April 1999
s m u g
ear candy
by Ben Auburn

The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle

Seen this? In a perverse effort to galvanize the rock critical establishment, some anonymous body (well, he called himself Jo Jo Dancer aka the Gay Rapper) has penned the (purportedly first-annual) "Rock Critical List," an answer to the Village Voice's much-maligned annual Pazz and Jop poll. Running down a who's-who of high-ups in the editorial chairs of various media outlets, Anonymous sticks it to 'em (and maybe himself to throw people off his scent), tallying up perceived faults and adding on the odd personal insult (like calling the New York Times' Neil Strauss a "balding, dickless imp").

First chronicled in a New York Observer article, Spin printed it in its entirety toward the end of March, so you no longer have to be one of the pop cognoscenti to have read it.

Since I have basically zero connections in the music world -- save the odd editor here or there -- I can't speculate with any authority on what effect the Rock Critical List has had on the editors and writers it attacks. But you do have to wonder what old Jo Jo was hoping to accomplish. Suggesting that commercialism has ruined rock criticism is like suggesting . . . it's like suggesting anything that's patently obvious, why come up with a jokey example? Of course rock crit's all about money -- magazines are so driven by market analysis and demographics that it's impossible not to play to that audience.

Who, after all, do rock writers write for? Hint: It's not their readers. Writers write for their editors, who put the invoices through to accounting. Every editor's convinced that he or she's got a finger on the pulse of their readership -- that's the whole point of the job, after all, knowing what your audience likes (assuming that you didn't have the additional luxury of getting to select the audience you're speaking to by starting your own magazine). A good editor actually will have the readership's number.

The real problem with rock crit -- and with cultural criticism in general, especially in the glossy magazine world -- is that editors and publishers have gotten turned around. They're allowing themselves to be told what sells.

But shouldn't they? Shouldn't magazines tailor themselves to the desires of the market?

Well of course they shouldn't. Why become an editor or a writer if you don't believe that your opinions and insights are capable of changing the way people think? The whole point of writing criticism and feature journalism is -- or at least ought to be -- to communicate a unique insight.

Market-driven journalism, contrarily, ferrets out the bits and pieces it's believed people want to know, an almost valueless process -- guess what: Jewel used to live in a van! Discovering the stuff that people didn't know they wanted to know is what turns plain typing into writing.

As access to celebrities becomes more and more difficult to get -- more magazines + more covers + more articles + the same damn stars = less to go 'round -- writers are less and less able to write anything other than fawning profiles (or, if they have enough sources to get by without the Horses' Mouths -- like Vanity Fair hatchet-man James Wolcott -- slash-and-burn pieces). And since they can't say anything original about their subject, they're forced to turn to themselves just to quell the boredom: thus the proliferation of I'm-out-to-lunch-with write-ups, the absolute nadir of which being Neil Strauss' recent and (deservedly) trashed Jewel piece in Rolling Stone.

To get out of the glut, we don't (just) need rock critics and music editors to get gutsy and emotionally involved like Jo Jo wants. Instead, magazines need to reposition themselves as opinion manufacturers.

Not to toot our own horn, but SMUG is a fine example. You read SMUG not because you know we'll write about exactly what you're interested in, but because we'll point you in new directions -- and you know that if the SMUG editors have determined that it's worth writing about, then you'll (probably) determine that it's worth reading about.

When's the last time you read Rolling Stone or Spin for that reason? It's been a long time since I trusted the editorial voice of a mass-market publication (though David Remnick's New Yorker is starting to do it for me) -- instead I turn to them for the info-bits I want, like who's released a new record or when's the next new episode of King of the Hill. And as much as the editors of RS, Spin, Vibe, whatever, are maybe a little too well paid, can get seated at restaurants I can't walk on the same side of the street as, have their lattes brought to them, part of me knows that these aren't the perks -- they're the bribes: if you're in the perfect spot to shape public opinion and denied the opportunity on a regular basis, at least you can be comfortable, right?

The Rock Critical List makes the dumb choice of attacking a symptom. The cause is much more wily, harder to pin down, and even harder to change.


in the junk drawer:

and such
and such

·feature· ·net worth· ·ac/dc· ·smoking jacket· ·ear candy· ·feed hollywood· ·target audience· ·back issues· ·compulsion· ·posedown· ·the biswick files· ·mystery date· ·and such and such· ·blab· ·kissing booth·

·contents· ·freakshow· ·fan club· ·archive·


copyright © 1996 - 1999 fearless media