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[Sound Salivation]
B Y + S A R A H + Y O W L

Consumption, Consumption, What's Your Function?
Why Rock Critics Matter More Than You Think

I pay attention. You can tell this from reading my column. As a rock critic, I've gleaned meaning from events as culturally obscure as the Grammy Awards, and deciphered oblique lyrical references, like the time I revealed alienation that lurked behind the deceptively cheerful words, "In this town television shuts off at 2 / What can a lonely rock 'n' roller do?"

But being a rock critic sometimes demands a knowledge of popular culture that goes even beyond press kits, and, yes, beyond even television. If you're wondering how I manage to maintain the cultural background needed to put these events in context, just remember: It's all about music, and if it's not about music, it's about me, the music critic.

Take Paul Lukas's book, Inconspicuous Consumption: An Obsessive Look at the Stuff We Take for Granted, from the Everyday to the Obscure (Crown). While Lukas - who is, by the way, a sometimes rock critic - explicitly avoids writing about music in the book, there's really no way to avoid seeing music as the underlying theme of Lukas's - as I put it recently - "waltz with capitalism." In Inconspicuous Consumption, Lukas writes: "Like most people, I have a basic series of staples that I buy just about every time I hit the supermarket ... but I also try to keep my eyes open for interesting products that I don't really want or need, things that strike me as intriguing, entertaining, puzzling, or some combination thereof. And in a commercial landscape filled with familiar brand names and logos we've seen again and again for decades, I try to stay alert for consumer revelations and epiphanies that I might have overlooked or previously taken for granted."

Substitute the words "record store" for "supermarket" and I imagine he has touched on the way most of us consume music. Why do I imagine this? Because I'm a music critic.

Still wondering how you, a non-music-critic, might make sense of, say, a song that grappled with the meaning of post-war German art? Well, you'd think they'd be a bit beyond my purview, too. But that's only if you think the paintings are really German. Take Richard Buckner's Vater, which gives voice to one of my favorite paintings, Caspar David Friedrich's The Wanderer above the Mists. Technically, it's a German canvas, but the jagged landscape lorded over by a solitary, black-clad figure has always struck me as quintessentially American. Why? Because I'm American.

While cross-media background and analysis is an inherent part of most critics' analytic arsenal, reducing rock 'n' roll to anything but my own personal experience misses the point of it as an experience, period. What makes me prefacing all my insights with "As a woman" or "As an American" a transcendent moment for anyone, of any gender or nationality, lucky enough to be reading me? Well, you don't have to be me to understand, but it helps.
April 1, 1997

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