"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 03 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Rock 'n' Roll Middle School


"[Jann] Wenner was considerably frustrated in my oafish refusal to print his dope and rock stories in the magazine, as I considered rock reporting as a state of journalistic art on a level with Ben Gay ads." — Warren Hinkle, If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (Putnam, 1973)

"So what's all the fuss? After all, you don't find folks waiting for reviews of the, uh, latest, the latest Wilkinson bonded shaving system." — Richard Meltzer on The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, in A Whore Just Like the Rest: the Music Writings of Richard Meltzer (Da Capo, 2000)

"'You mean this thing is going to be in the stores, we can buy it, listen to it ourselves?'" — Greil Marcus on The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, in Rock and Roll Will Stand (Beacon, 1969)

These guys aren't kidding: Rock critics agree that you can buy rock music in stores. Indeed, if there's one thing that distinguishes rock and roll as art, it's commerce — not white people stealing black ideas, not vice-versa, but the fact that Rock has as much in common with toothpaste or toilet paper as it does with Picasso. Most people's experience of rock is commercial in a way that even film isn't. With almost equal time on radio devoted to songs and advertising, the two have been blurred from the beginning. And as Lars has most recently reminded us, for cultural products to become really high "art" they usually need to conceal their commodity status from the consumer; Rock as an art form has been distinctively incapable or unwilling to do this. Fads (what rock's apologists refer to as "pop moments") have always been central to the enjoyment of rock, and one of the first things rock's detractors have cited as evidence of its status as "non-art." ("In my day, it was swallowing goldfish, now it's this Beatles stuff"). Film (or "the movies," as it was then known), was once just as disreputable — a fact of which it is the merit of teen comedies, action thrillers, and porn to constantly remind us — but at some point became art, and thus worthy of Criticism. Much in the same way that ethnic groups such as Jews, Irish or Italians eventually became "white."

This upward mobility may contain the key to both rock criticism's history and its lingering whiff of embarrassed self-loathing. Like a Maoist intellectual's self-conscious anti-intellectualism ("Serve the People!"), rock critics intellectualize music they've self-consciously set up as anti-intellectual ("Serve the Kids"?). And nobody loves to bash rock criticism more than rock critics.

Richard Meltzer, the most talented of its inventors, became so disappointed with rock criticism that he tried his best to destroy it: "[By 1971] rock criticism, while still in its infancy, had already become as big a whore, a cripple, a mocker of truths both emotional and factual, as any marketplace-tied 'critical' genre that had come before," Meltzer wrote. "My own program...as a rockwriter, one scrupulously ignored or avoided by virtually all others, was to systematically disassemble — deconstruct, ha, as it were — the monster/mess I'd played such a passionate role in helping create..." But instead, Meltzer only succeeded in marginalizing himself from a "critical" establishment too busy institutionalizing itself to notice it was being deconstructed. In the process, Meltzer, offhandedly, then painstakingly, produced prose as challenging as high theorists like Barthes or Derrida but raunchier and funnier than Lenny Bruce, all while scraping by on crappy freelance assignments.

A new, self-edited collection of Meltzer's prose attempts to square accounts and set the record straight. It's been widely, seriously and intelligently reviewed. But none of the institutional rock critics who reviewed it bothered to answer the charges made, again and again, throughout the 591-page tome. Once again, it is left to Suck to execute the judgment of History.

So what, exactly, is wrong with rock criticism and how did it get that way? Is it really so criminally bad and stupid to attempt to try and deal seriously with rock? Nowadays, we're used to pop reporting as a legitimate part of entertainment journalism, perfectly natural and in place next to the film and theater and art sections. But there was a time when it wasn't so presentable. To understand what might be wrong with it, indeed, to understand both Meltzer and those who succeeded after he failed to destroy their fat asses, it's necessary to go back, way back, before rock mags, before rock critics, back when there were only [shudder] grad students.

Back when Meltzer was a grad in philosophy, Greil Marcus (as the best of the institutional rock critics, a good polar-opposite/whipping boy) was a grad in political science. What Meltzer thought was so great about rock was its closeness to toothpaste, toilet paper, Ben-Gay ads and bottlecaps. This constituted precisely its advantage as a philosophical weapon against the order of things. A single dippy Jimi Hendrix song could implicitly refer to, generate, and destroy entire categories (after "Third Stone from the Sun"'s post-Surf Music guitar workout, Meltzer predicted, "You will never hear 'Surf music' again"). One ordinary Hendrix record could raise dizzying questions about the audience-artist relation across space and time (Which way was Hendrix facing when he played? Where were the mikes then and where are the speakers now? Where do you imagine him facing in your mind?) and reveal what recording does by putting steps in between the two ("Implicitly, the record-listening experience has always been far more complex than the in-person experience"). Worst of all, all of this "might just be about as significant as bottle caps." So what does all that mean for philosophy, rock, and everything else? Meltzer's answer: "Bottle caps might be significant however too." In other words, who the hell needs Kant — or philosophy teachers — or anyone to set in stone which is better and what it means? This got Meltzer kicked out of grad school.

Meanwhile, at Berkeley, Marcus was busy setting down what it all meant. Meltzer was the teacher who told kids to flee school — it was around this time in Paris, after all, that students at an institute run by Michel Foucault were going around handing out diplomas to people on the bus. Marcus, along with a million other journalists, thought the ensuing chaos just needed some sensitive, mature interpreters. In a Marcus-edited, Marcus-girlfriend-dedicated volume attempting to enshrine (or shellac) rock as a topic of legitimate critical discourse, Marcus applied the tools of his own academic trade, American Studies, to mystify and reveal rock as the essence of the youth culture.

His programmatic piece for the 1969 Rock and Roll Will Stand argues that Rock is the inalienable property of the young (the "exclusive possession of our generation"), crucial for understanding them but incomprehensible and untranslatable into other people's terms — any terms, coincidentally, other than those of the Myth-and-Symbol school of American Studies. Dylan lyrics, for example, are universally recognized "symbols" that can say it all (while, Marcus concedes, not necessarily saying anything specific in any particular situation). Popping up all over the Boomer lifeworld, their very ubiquitousness inflates these floating signifiers into a Hindenburg of the World-Historical. Once airborne, this myth of the Boomers as unified Subject and World-Historical Agent casts its shadow over the growing edifice of rock criticism — an edifice Marcus helped build.

In his classic dissection of the hype over Black public intellectuals, Adolph Reed, Jr. points out that the gap between margin and mainstream is always waiting to be bridged by self-styled native guides. The pattern applies to the young Marcus, self-defined youth activist and academic, as well as it does Cornel West. There's nothing wrong with this — Marcus's seamless melding of fandom and Myth-and-Symbol methods produced an undeniable masterpiece in his 1975 Mystery Train. But the contradictions are harder on deconstructors. The new "need" for rock critics meant that the music Meltzer and allies like Lester Bangs liked was on the way out: By the time of Rubber Soul and electric Dylan, rock was easily recognized as art, and art needs responsible critics. That's why Meltzer's wild 1970 The Aesthetics of Rock didn't really found anything.

Meltzer formulated a complicated aesthetic to show that rock, when it works, doesn't need aesthetes. In the era of "Louie Louie" no one would have felt the need to confirm or deny something so insane. But the very emergence of the critic means that the mystic unity that once supposedly fused the audience and artist had been severed. 1968 is the end of Meltzer's golden age of rock, and the beginning of his rocky career. Marcus, meanwhile, who tried to dissolve the commodified chintz of rock in the universal solvent of myth has spent the rest of his career shilling, simultaneously, for both rock and its criticism.


courtesy of Hypatia

pictures by Terry Colon