Current Trends in Rock Criticism: A Seminar 

Robert Ray: Beware of "critical senility," aka geezerism

Hitsville spent last weekend in Columbia, Missouri, at a University of, Missouri conference called "On the Beat: Rock 'n' Rap, Mass Media, and Society." The affair was designed as an academic-journalistic summit on rock, bringing together various professor types (the University of Illinois' Larry Grossberg; DePaul's Deena Weinstein, author of Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology) and critics (the New York Times's Jon Pareles, Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis) for four days of meetings on campus and nightly music at Columbia's beloved Blue Note, where participants saw Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, and Chuck Berry on successive nights.

Two sessions stood out for me. One featured a paper given by the University of Florida's Robert Ray. Besides being a professor of English and the director of the school's film studies program, Ray is the songwriter and producer who gives Vulgar Boatmen records their lyrical density and conceptual framework. (Ray's partner, Dale Lawrence, runs the touring band out of Indianapolis; the pair record with another band in Florida.) Ray's paper was the most elegant and pointed of those I heard at the conference. His comments on contemporary rock criticism dovetail nicely with my own prejudices (indeed, they duplicated the themes of the panel I helped organize), so I'll repeat them here.

Two syndromes are currently choking American rock criticism. The first, which Ray calls "critical senility" (Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis rather more bluntly describes it as "geezerism"), is what happens when aging critics lose sympathy with and even the capacity for understanding new and youthful works. Ray traced the phenomenon back to the hostile reception given the independent Impressionists' exhibitions in the 1870s. While this problem probably has some resonance in genres like film and dance, it seems to have a particular potency in modern rock music, as the natural arrogance of the baby boomers ("Hey, I know. what good music is--I grew up on the Beatles") suffuses both the mainstream and what was once the alternative media. Manifestations occur primarily at daily newspapers without good rock critics, the newsweeklies, and, increasingly, at onetime countercultural publications like Rolling Stone, which by assiduously chronicling the activities of aging 60s stars and virtually ignoring rap can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of hostility to new music. Indeed, writer Alan Light was recently on MTV defending the magazine's tepid coverage of rap on the grounds that the subject had to be carefully spoon-fed to a reluctant audience.

The other syndrome, a kind of geezerism in reverse, comes when writers, afraid of going critically senile ludicrously grope about to embrace every new musical event, both to reinforce a youthful image and, not incidentally, to keep from missing the next big thing. Ray calls this "overcomprehension." Spin, which annually designates some obscurity as "band of the year," is its patron saint. Here's another example: a year or so ago Spin reviewed a demo tape by the California band Pavement, concluding with a line to the effect that the band was "inventing rock and roll again." Pavement is the latest indie guitar band, with a nice off-kilter sensibility and the ability to pull off an occasional songwriting coup, but it's not inventing anything; Spin was just looking for a big claim to make. The writer says any damn thing he wants, and the institution lacks an editor responsible enough to rein in irresponsible claims. Conceptual problems like these threaten to give criticism a worse name than it already has.

The conference's other signal moment came in a lengthy jeremiad by one Richard White, who leads a coalition that formed to oppose Washington State's so-called "erotic music" bill. White's presentation came at a closing-night panel on censorship, fueled by recent news that Warner Brothers had dropped Ice-T after a dispute about the cover art for his new album, Home Invasion. White's screed, a mind-numbing recitation of anticensorship cliches, was delivered to a crowd of overwhelmingly liberal academics and journalists. The Washington law--which was passed as a "child pornography" bill and is now in the courts--is of course fruitcake legislation. But why is it that the issue fires up the most overbearing impulses in activists? Another crippling blow against censorship was struck later, as Jonathan Cummings, an ACLU fellow from New York, began grilling Blue Note owner Richard King, who had said he'd consulted with police before a recent Ice-T show, just as he did for concerts with other potentially rowdy crowds, from European techno bands to--get this--Kansas. The Ice-T show went on, but still Cummings chided King, who had "penalized the artist" by suspecting that his fans might cause trouble.

This sort of internecine scab-picking obscured questions about censorship that are more interesting. If we've been living in such a repressive society, how to explain the unprecedented explicitness of current movies, books, and records? Where in the Constitution does it say that Warner Brothers has to release Ice-T records if it doesn't want to? Does artists' right to speak include the right to shove their opinions down people's throats? Hitsville thinks that most censorship moves in America are reactive; it's difficult to feel sympathy for their supporters, but it seems that in an important way they are being manipulated. If Ice-T makes a living as a provocateur, he would starve if he couldn't manage to offend someone. The most naive question of the session came from a student who asked plaintively, "What's the big deal about 'fuck'?" No one bothered to tell him that if "fuck" didn't bother people, it wouldn't be "fuck."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Fulton Davenport.

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