Note From the Underground 

To the editors:

Darren Cahr's right that the music of "breakthrough" or "crossover" bands like Helmet is "the sound of cash registers ringing." But it's sadly symptomatic of the mainstreaming and commodification of what was once genuinely underground that he's "encouraged" by this. Cahr's thinly veiled Albini-worship, besides being another manifestation of Chicago's "Second City" complex, i.e. pointing to Chicago's best and hyperbolizing about them in a tremulous tone of voice (knock it off, everybody, Chicago's got nothing to prove), is another symptom of the same general trend, whereby the moderately hip (= worth checking out but nowhere near the cutting edge they'd like to think they're tuned in to, like, say, WXRT or the Reader) contribute to the watering-down process by giving it the stamp of critical legitimacy. The apotheosizing of figures like Nirvana's Cobain or Albini (one suspects he'd be the first to puke, or at least roll his eyes, puking not being worth the trouble) is going to lead straight to the same mentality that has the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd playing "Free Bird" sans vocals on a darkened stage with a single spotlight on an unmanned microphone. The currents that have culminated (for better or for worse) in bands like Helmet and Nirvana were originally supposed to be getting away from that kind of thing. Since Cahr's references to the Jesus Lizard as "the best band in the nation" and to Dinosaur Jr. as a "once-great noise band past its prime" are pinched straight outta the recent interview with Albini in New City, it's a little surprising that he didn't take it to heart that his hero was dissing precisely the tendencies that Cahr finds "encouraging." But not too surprising, seeing that Cahr is one of the legion of critics who can use the by now self-parodying term "alternative" with little or no sense of irony. Chart-topping bands who are getting big-buck deals with major corporations are "alternative" only in the sense in which Pepsi is an "alternative" to Coke. This is why Cobain tries to redefine the term in a way that lets him hang on to a scrap of self-respect. But labels aren't the point; music is. Besides sounding sappy, this would be too obvious to state if it weren't for the fact that critics so often forget it. Only someone obsessed with categories and their transgression ("genre miscegenation") can regard listening to both Tar and Cypress Hill as true catholicity of taste. I doubt Cahr'd know what to make of a real record collection.

John Mason
Rogers Park

Darren Cahr replies:

Thanks for amplifying the point I was trying to make about the word alternative. I agree with you that most of what's "alternative" exists on a corporate level inimical to good rock 'n' roll. What encouraged me about the current state of affairs was that wider audiences were getting to hear genuinely good bands, whatever their classification. I also agree with you that categories are lame and should be dispensed with--thus my sarcastic reference to "genre miscegenation," which you took with such a charming literalism.

If my record collection isn't as big and long as yours, am I disqualified from having an opinion? Your elitist take on the fun of criticism is both silly and mildly pathetic. As Daley the elder said with such eloquence: "I don't got to prove nothing to nobody." And neither do you.

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