Monday, March 31, 2008

Critical Overcomprehension

In his witty and insightful book, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) William Goldman, a highly successful screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but also a wry critic of Hollywood, observes that a Hollywood studio head is very much like the manager of a baseball team: each and every day he wakes up knowing that sooner or later he is going to be fired.

No doubt the vast majority of today’s critics--of the theater, movies, music, contemporary fine arts--wake up each morning in a similarly precarious position, not necessarily thinking they will be fired from their privileged critical occupation, but that most certainly and with a creeping, unavoidable inevitability--like the day of their death--they will be wrong. What is a critic’s deepest fear? To have erred in judgment, to have made the wrong call, in short, to have missed the boat.

No music critic wants to miss the boat--to have critically underestimated, or what’s worse, to have dismissed the next Velvet Underground, for instance--so in order to avoid making such an unwitting mistake, the critic engages in what Robert Ray, employing a term coined by Max Ernst, calls overcomprehension (How a Film Theory Got Lost, Indiana University Press, 2001, p. 82). Ray writes:

Aware of previous mistakes, reviewers become increasingly afraid to condemn anything....Hence ... [one] ... of modern criticism’s ... great dangers, what Max Ernst called “overcomprehension” or “the waning of indignation”.... (82)

No critic, of course, can see beyond the curtain of time. Time is the ultimate critic, and the critic’s limited perspective doesn’t allow him to see beyond his own pitifully narrow moment in history. Critical overcomprehension--the act of giving every new record an equally glowing reception--is a result of the critic’s deep fear of being judged by history as wrong. No one wants to be, for instance, television critic Jack Gould, who reviewed the Milton Berle Show appearance of Elvis Presley for the New York Times in 1956:

Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His specialty is rhythm songs which he renders in an undistinguished whine; his phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner's aria in a bathtub. For the ear, he is an unutterable bore, not nearly so talented as Frank Sinatra back in the latter's rather hysterical days at the Paramount Theater. (qtd. in Robert Ray, 80)

Of course, as Ray points out, Gould’s kind of critical error had its own unintended consequences: such gross critical mistakes, Ray argues, led to “rejection and incomprehensibility as promises of ultimate value” (82). In other words, if an album sold poorly, or the artist who recorded it was given scant attention--or worse, completely neglected in his time, the record must therefore be great, perhaps even a masterpiece.

I suppose we all have adopted our favorite neglected artist, the artist whose critical neglect or, if you will, martyrdom, ironically, is the sign of greatness, of ultimate value. In my own music collection, this sort of artist is represented by, among others, Tim Buckley and Phil Ochs.

But I’m wondering, what do we do with the opposite case, the artist who is the critical establishment’s darling and whose records we therefore own, but never play? (Perhaps I'm a heretic, but I find myself playing only certain selections of Trout Mask Replica, not the entire disc.) The presence of both sorts of records, side by side in our music collections, reveals the persistent problem of what Robert Ray calls the Gap, the problem of assimilation, the failure of a new or unusual artistic style to be made intelligible to the public. Although rock 'n' roll is now over fifty years old, we still find ourselves struggling to fully comprehend its challenges and complexities, rather like a person who has difficulty reading or understanding the lines indicating contours and elevations on a topographic map.

1 comment:

Tim Lucas said...

I've been reading rock criticism and relying on it ever since I first seriously began buying albums, around the age of 13. Fortunately I had friends who were not only older but blessed with good taste, so I was usually able to read an enthusiastic review in CREEM or CRAWDADDY and could find someone willing to lend me a few things by the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, or the Mothers of Invention.

Perhaps consequently, I've never had a problem with picking out music that has "rock critic cred," but my taste has sometimes failed me when it comes to guessing what the masses are going to embrace. For example, when I heard the first Aerosmith album, I remember liking "Dream On" and maybe one other song, but when I saw them live as the opening act for Mott the Hoople, I pegged them as a Rolling Stones imitation act that, slick or not in their delivery, audiences would see through. Perhaps because the Stones had just issued a not-very-popular (or particularly Stones-like) album, GOAT'S HEAD SOUP, Aerosmith became extraordinarily popular. And "Dream On," which became a bit grating after a dozen or so listens, personally speaking, became an FM radio perennial. This was the same period that Jefferson Starship's "Miracles" became another FM (and then AM) hit, and one that I found even more annoying to replay. By the same token, I liked early R.E.M. to the extent that I was genuinely surprised when they became an arena-filling band (coincidentally, around the time I stopped listening to them).

I reviewed a lot of albums for a local entertainment paper in the 1973-74 period. Everything I reviewed favorably then still holds up for me, though the music released since may have pushed some of it away from me over the years. I recently listened again to the jazz group Oregon, about whom I enthused in an early review; they hold up and so does Peter Sinfield's solo album STILL, though I don't listen to either much anymore.

Critics have their own blind spots, of course; for example, anyone looking for Bob Dylan's truly best album since BLONDE ON BLONDE would have a hard time identifying it from rock criticism, as so many records have been accorded that distinction. Also, ROLLING STONE has never cut The Monkees a real break, with Jaan Wenner still barring them from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because they didn't play their own instruments -- evidently ignorant of the fact that studio musicians assisted all the major West Coast Sixties acts, from the Ronettes to the Beach Boys. My own blind spot for a long time was a dislike of country music, so I found it difficult to appreciate any music that was influenced by any shade of country music. Over the years, though, by listening to more folk music and more recently to performers like Lucinda Williams and Kasey Chambers, I've become better able to listen to and appreciate artists like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, though I can't forsee a time when I'll ever be able to delve into the works of someone like George Jones or Faron Young. Maybe I need to know the right person to open me up to that music -- the doors to new musics often come off their hinges through the intervention of new relationships and shared experience.

I do think you're missing a lot by not listening to TROUT MASK REPLICA in its entirety, as it's always been something I've consumed whole, and each song has its own dense pleasures to offer, either compositionally or in terms of performance. But I can think of examples of critical darlings whose work I admire more than I enjoy it -- Scott Walker and The Fall, to name two. There are even bands that I know are great but to whom I listen rarely -- The Clash is a good case in point. I find The Clash too rooted in a political realist context to play very frequently, and my favorite songs of theirs are the ones that don't take themselves so seriously: "Janie Jones" comes to mind. Now that I think about it, there are also artists I love more than I like them, like Laura Nyro, who I believe had more natural music, rhythm and warm sex appeal in her voice than any other female vocalist I've heard. I listen to her for the pleasure of hearing her voice, hearing her perform, but I like her most when she performs cover songs, or original songs of her own that I first heard performed by other artists.

I find I favor music that comes equipped with a lyrical vision, a sense of its own landscape. That lyric sense can be serious or poetical (as in The Doors), utopian (Jefferson Airplane), dionysian (The Stooges), absurd (Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu), abstract (Public Image Limited), rooted in blues mythology (PJ Harvey), or profoundly regional (Creedence Clearwater Revival). Some of my favorite Beatles lyrics are mini-masterpieces of surrealism, like the couplet from "Penny Lane": "And though she thinks she's in a play / She is anyway." I've also always loved the face that Eleonor Rigby keeps in a jar by the door. At the moment I'm spending a lot of time listening to Tom Waits and Nick Cave, artists I've always known sort of peripherally, but who are now commanding more detailed listens. I find Waits' RAIN DOGS album literally exhausting in its accumulation of painted miniatures; the imagery is vivid yet doesn't coalesce into single narratives, so it's like eavesdropping on the inner thoughts of everyone passing by in a Mardi Gras parade, or glimpsing their portraiture.

I'm also a sucker for music with atmosphere. I've never forgotten the first times I heard certain songs on the radio: "Telstar" by the Tornadoes, "Runaway" and "Searchin'" by Del Shannon, "She's Not There" by the Zombies, "Light My Fire" by the Doors, Richard Harris' "McArthur Park" (there's no controversy in my mind about the greatness of this recording), and in the '70s, Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" and "Love Song for the Dead Che" by the United States of America. They all had atmosphere... and, perhaps, senses of longing, a rarity in pop music.

I have no idea how coherent these before-coffee notes may be, but here they are, and now I'm off to brew up some Starbucks Breakfast Blend.