by Polar Levine May 25, 2002 for popCULTmedia

I'm one of New York's least known recluses, which is to say that I'm highly successful at being a recluse. But a few weeks ago provided a good excuse for us in the music industry's bottom feeding class to gather at CBGB's for a night of music journo yakkery. The evening's topic was "Are Music Journalists Afraid Of The Digital Age?" which was instantly dispatched by the panel of Music Journalists. "No," said they as the panel pirouetted onto other issues.

The Village Voice's music editor, Chuck Eddy, dominated the discussion. A smart and incredibly funny guy, Eddy early on set the evening's de facto agenda which was: should music journalists write in their own voices or should they be subject to editorial protocols that stifle individual personalities from emerging -- precluding the creation of renegades like Lester Bangs? Eddy banged heads much of the evening with Blender editor Andy Pemberton who encourages his writers to think only of their audience. Pemberton repeated, repeated, repeated and repeated "Nobody wants to know what the writer eats for breakfast." On that one count I'm in agreement. However I'm very interested in whether the reviewer I'm reading has a personality, a knowledge base, a life to fit music into. It was a curious art vs. entertainment argument for approaching music journalism. Eddy, The Artist (go with your creative vision) vs. Pemberton, The Entertainer (give the audience what it wants).

I was clearly in the Chuck Eddy camp. If we read reviews as a means of discovering music, film, etc., we need to get opinions from people we trust. If Elvis Mitchell and Anthony Lane like it -- I'll probably see it. If Pereles, Christgau or Powers like something, I'll probably check it out. Would you buy the pants your mother suggests? Would you see a movie because some bland non-person says it's a must-see?

I was surprised that the panel found little or nothing to say about the current crises in the recording industry nor noticed much impact of corporate consolidation on their work.

With some embarrassment and, I suppose, as much pride, I'm compelled to report here that I was roundly dissed by the panel. As a requirement of my role as media malcontent, I raised the issue of media consolidation creating a dumbing down of music journalism. I pointed to the predominance of showbizzery in music over such superfluous concerns as... well... music, not to mention its impact on culture and media. As an example I noted how so many covers of music mags have become tits & ass shows. Somehow I was perceived as the vice squad and your naive correspondent was brought up to date with the news that tits & ass legitimately sells everything. The Artist, formerly known as Chuck Eddy, added, "What is music if not showBiz?"

Hmmmmm. . .

My biggest personal disappointment of the evening, in the context of my very public brush-off, was the response from Traci McGregor VP of Content and Communications at The Source. My turn at the mic followed someone who'd bravely commented on the all-but-one male presence on the dais. Traci mentioned that she was called at the last minute to replace a hairy-gendered dropout. She spoke eloquently and passionately about the ordeal of being a woman in a male-oriented music and publishing world -- particularly, the challenges of the hipHop world for women. I'd hoped to draw her our further with my comment on the tits & assification of our music culture. But, oddly, she was totally blasé about The Source turning its cover over to a swimsuit issue -- what is that about? What does it say about The Source's content and what it's communicating? A new rap underground is bubbling up with the potential to rejuvenate a calcified middle-aged medium. At a time when Talib Kweli records a brilliant remake of Nina Simone's "Four Women" and J-Live has released what sounds to me like one of the finest rap discs ever stamped (and at the moment has sold, I'm told, only fifteen thousand units) -- what does it mean when The Source is inking its pages with babes in bikinis?

Pop music journalism does not have a long history. Jazz criticism was always a music driven affair even when it was the pop music if its day. Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald never posed for the cover of Downbeat in babewear. The videogenically challenged Fitzgerald (even as a teen in Chick Webb's band) could not have gotten a gig as a backup singer in the post-MTV world. Rock criticism really started in the late 60's with Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone as antidotes to the kiddie fan mags. That trend continued into the 70's and part of the 80's with Jazz & Pop and Musician.

Before MTV, synergy and the media cartel -- culture grew fungus-like from the ground up. In this era of media consolidation and entertainment saturation, culture -- even counterculture -- is packaged and sold from the corporate marketing department down. Except for a few truly MUSIC oriented fan mags like The Wire, the jazz mags and trade mags aimed at musicians -- we're back to kiddie fan stuff like the current Rolling Stone, Blender and Spin. So, if you're under 40, it's reasonable to imagine that music is, and always was, showBiz. But Coltrane, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Muddy Waters, Cannibal Ox, Tool, Joe Henry, Nirvana, Chuck D, John Forte and their listeners were, and are, not about showBiz. They're about music. It's not a badaboom thing for some of us. We dig entertainment too. Honest. We're entertained by the spectacle of humans who can move us with words, pictures and noise. It's that existential tickle we get when our brains are burning in new synapses and we notice colors, noises and essences that were not there before. All because we heard this band last night or saw that film or that painting or read that book.

The world Chuck Eddy inhabits -- the music departments of the Voice, New York Press, Boston Phoenix , LA Weekly -- are speaking to people who are more musically curious than the mainstream. Robert Christgau, despite the sometimes indecipherable delirium of his writing, undeniably has gigantic ears, a very rare asset in pop music journalism. Most pop music journalism, sad to say, has always been written not by musicians who can write, but by writers who happen to like music. Very few music journos, past and present, have any experience with genres outside their main focus; even fewer have a serious historical perspective on the music they cover and the cultural environment that spawns the music. Many are impressed with a band whose influences run the gamut from rock to hip hop (A to B). Few can explain in their reviews what is going on in musical terms. For years whenever I'd look at record reviews I'd keep reading about what so & so's new album is "saying." It's about the terrors of true love lost; the artist's recent divorce; the bleakness of da da da. And then some vague reference to "jangly guitars" or "bubbly funky rhythms," whatever that means. We learn quickly that the writer should be reviewing books but not music.

I'm in no way suggesting that music journos should be writing Italianate music jargon. As a musician who's not formally trained, most of that stuff would go over my head as well as the non-musician's. But having some degree of musical background in evidence seems at least as relevant to music journalism as what JLo wore at the Grammys or the latest rap feud. Let the fan mags and Entertainment Tonite cover that shit.

The dirty secret that's been in the cultural shadows for decades is that a purple-haired consumer of safe punk genre conventions is as hip as the bowtied consumer of every rehash of Brahms. A fifty-minute wall of distortion and rage is as bland and predictable as Celine's next bombastic crescendo. The way I see it -- the critic should be a few steps ahead with a hunger for hatemail.

Polar Levine
Editor, popCULTmedia