Teen Spirit" in the same way that I do "Ice Ice Baby" (which I like) or "Achy Breaky Heart" (which bores me), nor do I know of anyone else who does; the kid sample must be drawn from Linus's carpool. Putting those three songs together is entertaining, and if you've had lots of practice at that kind of rhetoric, you can take just about anything and make it sound credible. I once proved that Morrissey was the same person as Cliff Richard, and also that Milli Vanilli were better than Bob Dylan--it's easy, as long as you keep the argument theoretical. None of it actually has anything to do with anything.
I'm getting bogged down in one specific example of something I see all through Chuck's writing: that a lot of his theories, his criss-crossing explanations of why he decides to embrace certain things and disparage others, are made up on the spot--after-the-fact rationalizations of the basic truth that he just can't admit to liking critically endorsed music without a lot of untenable backflips and razzle-dazzle shell games. It's not a new theory, and even Chuck himself admits that the driving force behind his writing is to provide a counterbalance to what everyone else is saying at any given moment. Or at least he usually admits to this; there have also been times with me when he's been a little defensive about the charge, and other times where he's been defensive in one paragraph of a letter and then will admit to it with a shrug three paragraphs later. It's true and it's not true, and what's the difference anyway?
I use the word "decides" in the above paragraph intentionally, but it's not my word, it's Chuck's. Writing about a Bone Thugs-n-Harmony record two Radio Ons ago, Chuck hedged that "I haven't quite decided if I want to like [this] or not." To me, that's a startling statement, especially coming from someone who claims that it's other critics who appreciate music deliberatively and theoretically. It goes a long way towards explaining so many of Chuck's about-faces in recent years. Sometimes Chuck decides that he doesn't want to like Hole or Liz Phair or Beck, sometimes he decides that he does. It's a decision-making process, and one's decisions are a lot easier to manipulate than one's feelings.
The connection Chuck makes between his father's suicide and his problems with Nirvana, a connection first made on the heels of Kurt Cobain's death, would ring a lot truer if a) he hadn't already been knocking Nirvana for three years by that point, and b) Nirvana weren't one of about seven or eight consecutive Pazz & Jop winners where Chuck's found something or other to complain about (definitely every one since Ragged Glory in 1990; probably every one since Sign 'O' the Times in 1987). I'm not trying to be mean or presumptuous here--I'm not commenting at all on a real tragedy in someone else's life--I'm just saying that Chuck is again inventing a theory on the spot to explain away the much simpler truth that Nirvana is too much of a critic's band (times ten) for him not to make it a point of honour to spend at least a little time ridiculing them. Again, Chuck readily admits that this is what he does--since everyone else is preoccupied with what's good about Nirvana and Hole and Liz Phair (and Sebadoh, and "Whatta Man," and Hüsker Dü...), it's up to Chuck to expose what's bad about them. That's not a theory, but it is a system, and in both cases you start with the answer and then make up the questions as you go along.
But Chuck likes Hole and Liz Phair, and he likes Beck, too--he puts Exile in Guyville in Accidental Evolution's discography ("her voice is too small whether she's being sarcastic like the Waitresses [which I prefer] or sincere like Scrawl"), ditto for Live Through This ("More or less a mediocre imitation of either X [circa 1981] or Sonic Youth [circa 1986]...The only song that seemed a little bit fun was 'Rock Star'"), and he's on Beck's wavelength so much right now that Chuck even wants to be friends with him ("'Loser''s verses are just gibberish without punchlines...and the rest of Beck's album is hokey unlistenable bullshit"). The quotes are lifted from old Radio Ons, where Chuck was writing about records that were on their way to sweeping year-end polls; the reversals came later, after the polls were safely out of view. Actually, it's not that straightforward--the Liz Phair quote comes from a "Fuck and Run" comment with a pretty good score attached (7.5, which Chuck was quick to remind me of when I inquired about his Liz Phair about-face--the 7.5 was proof that he'd always liked her), and the Beck quote helped to set up an even better score (8.5). When I told Chuck that I wanted to write about my disagreements with Accidental Evolution, he offered that maybe he should write about the things that he disagrees with himself. Chuck thinks it's dishonest not to upend your opinions continuously and devour your own history as you press forward. When we had an e-mail argument about the Beatles' "Yes It Is" last summer, I was using my lifelong attachment to the song as "a silly sign of integrity"; as laid down in the book, I was part of a "somber institution," not "messy like the world." Obviously no one's ever going to accuse Chuck of using his highly fluid opinions on Hole or Liz Phair as a silly sign of integrity, and there isn't a lot of other music, either, where he hasn't been first one place and then another. Sometimes, like with "Loser" and "Fuck and Run," he's both places at once. It's hard to argue with a moving target, and Chuck has become a genius at making himself the movingest moving target around.
Most of the crisscrossing with Chuck takes place between the lines, in letters and conversation and interviews (or in things like Evolution's discography or Radio On's numerical ratings, both of which allow Chuck to indicate that he likes something without actually having to say anything good about it). When he's writing, though, critically-lauded music from the past 15 years (spanning Chuck's writing career) is generally brushed aside with ridicule or indifference. It's the equivalent of a rimshot with Chuck--Sonic Youth, bam; R.E.M., boom; the Replacements, thump--and I'm so accustomed to having it tacked on to any mention of these people, and many others like them, that I immediately notice its absence on those rare occasions when it doesn't come. The most surprising moment in Evolution for me is on page 224, where Chuck gets through a few lines on Hasil Adkins (a '50s/60s guy who started to get written up in the Voice and elsewhere in the late '80s) without once dismissing what seems like the most obvious target in the world for Chuck. As soon as I started to read this passage ("Before the '50s ended, rockabilly psychotic Hasil Adkins..."), the voice in the back of my head that's been reading Chuck for years automatically began to fill in the rest of the sentence with words like "lame," "timid," and "critical hoax." It never happened, a conspicuous exception that for me only proves the rule. Much more typical is the omnipresent rimshot that accompanies Sonic Youth throughout the book:
42) "There's too much proto-Sonic-Youth
62) "Others [like Sonic Youth] fall flat
113) "...Sonic Youth made loud empty mood
114) "I'm sure [Sonic Youth] were overjoyed
177) "Sleater-Kinney at least managed to front
243) "'How do you plan an accident? That's what
244) "But one problem with 'noise-rock' [like
313) "All those polite little whispery Sonic
I've quoted extensively because a) Sonic Youth is another group that Chuck sometimes claims to like (ultimate proof for Chuck: Sister is listed in Evolution's discography), and b) the above accounts for eight out of the ten times they're indexed in Evolution, omitting a neutral reference early in the book and some throwaway praise for their Plastic Bertrand cover towards the end--derision echoes their name in Chuck's writing incessantly, like we might all of a sudden forget it's Chuck we're reading if the echo weren't there. The same is true of R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, Pavement, and other Pazz & Jop standbys of the past 15 years. Judging from the accompanying interview, Neil Young and the Pet Shop Boys are the newest critical white elephants who've been exiled from Chuck's favour--which for Chuck doesn't stop at deflating Harvest Moon and Bilingual, it requires that he go back and discredit After the Gold Rush and "Left to My Own Devices." ("The past, he reflected, had not merely been altered, it had been actually destroyed. For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?...All history was a palimpset, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary"--Nineteen Eighty-Four.)
I don't know why Chuck continues to feel the need to do this. I'd draw an analogy with Chuck's aforementioned words on the obvious trap of trying to make noise-rock surprising, words I agree with completely. Similarly, making fun of Sonic Youth catches your attention the first few times, but 79 times later it's just part of the scenery, what you expect. Chuck is always complaining that other rock critics never "risk" anything in their writing, but I just don't see where the risk is in retreating to the same old targets again and again like a security blanket of sorts. (Even the new targets are old ones--this year's Pazz & Jop winner is last year's Pazz & Jop winner is 1989's Pazz & Jop winner...) By now, the only kind of a risk Chuck could take (if by risk you mean departure from well-established routines) would be something on the order of "I can't believe how good this new Sonic Youth record is--everyone's right, it's the record of the year." Now that would make me sit up and take notice. And if Chuck actually does like Sonic Youth, maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to say so once in a while, unamibiguously and without qualification. "Stumbling onto moments that aren't completely wretched" doesn't really count.
But Chuck wants to be out in the "hallway," and that's not the place to write nice things about Sonic Youth. In a theory borrowed from Frank Kogan, the hallway is where you're rude, where you make fun of your idols, where you complain (or, to be more precise, where Chuck says you "learn" to do these things; like so much with Chuck, these things are a learned behaviour, something you consciously train yourself to do). The hallway doesn't have rules like the classroom, where everyone marches (lethargically) in lockstep, saying the same things about the same records, never surprising anyone, never raising a ruckus. Speaking as someone who spent a lot of time talking about music in middle school and high school hallways, I remember that what my friends and I mostly did was talk about the music we loved, and if it happened to be Neil Young or The White Album or Who's Next, it didn't automatically follow that we were therefore supposed to make fun of it because rock critics everywhere liked the same music. Real hallways aren't like that, just theoretical ones. And theoretical ones can be just as rulebound as classrooms; in Chuck's hallway, the rule is that you make fun of Sonic Youth.
The theory that made me do the biggest double-take in Accidental Evolution can be found on page 51: "Slow songs have more to do with pre-rock gloop than with what most people think of as rock'n'roll, but pre-rock gloop is an intrinsic PART of rock'n'roll--part of what makes rock'n'roll rock, in fact, because if everything rocked what would we be able to compare it to?" Outside of "gloop"--the suggestion seems to be that slow equals gloop, which obviously isn't true pre-rock, post-rock, or otherwise--again, I agree with Chuck. I've often thought about attempting a book on ballads, and the rough outline that I carry around in my mind begins just before rock'n'roll, with Johnny Ray and Nat King Cole and Patti Page; there's something in that music that never went away, and you can make a case that all rock'n'roll ballads, either directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, are an attempt to take a backwards leap to a moment that existed just before Elvis. So I agree with the theory, it's just incredibly ironic to hear it coming from Chuck, who has less patience with and less interest in beauty as it exists in pop music than any writer I've ever known. I couldn't begin to count the times I've been told by Chuck that the problem with some song I consider beautiful is that it "doesn't rock," or doesn't have any energy, or doesn't have a rhythm section, or it's too small, or too timid, or too lazy, or too subtle (subtlety being the most grievous offense of all with Chuck), like all pop music's supposed to aspire to one thing or Chuck doesn't have much use for it (so much for "what we would be able to compare it to?"). "Man on the Moon" doesn't rock, "Jack-Ass" doesn't rock, Liz Phair's voice is too small on Exile's pretty songs, Neil Young's rhythm sections are wimpy, the third Velvet Underground album's timid, the Shoes didn't put enough power into their power-pop, etc., etc. I've been hearing variations on this refrain for years, most often directed at music that means a lot to me. Sometimes the carping touches on the surreal: the problem with the Beatles' "Yes It Is," Chuck told me, is that it's "too slow." As I think I once wrote Chuck in connection with something else, complaining that "Yes It Is" is too slow is like jumping on Willie Mays for not being a very good soccer player. I'm happy to see an argument being made for the importance of ballads in rock'n'roll history, but I think that Chuck must be speaking in the abstract again. The only connection to the subject that he's ever indicated to me is one that sits somewhere between antipathy and hostility.
Really, it's not a question of beauty at all, it's back to the classroom/hallway distinction. R.E.M., Beck, Liz Phair, Neil Young, the Velvet Underground, the Beatles, and by now even the Shoes created their beauty from inside the classroom, and that's the kind of beauty Chuck scorns; Color Me Badd, though, were out in the hallway, so their gloopy-and-then-some "I Ador Mi Amor" is a "beautifully bilingual lambada ballad," an "important teenydream hit." I have to be honest: to say that "I Ador Mi Amor" is beautiful and "Yes It Is" too slow, I think you either don't have much feeling for ballads or you're trying to make a theoretical point of some sort. You can't raise much of a ruckus writing about how beautiful you think some Beatles song is.
Raising a ruckus is synonymous with Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer, and Chuck is viewed by many as carrying on that tradition. (A tradition it is: Trent Reznor makes noise-rock because Big Black and Throbbing Gristle and "Sister Ray" convinced him that noisy is the one thing that rock music should always be, and Bangs and Meltzer must have convinced Chuck that raising a ruckus is the one thing that rock criticism should always do.) At times, Chuck seems to share this view: a few weeks ago he e-mailed to a bunch of people a funny early-70s Bangs primer on how to become a rock critic, which he prefaced with a short note that "I never read this before just now. Honest." I think the disclaimer had to do with Bangs saying that rock critics are pompous, with his advice that because the music's trivial garbage anyway you should "fake 'em out every chance you get," and especially with this passage:
the rock critics in the country, no, 90% of
All of that is Chuck--ridiculing theory, cutting the music down to size, undermining the whole enterprise and anybody who writes about it.
I read the article a little differently. The key passage for me comes later, when Bangs writes about where these theories take people:
gotta find some band somewhere that's maybe even
If you adjust the wording a little--substitute "of a critical tabula rasa" for "arcane," "Frank Kogan" for "the group's manager and a member's mother"--and that's Chuck again. Boney M, Kix, Disco Tex, Quarterflash, Will to Power, Caifanes, L'Trimm, Stacey Q, countless others--they all beat the Beatles black and blue, and the rest of us are just too timid and scared to see the obvious truth of this. There are many helpful theories to help explain what we're missing: there's the Olé theory, the hallway theory, the Pips theory, the sellout theory, the John Waite rule, etc.
My favourite iconoclast is baseball writer Bill James, who 15 years ago completely turned around the way I look at baseball. James is also theory-driven--his Baseball Abstracts from the '70s and '80s are full of them, things like the Johnson Effect, the Brock6 System, Similarity Scores, the Reservoir Estimation Technique, the Shotton Syndrome--and I can see parallels between James and Chuck, a comparison jokingly made by Chuck himself in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer interview/article on Accidental Evolution. There's one major difference for me: James's attacks on conventional baseball wisdom in those Abstracts weren't merely startling, they were also amazingly, irrefutably, wonderfully true. Once you'd read James, it was no longer possible to take seriously the idea that Steve Garvey might be as good a baseball player as Mike Schmidt, that entire offences could be constructed around the stolen base, or that the mark of a good baseball team was that it won the close games. All of these views were taken as self-evident at one time (some still are, unfortunately); with clear and devastating logic, James came along and demonstrated how there was no truth whatsoever to them, or to many other accepted truisms about the game. But the guiding principle with James was always to uncover what was true; he didn't waste any time trying to convince you that Bill Plummer was a better baseball player than Steve Garvey (much less that Bill Plummer was a better baseball player than Mike Schmidt). It's pretty much impossible to "fake 'em out every time" in a baseball argument--empty theories are very easy to disprove.
But you can't disprove anything when it comes to music. Were Disco Tex and Quarterflash better than the Beatles, or Loverboy better than the Replacements? I can't prove that they weren't--obviously I know that they weren't, just as anyone without a specific point to make or a theory to prop up knows that they weren't, but it's not an argument you can objectively win. I suspect that Chuck's decision to abandon sportswriting for rock criticism may have had something to do with the brick wall you encounter when you try to raise a ruckus by telling the world that Bill Plummer was better than Mike Schmidt. If you're as good and entertaining a writer as Chuck, it's a lot easier to make people suspend disbelief long enough to take seriously the idea that maybe they're missing something when it comes to Boney M and Quarterflash. Bill Plummer is always going to be Bill Plummer no matter how dazzlingly you're able to write circles around him.
I've listened to a little bit of Scott's interview with Chuck, and there's one part that jumps out at me as forcefully and definitively as the Bone Thugs-n-Harmony line from Radio On. It's not Chuck's explanation of why "School's Out"'s effect on the 14-year-olds of 1972 was more authentic than "Smells Like Teen Spirit"'s effect on those of 1991--that I found incomprehensible, especially seeing as Chuck tries to prove it in the negative, using as his litmus test the reaction of his own 11-year-old self who admittedly didn't care much about pop music. The line that for me sums up so much else about Chuck's methods--the reversals of opinion, the complex circuitry of theories and counter-theories, the willfully anti-doctrinaire tastes--is what he says about the seemingly straightforward act of liking something: "I mean, did you ever--is it possible for you to truly like something? Or is it, you know--do I really like feta cheese on pizza? I don't know, I convinced myself I like it. What does that even mean?"
From someone else, I'd consider such a question truly bizarre. With Chuck, it makes sense. It explains why I can take an argument about a Beatles song really personally--especially when I'm arguing with someone whom I think is just playing games with me, who's testing out theories and trying to raise a ruckus--whereas Chuck can't understand how anyone could take any argument about pop music personally. It's just a pop song; it's not something that could really mean anything to me, it's just something I learned to, or decided to, or convinced myself to like.