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A letter to Harper's
Did you ever wonder, reading letters to the editor, what "edited for length" meant, exactly? I always did, and when Harper's, this month, published parts of the letter I wrote them, in a fit of irritation, after reading Thomas Frank's essay "Pop Music in the Shadow of Irony" in the March 1998 issue, I got to find out. The letter is much too long for them to have printed it all, even if they'd wanted to, and I'm very pleased they printed any of it, but I still think the process is fascinating. My version on the left, theirs on the right, with the common sections color-coded to show the derivation.
Music Criticism in the Shadow of Itself
a letter to Harper's Magazine, 28 February 98
I'm having a bad Damark-catalog experience with this month's Harper's. The stuff in the Damark catalog about which I know nothing, burglar alarms and radar detectors and the like, always looks eminently plausible, and generously priced, but then I turn to a page of computers or stereo equipment or something in a field where I actually know what they're talking about, and I realize that they're attempting to sell castoff junk at negligible discounts by coating it with a gleaming varnish of inane hyperbolic evasions. So Ronald Glasser's piece on managed health care, which I know next to nothing about, seems sensible to nearly the point of self-evidence. Popular music, however, I do know a little about, enough to recognize at least six major things wrong with Thomas Frank's disdainful jab at it:
1. It's possible to scrutinize a hit and figure out, in retrospect, the ingredients of its success, but things that fail fail for a thousand arbitrary reasons, and it's pointless to try to blame failure on anything in particular. There are hundreds of musicians with as "real and prodigious" skills as Chris Holmes whose careers are following essentially the same trajectories, and whose harebrained schemes for world domination could have been substituted for Chris' in this article without the smallest alteration in meaning. Most albums sell a few copies and then vanish; most things in any overpopulated field will fail, victims of the simplest principles of statistics. Condemning music because Chris Holmes isn't a rock star, and Time fails to mention him in an aside about Burt Bacharach, is like condemning government because the most charismatic guy you knew in your high school isn't President.
2. People who write about music in magazines and newspapers (and online columns) are painfully irrelevant to the end of the music business where serious money is made. Enormous successes ride on the purchasing power of people who don't pay much attention to music at all. They don't read reviews (even the ones in Time), they don't ponder the relation between the song they're humming and the decade of musical development that resulted in it, and they don't even buy that many CDs. Alanis Morissette sold millions of albums because people who only buy three or four albums a year bought hers among them. The media saturation that leads music critics to declare a movement at an end isn't too much coverage in magazines, it's too much exposure on radio and TV, over which they exert no influence at all. Picking on Christopher John Farley for writing about Pearl Jam in 1993 and the death of Alternative in 1996 is stupid and petty; what was he supposed to write about? If you only ever write one article about music for Harper's, of course, you run no risk of contradicting or repeating yourself, but if you write about music regularly, you're going to end up chronicling the rises and falls of genres. Alternative came, and people wrote about it, and then it went, and people wrote about that. That's how writers make a living. They parrot Chris' self-serving press releases the same way harried writers cannibalize press releases in every other field of endeavor, not because they are caught in the grip of Holmes' brilliance, but half because they want to be part of something heady and important and half because they're just in a hurry.
3. If there's any way to get into Frank's good graces other than being a personal acquaintance of his, he doesn't reveal it in the article. Chris Holmes' bands, those of his friends (I like the Pulsars' album, too, but it recycles Eighties synth-pop as baldly as Frank accuses Alternative of quoting the Seventies), and a couple bands Frank liked in college are about the only artists or styles in the whole piece that aren't offhandedly dismissed. Whatever the individual virtues of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Jane's Addiction, Everclear, Cracker, Oasis, Neil Diamond, Hot Chocolate, Possum Dixon, Alanis Morissette, krautrock, indie rock, lounge, low-fi, Alternative, Boston, Foghat, Molly Hatchet and the Lilith Fair tour are or aren't, panning them all in a uniformly jaded tone of indifference that implies that no thinking person would consider dissenting is facile, ignorant and condescending enough that I don't see why I should take anything else Frank says about music any more seriously than I took Allan Bloom's wildly uninformed diatribe against pop (in which Michael Jackson appeared to be the only practitioner with which he was familiar) in The Closing of the American Mind. The people who disassembled Frank's rosy vision of Kansas City's jazz past are idiots, but Robert Altman is "pathetic" for trying to make a film about it. There seems to be no credit available for effort. Anybody who adopts a style they weren't born with is a faker, and anybody who tries to do something real is merely "peddling authenticity".
4. Frank's good side isn't very appealing, either. For all the superlatives he heaps on Chris Holmes, I'm not left with a very favorable impression by his descriptions. His retreat into third-level in-jokes by the second album reminds me of nothing so much as all the bad writers in my college fiction seminars whose second short-story was a parody of a fiction seminar. I'll trade you ten of these smug, small-world snipers for one artist who tries to make something new any day, whether the attempt succeeds or fails. If Holmes is such a genius, why isn't he helping pop out of the frozen sea into which the article's illustration portrays it as having fallen, instead of squatting on his own tiny raft, ridiculing the people trying to climb onto some floating piece of the wreckage?
5. Moreover, only a cultural critic or a music-business executive (or Plato on Prozac) would say "peddling authenticity", as if the closest art can come to real is a glib simulation of it, and all purportedly real things are so semantically equivalent that there's no reason to differentiate between them. There's a neat internal consistency to this attitude, and it's not without McLuhan-esque insight, but it's like throwing out a letter without opening it on the theory that the meta-message of correspondence is all the writer intended to convey. If you actually read your letters, or listen to music, you'll find that "authenticity" is a means, not an end. The Spice Girls are selling female independence, loyalty and sugary charm; Nirvana sold pain and defiance; Alanis Morissette sells fury and resilience. People who buy their records thoughtfully (in addition to the hordes who buy them without thought) do so not because they "seem real", but because they really seem independent, or defiant, or resilient. The details matter.
6. The surest telltale sign of this article's counterfeit insight, though, like the computer ads in the Damark catalog that trumpet the voltages of their power supplies as prominently as the speed of their processors, is that it dwells on mundane footnotes and ignores the most inspiring realities. Sure, most of pop music is crap, and some of the most brilliant makers never get rich, but most of everything is crap, and the best artists are almost never millionaires. As with any other medium, finding the good stuff takes time, enthusiasm and diligence, and a little willingness to give some of the borderline cases the benefit of the doubt. If you care enough to do these things, though, then you'll find -- and here I'm only reporting on my own experience, but that's also true about thermodynamics and gravity -- that the best music being made today is as astonishing and life-affirming as any other age's. Ingrown irony does cast a shadow over pop music, like innumerable other maladies have cast shadows over parts of popular art throughout its history, but the only people standing in the shadow, shivering and issuing grim pronouncements about the imminent heat-death of the world now that the sun no longer exists, are critics without the energy or inclination to go somewhere where the light isn't impeded.
It's Only Rock and Roll|
Letters, Harper's Magazine, June 1998
If there's any way to get into Frank's good graces other than by being a personal acquaintance, he doesn't reveal it in his article about pop music. Chris Holmes's bands, those of his friends, and a couple of bands Frank liked in college are about the only ones in the whole piece that aren't offhandedly dismissed. Whatever the individual virtues of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Jane's Addiction, Oasis, krautrock, indie rock, lounge, low-fi, Alternative, Boston, Foghat, Molly Hatchet, and the Lilith Fair, panning them all in a uniformly jaded tone of indifference that implies that no thinking person would consider dissenting is facile, ignorant and condescending.
Of course it's possible to scrutinize a hit and figure out, in retrospect, the ingredients of its success, but things that fail fail for a thousand arbitrary reasons, and it's pointless to try to blame failure on anything in particular. There are hundreds of musicians with "real and prodigious" talents whose careers follow essentially the same trajectory as Holmes's, and whose harebrained schemes for world domination could have played the same role in Frank's article.
Sure, most of pop music is crap, and most albums fail as a matter of course, victims of the simplest statistical laws. As with any other medium, finding the good stuff takes time, enthusiasm and diligence.