Tuesday, December 29, 2009


There’s an old rule of thumb in the film business, “Never take your name off a film.” The reason behind this adage is simple: If the film turns out to be great, you’re considered brilliant. If the film flops, it is quickly forgotten, meaning nobody will remember it, and therefore your involvement in it. The same logic dominates the field of rock criticism, for no rock critic worth his salt wants to miss the boat, that is, wants to fail to miss The Next Big Thing—to condemn the artist or band that might turn out to be the next Elvis or Velvet Underground. Anxious critics therefore praise everything, because anything might be The Next Big Thing, and who wants to be wrong? It is therefore easy to praise bands such as Mudhoney and artists such as Fiona Apple, because if you’re right, you’re a genius, and if you happen to be wrong, few will remember. Ours is the age of the timid critic, whom seldom expresses indignation about anything. For who can claim that posterity will not one day validate everything?

Max Ernst called this tendency to praise everything “overcomprehension,” and it dominates the field of rock criticism. In the history of rock, there have been bands and artists that have been consistently subject to “overcomprehension”—so-called “critical darlings” or “critics’ faves”—contemporary examples would include Lou Reed, for instance, or P. J. Harvey. The latter artist avers she grew up listening to John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, and Captain Beefheart—in other words, impeccable credentials. And the former figure, well, he was a member of VU. But perhaps the better way to become a critics’ fave, other than to invoke the proper artistic inspirations, is to be easily amenable to fashionable critical ideas, such as “schizophonia,” “recontextualization,” “grafting,” and so on. Critical endorsements typically employ the language of fixed-form expressions, such as “Beatles-like melodies,” “Byrds-like harmonies,” “the psychedelic experience of early Pink Floyd,” “the appeal of vintage British pop,” “the turbulent grunge of Nirvana,” “pioneering electronic artistry like the Velvet Underground,” and so forth.

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