By Steven Ward
By Steven Ward
Steven: Another Considine "trademark" is writing about music most rock crits won't touch with a ten-foot pole. I mean if the new P.J. Harvey or Beck is good, you will say so and why. But you have not been afraid to write about the merits of Cinderella's Heartbreak Station album for example. With the exception of Chuck Eddy, you were one of the first guys to write serious criticism about AOR and hair metal bands. How do you react to that?
J.D.: Um, that I have weird taste?
This is kind of a tricky issue, in part because what we're dealing with is the notion of a "rock critical canon," and in part because we're also dealing with matters of personal taste and identity. I don't know Chuck Eddy beyond what I've seen of his in print, so I don't know if he embraces AOR and hair metal because that's the music he likes best, or because he believes it is more important than critical faves like the Mekons or the Feelies, or because he gets off on taking a perversely opposite stance to many of his peers. And I do think the "why" in a situation makes a difference.
How so? Because to embrace something as a reaction against another thing you dislike is not merely disingenuous, it's missing the forest for the trees. After all, if you were to say that 'N Sync is better than Beck because it's honestly catchy and not trying to impress listeners who think they're too clever to fall for an obvious hook, what you're offering is a double criticism. You're reviewing both 'N Sync and Beck. In other words, you're acknowledging the other side even as you reject it, because you're making your dislike seem as important as your like.
I've long suspected that those who rail most vehemently against the banalities of mainstream pop do so because they can't stand the fact that they react to the music. It drives them crazy to hear a snippet of "I Just Called to Say I Love You" and then have the damned hook bouncing around their head for the rest of the afternoon. But rather than face the issue head on, and risk admitting that there's something appealing about the bald melodicism and sentimentality of such a tune, they instead go into denial, denigrating people who do like the tune, and even urging that the thing be wiped from the face of the earth. To quote the Bard, "Methinks he doth protest too much...."
Me, I don't pretend to be a cool guy. I'm not hip, I don't belong to a specific counter culture, and I don't really have any shame about the stuff that piques my interest. I do happen to like 'N Sync, and Savage Garden's "Truly, Madly, Deeply," and Limp Bizkit, and Faith Hill. I also adore PJ Harvey, and Radiohead, and Nine Inch Nails, and Randy Newman. Wanna make something of it? More to the point, I try to find something interesting in everything I hear. I don't immediately turn my nose up at a certain kind of music simply because it's not my "bag," as Austin Powers might say. Granted, I'm more likely at this point to want to play a new Astralwerks trance band than a new alt-rock guitar act on Merge, but that's more because I've liked more Astralwerks albums than I have Merge releases, not because I particularly prefer trance to alt-rock.
To an extent, this is the result of a decision I made fairly early in my career. In 1979, when I was just beginning to make some inroads into national music magazines, I was writing for the local alternative weekly in Baltimore, the City Paper. (For what it's worth, one of the original owners of that paper, Russ Smith, now publishes New York Press). I probably could have stayed there and followed the usual path, working my way to bigger alt-weeklies and then maybe into magazines, but my most immediate opportunity was with the Baltimore News American. Writing for a daily, though, would mean having to cover the broadest range of pop music, which at the time wasn't what I listened to.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that being forced to think and write about music I otherwise wouldn't listen to would ultimately make me a better critic. Because not only would it force me to work harder, but because you can't fully understand a sub-culture unless you have a good handle on the mainstream culture it's connected to. Once I made that leap, the rest was relatively easy.
Steven: In the same vein of the above question, you are the only critic I have ever read that has ever had anything nice to say about Genesis (one of my guilty pleasures and a band hated by 90 percent of the rock crit population). Besides your summation of their work in the Rolling Stone Album Guide and a wonderful feature you did on their "We Can't Dance" tour preparations for Musician, Genesis gets trashed. You don't seem to be afraid of writing about the music you like--fashionable or not.
J.D.: Like I said, I'm not a fashionable guy. So I guess I've got less to lose.
Steven: You don't just write about what the older bands are up to. I remember a great essay you did for Request about how people don't give new music and new bands a chance today and instead stick to their old, classic rock favorites. It was like you were warning them about the evolution of popular music.
J.D.: [I'm not sure there's a question in here. I appreciate the compliment, but what do you want me to address in this?]
Steven: How and when did you get the Baltimore Sun pop music critic gig and do you prefer that to the features and freelance reviews you do?
J.D.: Let me put it this way: I like being paid on a regular basis, and I like having job security, both of which the Sun provides. At the same time, it's nice to be able to write at length about things I don't really have cause or opportunity to address in the Sun. So it would be hard to say I have any real preference.
I will say that I do an obscene amount of work for the Sun. In the first four months of this year, I filed an average of five stories a week, every week, without a break. That's a lot of writing (we're talking 2,000 2,500 words weekly). It's good discipline, but damn, it's wearing.
Anyway, apart from the two-and-a half years I spent at the News American, I've written for the Sun all my professional life. But I didn't get put on staff until 1986. (Oddly enough, I am now the senior critic at the paper, as all the other current critics were appointed since '86.) As to how I got the job, back in '86 it was decided that there was enough need for regular pop music copy that there would be a union grievance filed if they kept doing it all through freelance. So they interviewed a bunch of people, and decided to offer the job to me. Pretty typical newspaper operation, really.
Steven: You have always been famous (or infamous) for your extremely short but insightful "Short Takes" reviews that used to be in the back part of the now defunct Musician. One of my favorites: "GTR--SHT." Thank God "Short Takes" has been revived in the new music mag, Revolver. Tell us about how you got involved in that.
J.D.: Basically because I knew Brad Tolinski and Tom Beaujour from Guitar World, and liked working with them. Like a lot of people, Brad had seen what the popularity of Q and Mojo means in terms of American interest in a music magazine that doesn't cater to the obvious cliques of music fandom--that is, the college rock snobs, the hip-hop purists, the disaffected pop fans who will buy a magazine only their favourite band is on the cover (and then not read any of the other stories). Basically, he saw that there was a need the other music magazines weren't meeting, and after much consideration and commiseration, came up with the concept that is Revolver. I'm very flattered to have been a part of that process, being as sick as everyone else of the current spate of American music magazines. To be able to write seriously and at length about music that isn't CMJ hip or "TRL" popular (that's College Music Journal and MTV's "Total Request Live" to those at home) is a blessing.
Steven: What do you think of the music mags out today? Now that mags like Creem, Crawdaddy and Musician are gone and Rolling Stone is a shell of its former self, do you feel like the '90s were an end to an era in rock journalism?
J.D.: Current music magazines pretty much suck. (That ought to get me a lot of work, don't you think?) Apart from Guitar World (which is often the best music mag the industry ignores), Revolver, and various newspaper critics, I don't read much of the modern music press. Frankly, I can only endure bits and pieces of Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe and the others. Spin is the smartest of the regular music press, even if the writing doesn't always live up to the magazine's concepts, and they frequently run features that make no pretense to objectivity or fairness. (That Limp Bizkit cover story, for instance.) Rolling Stone is generally the most professional, but their inability to decide whether they're a mainstream mag a la Entertainment Weekly, or a hip music mag like, um, Rolling Stone kinda hamstrings their coverage. I mean, really--either you hate the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, or you love them. You shouldn't sneer at them and then plunk them on the cover every three months.
Speaking of EW, I probably read more of that magazine than I do the mainstream music press. It helps that the editing is clean and consistent, and that the perspective can be snarky without seeming overly self impressed. But I can't help but wish Ken Tucker wrote more music reviews.
Steven: Who are your favourite music journalists working today and why do you like their writing?
J.D.: Well, I love Tucker's stuff, even when it's not about music. Jon Pareles can be very sharp, especially when he gets his dander up, and Ann Powers is such an entertaining essayist that I'm fascinated even when she really doesn't have anything to say (personal journalism goes only so far, after all). Dave Marsh, Charles Shaar Murray, Robert Christgau and Nelson George still make me want to think harder, even if I don't see as much of their work as I once did. Elysa Gardner, Tom Moon, Anthony DeCurtis, Gina Arnold and Barry Walters all manage to keep me humble and trying harder. There are probably other worthwhile reviewers out there, but to be honest, I don't really read that much music criticism.
What makes me react to a reviewer is a combination of the quality of his/her ideas, and the clarity and power of his/her prose. In some cases, I read because the perspective expressed is so unlike mine (Arnold, for example); in others, because the prose and sense of voice is so vivid and persuasive (as with Marsh, Christgau and Tucker). But I also get a fair amount of satisfaction on the prose end from former-music critics, like James Wolcott and Tom Carson.
There are also those reviewers whose work I read because I enjoy because I can't help but admire a good cheap shot (Jim Farber is aces at that) or because I enjoy getting pissed off at how wrong-minded their work seems (Jim DeRogatis is a star in this regard, though hardly the only one twinkling in the darkness). But at the risk of sounding like an old snot, I find most rock writing these days to be utterly without interest or merit. Much of what passes for criticism offers more in the way of attitude mongering than insight, and reads as if the joy of music is the last thing these writers would embrace.
Steven: You have published one book--a bio on Van Halen. Any chance of a collection of your features or reviews ever coming out in book form?
J.D.: Actually, what I contributed to The Rolling Stone Album Guide was enough to make a book in its own right (at least twice as much verbiage as Van Halen!). But yeah, I haven't exactly made book-writing a priority. It's not that I lack for ideas; time, however, seems to be forever in short supply. Nibbled to death by minnows--that's the story of my professional life.
As to why I haven't assembled a collection of my features or reviews, well, nobody ever asked me to. A lame reason, but there you go. Also, I tend to forget what I've written. OK, some things I remember, but for the most part, if I filed it a month or more ago, odds are I've completely put the story out-of-mind. And the prospect of sorting through my clips--which is to say the many boxes of unsorted stories I have in the basement--fills me with unspeakable dread. Should anyone want to publish a book of my journalism, I'd be happy to sort through those piles of paper. Lord knows, there'd be plenty to choose from.
Steven: What has been your favourite part of the job and does rock music still move you like it did in the old days? If so, what bands today are making you fall in love with pop and rock music all over again?
J.D.: What do I like best about music journalism? Is it the seven-figure salaries? The gorgeous groupies? The social prestige? The obsequious favor of editor's world-wide? Oh, all of it, of course. All of it.
OK, enough sarcasm. As a job, music criticism is not a particularly good way to make a living. A survey done by the National Writers Union back in the '80s showed that music writing was the lowest-paid specialty in journalism, and I doubt that has changed. If anything, the number of music-oriented web sites being filled with copy written for next-to nothing (or actual nothing) has probably worsened the situation. Then there's the prestige. In the general magazine world, music mags are generally seen as niche publications, and on a level well below that of food or sports mags. Not even Rolling Stone's attempt to become the new Esquire back in the mid-'80s was able to change this.
Then there's the world of daily paper journalism. When Virgil Thompson was writing for the New York Herald, he remarked that, as music critic, his prestige in the newsroom was slightly below that of the copyboys. That situation has changed only to the extent that few newspapers have copyboys anymore. To this day, most general journalism awards have no category for criticism. The one major exception, the Pulitzers, has never given the criticism award to a pop music writer. (Only two TV critics and one movie critic--Roger Ebert--have ever won. Most winners tend to be in the fields of literary, art, classical music, and architecture criticism.) The only pop music writer ever to have won a Pulitzer is Chuck Phillips of the L.A. Times--who won for beat reporting.
Why is being able to articulate an opinion on popular music such an ill-appreciated skill? In part because it's not one that lends itself to credentialling. To write about classical music, for example, many editors will expect the candidate to have extensive training in music, including a conservatory degree. To write about popular music, being able to name all three members of Hanson is usually qualification enough. Nor does it help that most pop music writing is abysmally bad. Not as prose, per se, so much as its utter inability to inform and illuminate. Many of my colleagues seem to believe that their opinion is the word of god, and needs neither support nor examination. So instead of thinking their theories through, they make blanket pronunciations (Limp Bizkit are thugs, 'N Sync is pap, Beck is a genius) and assume that's argument enough. There's no attempt to think deeply about the music, much less to try and understand what makes music we don't like work, or to look at widely-held assumptions (e.g., "The '60s was the greatest era of rock and roll") closely enough to see if there's really any merit to them. As such, the level of discourse in our field seldom rises above the level of "Is not!" "Is too!" squabbling. Is it any wonder we're not taken seriously?
So why have I stuck at it for so long? Mainly because thinking seriously about music is something I have always done, and that writing is the best way I know to work my arguments through. Some critics seem to see their job as a form of aesthetic housekeeping, in which the good are kept clean and shiny in their place of prominence, and the bad are tossed out like so much garbage. Me, I'm more concerned with understanding and analyzing the music around me. It helps that I love a vast variety of music, and get as much pleasure from hearing the Takacs String Quartet play Bartok as I do from the latest Aimee Mann or Steely Dan discs. But I also enjoy the play of ideas, the sense of accomplishment I get from seeing a larger pattern in a set of seemingly unrelated details. And writing well is its own reward, though one I don't achieve often enough.
As to whether or not "rock music" still moves me "like it did in the old days," the answer depends on how narrowly you define those terms. Do I still get a kick from re-listening to the Sex Pistols? Sure. Do I hear those records the same way? Of course not--I have too much experience, too much history with that music to hear it now as I heard it then. Do I find guitar-based rock to be as thrilling as it was 20 years ago? Of course not--the distance from 1978 to the present is about the same as the distance from 1956 to 1978. And just as Elvis Presley's early singles didn't carry the same power and novelty in '78 that they did when they were the latest thing, it would be foolish to expect the music that seemed edgy and modern in the first year of my career to carry the same impact now. Times change, and so have I.
Finally, you ask what music makes me fall in love with pop and rock all over again. Frankly, the list is too long and ongoing to enumerate. I still hear singles I'm compelled to play over and over, like a teenager; Q-Tip's "Vivrant Thing" spent almost a full hour on repeat in my CD player after I first played it. Marc Anthony's "I Need to Know" and Toni Braxton's "He Wasn't Man Enough" have also been in heavy rotation in recent weeks. I listen to a lot of classical music, and a fair amount of jazz and world music. Lately, I've become enamored of Japanese pop music, anything from Namie Amuro and Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki to Shikao Suga and UA and Dragon Ash. It's an expensive enthusiasm, Japanese CDs generally being in the $30 range, and I'm more often than not buying blind, since I usually have no idea what an artist sounds like before I pay for the CD. For the most part, though, I've really enjoyed what I've heard, even if many of my friends think I'm crazy to be amused by stuff as cheesy as Morning Musume's "Love Machine."
Granted, the demands of my job often keep me from playing things purely for pleasure--gotta keep up with the new release pile, the better to fill the ravenous maw of the news-hole--but I'm never a total slave to duty. Especially since I often like what I'm reviewing. And isn't that why I got into this racket in the first place?
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