Defeating the Partisan Politics of Rock 'n' Roll
or The Art of the Bullshit Critique
photos courtesy of Amazon
by Wes Freeman (May 1999)
Rock 'n' roll has the unique distinction of being the only art form that is defined just as much by its audience as it is by its creators. There is no Academy of Rock; in fact, there has been no real attempt among the rock intelligentsia (if there is such a thing) to get together and set out some objective criteria (thank Christ) for deciding what is good rock and what is bad rock. As such, rock 'n' roll consistently defies definition by anyone who would want to define it, while it remains perfectly recognizable to those who just wanna dig it. Nobody knows exactly what it is, but they know what they like.
While discussing Def Leppard's Pyromania in his book STAIRWAY TO HELL, Chuck Eddy says that "the primary impetus for good music-making [rock 'n' roll] has always been hunger, for fame, dames and bread." This indirectly suggests that bad music is motivated by different forces (i.e. love of your fellow man, a vigorous sense of justice in the face of tyranny, the sustaining of a stiff upper lip when confronted by wogs or jerries), and this presupposes, of course, that any human being alive is qualified to distinguish between good and bad music in the first place. Can it be done, as Eddy suggests, by looking at the motivations of good and bad music-makers? Very likely, nobody goes into showbiz without the faint glimmer of hope for fame, sex and/or cash. Using this method, we've got Tony Bennett on par with G.G. Allin and Dinah Shore across the couch from Iggy Pop (bet that'll never happen!). It's like looking for chocolate in a dog's ass.
Even if we chuck Dinah and Bennett, we're still stuck with conflict. Some will say that G.G.'s a charlatan or Pop's a dud; others would accuse them both of heresy, strap 'em down on Jerry Lee Lewis' piano, then wait for the encore. What if we go with talent? For sheer musicianship, Jerry Lee's got 'em both licked. (In fact, that gives Bennett the technical edge on G.G. and ditto for Shore on Iggy.) Ah! you say. But Iggy and Allin had ideas and challenged the role of the rock performer which was heretofore been confined to blah blah blah and they got naked a lot. So what? Jerry Lee challenged the blah blah blah, too, and I bet 2 out of 3 of you don't like him any better than the other two. In the age old technique vs. ideas tussle, ain't nobody gonna win out. Actually, no matter what side you pick, no matter what criteria you cook up, you're never gonna make it stick. There's always gonna be some freak band that you can't help but like and still can't justify liking (for me, it's the Police; I don't know why). Some say that rock is dead, some say it's better than ever, some folks probably still refuse to recognize it at all and prefer to wait around until swing makes a comeback (bet that won't happen either!). Rock is a democracy and these are its partisan politics.
It's a democracy because anyone who wants to call their music "rock 'n' roll" gets to. It's not a music that's solely about talent or solely about originality, although those can both incite feelings that could appropriately be described as "rockin'." If anything, it's about giving everyone, regardless of their lack of talent and/or originality, a chance at the "fame, dames and bread" or whatever-the-hell they want to get out of being a rock 'n' roller. Anyone can play three chords on a guitar. How can that be good or bad?
This is where the critics come in. Because rock can be anything, it can mean anything, too, and the temptation to make it do so is just toooooo enticing to let slip. Most folks will say that something is bad if it doesn't fit their tastes; on a purely subjective basis it's bad because they just don't like it. Critics give this a whole new spin: "I don't like Yes because rock 'n' roll is a pop form that can't support their artistic pretensions" or "I don't like the Coasters because rock 'n' roll is an art form that can't support their pop pretensions" or "the Sex Pistols were great because they negated everything that came before" or "I love the Beatles because they negated everything that came after," etc. There is a gap between the ideology of the rocker and the ideology of the fan. In that gap lies the listener's choice about what to love and hate. Also in there is the ideology of the critic; the bullshit critique.
This is the gap that is responsible for books like Greil Marcus' LIPSTICK TRACES and STAIRWAY TO HELL (and this article, too); works that try to confront the great post-modern swathe that is rock 'n' roll with a thoroughly reasonable, modern explanation for everything. Sure the average fan knows what he likes and doesn't like, but does he know what's good and isn't good? That's exploitable. The critic doesn't actually know what's good or bad either. If he/she's any good at his/her job, then he/she can only run on his/her intuition, because good rock critics are also rock fans. This won't stop the critic from trying to justify what rock 'n' roll can do to a person by setting it in the larger context of aesthetics (LIPSTICK TRACES), chalking it all up to teenage lust and paranoia (PSYCHOTIC REACTIONS AND CARBURETOR DUNG), or any other theory that has or hasn't yet been tried. Not only is there a gap between the ideologies of rocker and fan, but there's also a gap beteween critic and rocker; that is to say that the rocker is never conciously guilty of what the critic accuses them of. (Steve Howe doesn't turn to Jon Anderson, saying "Alright, J., gimmie some real pretension on this cut. We really need to put it over on all the fans with this one. Uh one two three fawah!") The critic, like any rock fan, lets the music hit him, and then analyzes his likes and dislikes; tries to explain them. Often, it gets blown up into a huge, farcical, tangent-filled mess that has nothing to do with rock 'n' roll at all (the bullshit critique is born). I would submit that this is perfectly justified.
Rock criticism has become an art form all to itself. Though a good rock critic is also a rock fan, the best work of that critic may have little or nothing to do with the music itself. Lester Bangs begins one of his greatest reviews (Chicago at Carnegie Hall, Volumes I, II, II, & IV) by saying, "I like this album because it's on Columbia." Rock critics try to write rock 'n' roll instead of playing it. (Excerpt from
So sure, critiques are just bullshit, but rock 'n' roll's just noise, so things even out in the end.
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