The Problem With Music Journalism

Newslies by mcritz (Small)“The shocking remark has become more important than the truth.”

I was watching Bobcat Goldthwait’s ultrablack comedy God Bless America this weekend and ever since I’ve heard the lead character say that line, I’ve been unable to get it out of my head. The character was talking about fear-mongering political blowhards of the  Glenn Beck variety, but at the moment I heard it, I’d been thinking a lot about an article that showed up in the Seattle Weekly on March 6, a cover story no less, entitled “Punk Rock Is Bullshit,” written by former punk musician Jon Roderick.

My awareness of the piece came a week late, when the SF Weekly published a funny and pointed response entitled “The Jazz Age Is Bullshit”. Reading the parody first, I found myself starting to mentally rebut the various arguments I imagined Roderick to be making. If there’s one thing that comes naturally to old punk rockers, it’s arguments over what punk is, and whether some particular attribute of it is good or bad. That’s part of the fun. Let’s roll up our sleeves and settle this.

But I was unprepared for what I found when I inevitably clicked through. It’s not possible to argue with this. Every sentence is delivered as a slap in the face to a stupid child that needs to be woken up. It’s so hysterical and over-the-top I find myself deciding I don’t believe it, don’t believe that even he believes what he’s saying.

The first red flag appears just two paragraphs in. “I was once chastised for playing at a private Microsoft function by a guy who worked there, so disappointed was he that I would sell out by playing a corporate gig.” Oh come on… like that really happened. I saw his shitty band on Youtube and they do not strike me as the kind that would have a following of hardcore anti-corporatists.

But on he goes, reducing the behavior of tens of thousands of people over a forty year period to a Royal We that I don’t even recognize. “Punk taught us to rebel against authority until ‘authority’ included everything: piano lessons, fire insurance, leather shoes, and, ultimately, growing up. Punk taught us to have contempt for every institution, except Fugazi, until contempt and suspicion were the first and only reactions we had to everything. Good news was embarrassing, success was shameful, and a happy childhood an unthinkable transgression… It’s time we stopped disavowing happiness and measured pride, we punk survivors, wrapping ourselves in itchy thrift-store horse blankets thinking that only discomfort is honest. It’s time we stopped hating ourselves, our ambition, and our sincerity, guarding our integrity credentials in fear of interrogation by the secret punk police.”

Who is this “we”? I assume he’s talking about himself, but who else? Him and Ian McKaye? Him and Darby Crash? Him and the Blink-182 guys? We he part of FSU? I don’t know who he’s talking about, but it doesn’t really matter. If anyone ever came up to me in the last thirty years and said “Personally, I think it’s time I stopped hating myself, my ambition, and my sincerity, guarding my integrity credentials in fear of interrogation by the secret punk police,” the only possible response would be, “Well of course! You’re one messed up kid!”

But the tour de force revelation, and the one that truly convinces me that he is not speaking the whole truth, comes when he talks about the music’s artistic legacy. I think most of us agree that not every punk record is a masterpiece, some bands we bought records by could have stayed in the garage, and some are given more attention than they’re worth, and these are among the many things we like to argue about. But Roderick’s not interested in rankings. “Did it even produce good art beyond a few unintentionally hilarious ‘zines and the first-rate performance art of Courtney Love’s 25-year disintegration into a caricature of the exact kind of drug-addled, silicon- and Botox-enhanced, vacuous and babbling rich housewife that riot grrrls hated most? No. Unequivocally no.”

A punk rock musician – once upon a time, so punk that he had to endure barbs from his following of hardcore anti-corporatists – taking the stance that there is absolutely no good art produced ever in the history of punk? What the fuck?

I can believe that he was once in a shitty band and didn’t get much out of the experience. As Dan Savage would say: hey, it happens. But to admit no enjoyment whatsoever of any of the music that would have theoretically inspired him to write songs powerful enough to rile up the legions of hardcore anti-corporatists who would one day hypocritically rebel against him… Seriously, what the fuck?

Was he a CIA inflitrater or something? And if so what was his mission? Get signed to SST and report back on its secret operations? I could imagine sending in operatives to get to the bottom of why anyone would release half a dozen Zoogz Rift albums simultaneously; on the surface it looks like a money laundering scheme. But a far more likely scenario is that Roderick neither thinks it’s true or cares if it is.

And it’s at that point that the potential for everything to be arguable dissolves. Because I no longer believe it to be true, it’s just a shocking remark. And the shocking remark has indeed become more important than the truth.

You can’t argue Democratic policy’s fine points  with someone who insists Obama wasn’t born here. I mean, you can, but what’s the point? They don’t even believe in their own message – they KNOW they’re full of shit but they keep on talking anyway.

And people can’t stop listening to it. Roderick’s piece has inspired 937 comments (including one from this writer), most in the first few days after its release, and been brought up in numerous other publications, including the one you’re reading now. Meanwhile, lots of people I know were discussing it on social media last week. (My favorite comment, from the BCB forum’s Phenomenal Cat: “I would respond but I’m just too wasted.”) It is an irresistible clickbait title, just put it out there and the world wants to debate you.

By comparison, the Seattle Weekly’s current cover story on a policeman turned gun salesman – an excellent piece of real journalism by Rick Anderson – has inspired just twenty-one comments after being up for four days. Presuming that comments equate to page views, Roderick’s piece is getting forty times the national attention as Anderson’s, the latter being the kind of writing that deserves to be the cover story of a major city weekly.

This is perhaps inevitable in the times we live in. Had a writer for the Seattle Weekly done a similar piece in the print era, there might be some angry letters from regular readers, but no letters from non-regular readers, who wouldn’t have read it. They would circulate the same number of copies as they had the previous week, and the week after that. But by putting these instantly disagreeable titles into the world, they manage to raise their own readership, possibly enough to affect ad rates.

The LA Weekly has for the last couple of years been a prime offender in the proliferation of clickbait criticism. Many of the most popular/memorable pieces they’ve done lately have been the regularly-appearing Worst lists – the worst nineties albums (56 comments), whitest musicians (100 comments), worst bands of all time (now they’re striking nerves, 1174 comments), and perhaps the ultimate clickbait accomplishment of all time, their collection of the Twenty Worst Hipster Bands (1889 comments, which must be some kind of record).

It really is genius, that last one. Not only would twenty bands’ defenders be sure to write in to argue the point that their favorite groups are among “the worst”, they could also argue whether all twenty of these bands were being properly classified as “hipster bands.” To my knowledge there are not communities of self-identified hipsters that argue passionately over what is and isn’t hip, how hipsterism should be perceived and portrayed, on who was turning their back on hip principles and selling out to the squarejohns. Maybe that argument is happening on 4Chan and I don’t read it. But the only arguments I’m aware of over what is “hipster”, are going on between people who want to disparage a particular band or restaurant or something, and the people who want to defend it.

Most of these pieces are delivered in that same inarguable tone of voice adopted by Roderick. No real explanation is given for why the Eagles are among the twenty worst bands of all time, and again, looking at the complete list, I don’t really believe it. Look, I hate the Eagles as much as anyone, and would be happy to see them all set on fire, except for Joe Walsh,  but even I fail to see the logic in putting them alongside pre-fab fish in a barrel like Pussycat Dolls and Pretty Ricky or forgotten non-entities from twenty years ago like 4 Non Blondes and the Spin Doctors. If you’re going to walk around slaughtering sacred cows, at least acknowledge that you have some understanding of the subject. Even we who hate the Eagles would have to acknowledge they live in a different world than Hootie.

There’s something about these works that feels manipulative, like they’re only there to draw attention to themselves and make themselves popular… which, if we’re going to assign any kind of values to punk rock as a thing, at least during my prime years in the eighties, yeah we did maybe have a tendency against art that went too far out of its way to be liked, or whose primary purpose seemed to be making money.

It’s not that I have anything against hate pieces in general – heaven knows, bad reviews are among the most fun to write. I’ve enjoyed the AV Club’s Hatesong series where they get a famous artist to go in-depth about their one least-favorite bit of music. (Robyn Hitchcock on the spiritual emptiness of “Arthur’s Theme” was an especially nice entry.) At least they take an analytical approach and try to get at it, why this song and not that song, or that artist, what is it that got under the skin so badly. That’s a lot more reflective and potentially insightful than anything in Shea Serrano’s Why This Song Sucks column. As targets run thin, and the urge to go after the most beloved works in music gets stronger, I’m sure we can look forward to articles about Why James Brown On The TAMI Show Sucks and Why The Beatles Are Bullshit within the year.

I can even handle the sweeping generalization if it’s made thoughtfully and in context. In the final entry of his highly readable Winners History Of Rock And Roll for Grantland, on “last band standing” the Black Keys, Steven Hyden says “Indie has failed us” – which is practically a more polite way of saying “Punk rock is bullshit.”  Again I find myself knee-jerking to rebut as soon as I read that, but Hyden, in a few well-constructed paragraphs, manages to explain what he means, which is that he’d like to see more bands trying to compete on a Black Keys level and make a difference to large numbers of people, rather than stay in their own comfort zone and please the narrow audience they already have. I don’t happen to agree with that either – I think bands need to worry about making the best music they can and let everyone else decide if it coincides with what’s popular – but it’s a point of view that I can understand, that doesn’t feel like a needless provocation or a lie. If anything, it’s a provocation to think about it, and see if you can argue the point. In that case, bring it on.

But Village Voice Media critics, please spare us any more of these shouty, oh-so-clever denunciations that we know you don’t even mean. You’re not Norman Mailer or Lester Bangs or even Ed Anger. Not only was Ed Anger actually funny, he was lucid enough to explain his point of view using examples and creative metaphors. You’re actually sometimes not bad at real music coverage – the LA Weekly’s recent pieces on Austin Peralta and Shuggie Otis were admirable. More of that, please.

If you really need clickbait to pay the bills, maybe it’s time to have Glenn Beck do a monthly column. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Jon Roderick is a true believer, perhaps you could get them to team up.

Photo by mcritz courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

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2 Responses to The Problem With Music Journalism

  1. Did punk rock ever produce any good art? What, like, oh, ummmm, Raymond Pettibon perhaps? How about the films of Dave Markey? Hell, most of those hand-painted leather jackets were pure artworks.

    But if he is using fucking Fugazi as his benchmark for punk rock, we are talking apples and oranges anyways.

  2. Great post. Going to check out Hatesong now.

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