HEY, BUDDY, FIND ME A CRITIC WHO CARES!
I've been considering the role of criticism in the era of the Internet, the entertainment conglomerate, the niche market. By and large, culture is now pop culture, but it's impossible to pretend that it's still a shared experience. Rather, culture is the means by which we create individuality from the cacophony that surrounds us. There is no mainstream; there are few dominant strains worth identifying; there is way too much information to keep track of. Aren't critics supposed to help us sort through all this?
Now more than ever we need criticism that is idiosyncratic and passionate. Good critics are not reporters. They should not be objective. They should write about media they actually enjoy, and tell us what they see in it. Modern critics should have a command of their own subjectivity and a capacity to wonder. They should swoon. They should teach the audience how to love.
Unfortunately, critics, and criticism, are becoming more and more irrelevant. Their authority has been undermined by chat rooms, bulletin boards and online reviews from your fellow Amazon.com customer. The strategy of synergy has become really problematic, with AOL Time Warner magazines (Entertainment Weekly, Time, People) covering AOL Time Warner product (Lord of the Rings, The Sopranos, Linkin Park). In terms of conflict of interest, ostensibly “hip” voices are also suspect. Take, for example, The Fader, a neat-looking perfect-bound quarterly. It's funded by Cornerstone Media, a publicity company responsible for promoting a number of the musicians that have ended up on the cover. The legion of contrarian critics providing counterbalance are usually b-o-r-i-n-g. Too many of them view the world perversely — indie this, alternative that — and write about consensus “underground” artists as predictably as the mass media cover blockbusters and major-label superhits.
Figuring out the role of the critic is something that seems crucial right now. Of course, as I've told friends about my latest interest — criticism about criticism — they have proceeded to laugh their asses off. I've been accused of gazing ever deeper into my own navel. But I keep returning to art critic David Hickey's lapidary and most excellent 1997 essay collection, Air Guitar. It's a motherfucker of a book about art and democracy and America. I'm particularly taken by a quote from “Magazine Writer,” in which Hickey discusses his dead friend Grover Lewis — a forgotten features writer for Rolling Stone — and, more generally, the character of '70s pop crit:
You could still write a tight, astringent literary piece about a rock & roll band or a pop mogul or a movie set, or even an evangelist, and it would pass for hype — the assumption being that people were cool, and everybody was in on the joke. So we wrote as well and as wittily as we could; then, with what we thought of as profligate generosity, we sailed our pieces out, like paper airplanes, into the woozy, ephemeral ozone of Pop America — feeling ourselves part of this vast conspiracy of coolness that extended all the way from Keith Richards, in extremis somewhere in France, to the vast republic of scruffy kids flipping albums in mini-malls across the heartland . . . We did pieces about people doing pieces, out there in the savanna between the corporate jungle and the ivory tower.
That day is done, and nostalgia is stupid, but I believe there are aspects of the historical record worth further study.
There are two music critics I have in mind: Richard Meltzer, the first man to write a serious book about rock & roll, and Paul Williams, founder of the first real magazine about rock. They are geezers from the '60s. Williams was a true hippie, Meltzer a proto-punk. Their obsessions are powerful; their aim is true. They currently produce their work without professional, corporate or institutional support. Hell, they don't have much in the way of regular paying gigs.
But they're unique. And they give a shit. And that's important.