How to Be A Rock Critic
Jim DeRogatis (October 1996)
I left my job as pop music editor at the Chicago Sun-Times to go to ROLLING STONE after years of publicly attacking the mag for sucking because they hired a friend of mine as music editor and
because, when I told Mr. Wenner (publisher) to his face how RS sucked, the response was
"You're right, we need to change, we need what you do." When I actually got
there, it was as if that conversation had happened in a different universe.
Eight months of hell followed, toward the end of which I wrote the review
that I am including at the end of this missive. Wenner killed it and subbed a
positive one. Several weeks later, I got a call from the media columnist of
the New York Observer asking about it. I did not comment, but when he asked
if Jann was a Hootie fan, I said, "Jann Wenner is a fan of any band that
sells eight million records." Ran in bold as a pull quote next to Wenner's
picture. I was fired the day it came out.
(ED NOTE: The fact that Hootie's record company buys a lot of ad revenues in RS probably didn't help Jim either)
Lester (Bangs) was fired (from ROLLING STONE) in 1971 for writing a negative review of Canned Heat and "not being respectful enough of musicians," and I figured, "Well, what is
Hootie if not the Canned Heat of 1996?"
Hootie and the Blowfish
With SoundScan-certified sales of 8.5 million for its Atlantic debut,
Cracked Rear View, the humble South Carolina bar band Hootie and
the Blowfish hit that strata of hyper-popularity where people who never buy
records bought the record. But whether or not Fairweather Johnson
ever meets those chart accomplishments and to date, it ainít even coming
close- it is certainly its predecessorís artistic equal. Which is to say itís
an album full of what Hootie themselves call "silly little pop songs"- no
more, no less.
Tunes such as "Be the One," "Honeyscrew," and "Tucker Town" (which was
inspired by a band vacation to Bermuda) donít vary much from the formula of
Hootie hits like "Hold My Hand" and "Only Wanna Be With You." There are
insidious hooks aplenty and hints of Stax/Volt soulfulness courtesy of the
occasional Hammond organ and Darius Ruckerís pleasingly gruff vocals (think
Eddie Vedder imitating Otis Redding). All of the songs overflow with generic
jangly guitars that evoke denatured versions of edgier Southern popsters like
R.E.M. and the dBís, whose Peter Holsapple is reduced by the need for health
insurance to serving as fifth Hootie on organ, piano, and accordian.
These comfy, cozy sounds- the musical equivalent of Momís chocolate chip
cookies and a big glass of milk- are paired with lyrics that reek of
Hallmark-card sentimentality. "I thought about you for a long, long time/I
wrote about you, but the words donít seem to rhyme/Now youíre lying near/But
my heart still beats for you," Rucker sings in the weepy ballad "Tootie." Are
these the sweet nothings of a bunch of regular Joes struggling to express
their romantic feelings, or the trite cliches of hack songwriters who just
wanna get laid? It would be easier to believe the former if the band hadnít
chosen sophomoric sex jokes worthy of Beavis and Butt-head for their last
three album titles (Kootchypop, Cracked Rear View,
To these ears, Hootie are the blandest extreme of a wave of bands for whom
blame can be placed squarely on the Grateful Dead. The Spin Doctors, Dave
Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, and most of the other "baby Dead" or "jam"
bands try to uphold the Deadís ideals of exploring diverse musical genres
such as jazz, bluegrass, and worldbeat from a rock perspective, as well as
transcending the everyday through a combination of hallucinogens, music, and
community. Hootie doesnít even attempt the first (though they do stretch
things out a bit live), and they only succeed at the second if you consider
Bud Lite a psychedelic drug.
But the connection to the Dead is there in a recording style that reduces
American Beauty and Workingmanís Dead to their lowest
common denominators: a down-home hippie folksiness, a lilting melodic
approach, and, of course, that lazy, elastic groove. Hootie music never
rocks, and you certainly canít dance to it; at best, you just sort of do the
awkward white-person wiggle so prominent at Dead and baby Dead shows alike.
(Remember, too, that David Crosby, the Deadís secret weapon on American
Beauty and Workingmanís Dead, also crafted the harmonies on
"Hold My Hand.")
Come hear Uncle Hootieís band, playing to the crowds. More than 8 million
buyers canít be wrong. Or can they?
(originally written May '96)