How I Became a Music Critic:
At age 19, I was assigned to review Bob Dylan in concert, despite the fact that I had very little sense of who Bob Dylan was. I was doing a summer internship at my hometown paper, and the regular critic had fallen ill.
So it was off to the library, where people went before God invented the Internet, and where I discovered that Dylan had recorded 150 albums.
The show was at the Shoreline Amphitheater, a venue built atop a landfill in Mountain View. Dylan had just released Knocked Out Loaded and would soon join the Traveling Wilburys. It was not a good time for him, though I didn’t know that. I found a seat on the grass and started scribbling adjectives that seemed to bear some relation to the songs he was performing, the names of which I didn’t know. I also included observations of significant physical detail, such as, “Dylan stares at crowd” and “Dylan turns away from crowd” and “Dylan appears to need a blood transfusion.”
I had no technical training as a musician. Had I been quizzed on the meaning of the word glissando I would have answered (with some confidence, I’m afraid) “a type of fancy ice cream.” Not to be confused with vibrato, which was a gynecological instrument.
If this sounds absurd, consider the proposition that greeted me when I arrived at the El Paso Times two years later, fresh from college. Would I like to be the paper’s music critic? Of course I would. It was like being handed a license without having to take any exams, a license that granted me front-row tickets to all the big concerts and phone interviews during which I could indulge in the fantasy that, for example, Edie Brickell and I really were pals, based on our intense twenty-minute tête-à-tête, and that she really meant it when she urged me to stop by her trailer “to say hey,” and that if things went well in her trailer – which they very well might, thanks to my dazzling prose and chestal pelt – we would wind up engaged in a sweaty duet on top of an amp, an indiscretion she’d try to write off as a fling except that she’d be unable to forget that tall, virile music critic from the West Texas town of El Paso, meaning more breathy phone calls, more visits, an eventual leak to the press, and a clandestine elopement captured by People magazine. As it is, Brickell wound up married to Paul Simon, a man much shorter than myself.
Did it ever occur to me to learn more about music? Not really. I worked for a Gannett paper. The whole point was to write at a fifth-grade level.
Am I making excuses for being such a lazy and frankly suckass reviewer in El Paso? Yes. But I was also, in my own frankly suckass way, up against an ontological dilemma: the description of one sort of language (physical, auditory, intuitive) by another (abstract, intellectual, symbolic).
Talented critics can, of course, describe music with sonic precision. Take, for example, this passage from Sasha Frere-Jones’s review of the Canadian singer Feist in The New Yorker, a magazine I keep stored in my bathroom for research purposes:
The song is built around Feist’s vigorous acoustic-guitar strum: she plays like a street busker, strong on the downstroke and evenly loud. A three-note motif on a glockenspiel and an organ runs through the song, softening the forward motion of the guitar. In a short chorus, the guitar stops and Feist sings harmony with herself: “Ooh, I’ll be the one who’ll break my heart, I’ll be the one to hold the gun.” Then Gonzales plays a rising and falling two-note ostinato on the piano, subtly coloring the song. The accretion of felicitous musical details is typical of the album’s smart, unfussy arrangements.
Frere-Jones is certainly not messing around. He covers instrumentation, performance style, and lyrical content. True, he risks losing those of us who are musical dolts, but it certainly didn’t kill me to look up the word ostinato, which means “a musical phrase persistently repeated at the same pitch” and which I plan to incorporate into every discussion I have for the next ten years. The real problem here is emotional. The prose, for all its technical fidelity, conveys almost nothing about what the music feels like.
Consider the famous chord progression that Angus Young plays at the beginning of “Back in Black.” A good writer could tell us about those grinding, seismic chords, the distinct rhythm of their deployment, even that sly, arpeggiated little five-note lick that acts as a segue from one volley to the next. But those are just pale approximations of what it feels like to hear that intro, the squirt of sinister glee that makes most people – even decent religious folk – reach for their air guitar.
Now consider the rest of the song: the rhythmic structures (bassline, drums), Brian Johnson’s howling vocal, harmonic and tonal relationships, etc. But okay, let’s say you’ve taken your Rock Crit Steroids and you’re able to describe all these elements. How, then, do you convey the simultaneity of all that noise, the blissful riot of sound we experience as a singular thing (the song)? But okay, okay, let’s say you’ve taken your Rock Crit Steroids for years, you’re the Barry Bonds of Rock Crit, and so you manage to get this, too. You’d still be left with the Basic and Insoluble Crisis of Melody: words cannot be made into notes. And even if you somehow magically solved that crisis (which you couldn’t) you’d still be missing what it feels like for a particular fan to hear a particular song (let alone songs, let alone in concert) because this involves a collaboration between the music and the fan’s own needs: his or her own lust for joy, sorrow, power, rage, sex, and – oh what the hell – hope.
The closest I came to grappling with the Rock Crit Paradox was at an MC Hammer concert. I stood beneath the stage watching Hammer twitch in his weird Sinbad jodhpurs while a battalion of dancers in identical Sinbad jodhpurs replicated his every twitch. Hammer barked lyrics about jewelry and torture. The melodies, sampled from bubblegum hits, affixed themselves to the artillery of drum machines. Lights popped and scrolled. Sparks vomited from some invisible portal. It was like watching an ad for a delicious soda that makes people want to commit murder. But then I looked at the people around me, there in the fifth row of the Pan Am Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. They were all dancing wildly. Hooting at the sweaty-boobed flygirls and barking along with Hammer and (without even realizing it) mimicking little Hammerish flourishes: the frenetic Egyptian jazz hands and his mincing bucklestep. These people were plugged into a powerful communal experience. They didn’t look upon MC Hammer as a musical huckster, but an entertainer of the first rank and maybe even, in a sense, a prophet of self-assertion, proof that any man endowed with sufficient determination – no matter how meagerly endowed with talent – might gain trespass into the kingdom of fame. Yes, I was stoned.
Still, it was clear my fellow congregants were having a radically different experience from the assigned critic. So I wrote two reviews that night, which ran side by side the next morning: one from my perspective (i.e. one that cold-cocked Hammer) and one from the perspective of the fans (i.e. one that fellated Hammer). This struck me as perhaps the cleverest thing anyone on earth had ever done. Pleasantly, copies of the reviews don’t exist to contradict me.