Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, December 11, 2004


Reading Chuck Klosterman’s “Fargo Rock City,” his 2001 memoir of growing up heavy metal in the ‘80s on a North Dakota farm. Ingratiatingly written, witty, self-critical, but I’m still not sure what to make of it. This sentence troubled me: “Talking about the music [of Lita Ford] was more exciting than hearing it (which is still the way I feel about most rock ‘n’ roll).”

There’s a disconnect -- the music is exciting for Klosterman to talk about because of the effect it has on people, and the effect it *had* on him when he was a teen-ager. Apparently it rarely has that effect on him any more. And that’s sad.

Tell you one thing -- it ain’t music’s fault that music critics don’t find it exciting to hear. Sure, there’s a lot of un-exciting stuff coming out all the time, but that has always been the case, right?

UPDATE: I've finished reading the book, and post more here.

Why troubled? There's a lot of good music in the world. But there's way more bad music--at least that's been my experience. If you are a music critic, you don't necessarily get the luxury of only listening to the music you think is good. You have to spend at least a little time with a lot of music that is bad (or at least that you probably judge to be bad).

What social function do critics serve if not that filtering function? They filter so we don't have to. And if they didn't at least enjoy talking about what they find and the process of digging through a lot of stuff they don't like, what joy would there be in it for them? Perhaps the joy of placing the music they do like into some sort of sociological context. Or perhaps the joy of being able to claim that they heard a particular piece of music first (a joy not to be underestimated).

Beyond that, I take Klosterman to be saying the following: In the realm of pop music, some stuff kind of works better on a conceptual level than it does in practice. So it's interesting to talk about it, because the idea of a hot, blonde, female, guitar shredding, metal performer is a cool thing to ponder and might make for an interesting discussion amongst music fans of a certain ilk (e.g., teenage boys or perhaps balding middle aged rock critics with intellectual pretensions, eager to talk about the implications of such an artist for a male dominated genre like Metal).

But the actual experience of listening to the music Lita Ford may turn out to be less satisfying. There are many reasons why this could be so. But I think what CK is getting at is that for most people the experience of really being excited by music is a lot like the experience of eating some really good food. It's not necessarily completely disconnected from the intellect. But if it's special, it goes beyond the intellect into some other sensual, physical realm.

Or to put it another way, listening to music is a drug experience. And a drug experience is a very personal thing. Everyone has their drugs that give their body that little click. For some people, maybe almost any drug will get the job done. But for people who are discerning, only very particular drugs get it done. Sometimes, after a while, the old standbys don't get it done like they used to do. And sometimes after enough drug experiences, it may be more fun to talk about a particular sort of drug experience in the abstract than it is to actually have it, because the idea of it might be more interesting than the reality. Hell, maybe its more fun to talk about certain drug experiences in the abstract even when one doesn't have a lot of drug experiences.

Generally, it seems like we prefer our critics to be the discerning type of drug consumer rather than the omniverous drug consumer. If any drug will get them off, they're much less useful than if they predictably get off on the same sorts of drugs most of the time. That's information we can use, especially if we take their advice a few times and find that we get off on their suggestions.

Someone once said that if you like food you should never open a restuarant, because if you do you'll learn to hate it. The same might be said about music and being a critic.

On the other hand, if you love food, maybe you should open a restuarant. But only if you love it enough to keep that love alive in spite of the bullshit that goes along with working with food for a living.

The same is true of music. I think most professional music critics do love music that much. But that love is tested almost everyday by the shear volume of music they must sift through (much of it bad). They take a lot of drugs so that we don't have to. So if they seem a little numb and jaded, and well, perhaps more interested sometimes in talking about the idea of a certain drug experience rather than their actual experience of taking the drug in question, can we really blame them?

Do we really want a critic who is enthusiastic but naive? Maybe sometimes. But I'd say that generally we don't. At least I don't.

It's true. It's not music's fault that music critics don't find it exciting to hear certain music. It's the fault of the many people who make bad music, and it's the critic's job to help us filter out this noise so we can spend more time with the signals that interest us. I for one salute them. Even when the annoy me.

J-Lo's comment reminded me of the Robyn Hitchcock song, "Tell Me About Your Drugs."

Nothing else to add there, except that I hadn't thought in a long time about the busman's holiday aspect of the critic's life.
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