Jessica Lewis

Low Fidelity

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Smart rock criticism in the dailies was once number one with a bullet. Now the pages are full of boosters who never mind the bollocks

On a Saturday night in December, a large crowd packs Lee’s Palace in Toronto to watch a performance by the Handsome Furs. The Montreal band, husband-and-wife team Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry, starts around midnight under a red glow. For the next hour, all heads face forward—barely turning, if only to dance—captivated by the act’s adrenaline-soaked spectacle and electronic punk music.

Boeckner wears skinny black jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt. He plants himself stage right, jumping in short spurts, dark brown hair flopping. He occasionally staggers with the force of his guitar strumming. Perry radiates glamour in a yellow halter-top romper and purple tights. Her long necklaces dangle and sway like hula hoops as she shakes her head. After each song, she falls to the floor on her back, arms and legs still moving in the air, then sits up quickly, as if startled by a dream.

Perry is the focal point. She sings only occasionally but playfully teases her husband or steals kisses from him. Toward the end of the set, fans are riled. One climbs onstage to take pictures. Another sings into Perry’s microphone. “I don’t know those people,” Boeckner says, “but that was awesome!” Later, a fan attempts a stage-dive and falls.

“That looked dire,” says Robert Everett-Green, who’s reviewing the show. The Globe and Mail’s full-time music critic stands close to the soundboard. Every so often he scribbles notes on a piece of paper he had pulled out of his jacket pocket.

The next day, when he puts fingers to keyboard, his review politely skirts the issue of whether the group’s music is, well, any good. Instead, he places the duo in an international context. Its most recent album, Face Control, was based on the pair’s observations of Russian nightlife. In an interview with freelance journalist Michael Barclay, Boeckner talked about people booking tables on PayPal for thousands of dollars and bouncers letting in only the most attractive club patrons. “After hearing its songs again,” Everett-Green wrote, “I wanted this band to get the hell out of here and go to some other messed-up place, and come back with something to slap my face again soon.”

Everett-Green admits he wasn’t critical. “I just write something related to what I experienced,” he says, “what I think about the music and the people who are making it.”

He is one of many skilled music journalists who rarely dish out negative opinions. Decades ago, newspaper music critics had more space. They developed their voices, courted controversy and gained readers’ trust. Now, most papers have music writers, but they often contribute short pieces about what’s popular—or what they think should be popular. And that makes the criticism little more than service journalism.

* * *

Early popular music writing was also less about criticism, but leaned toward the extreme and the defensive. (A Vancouver Sun headline from 1956 reads: “Daughter wants to see Elvis? Kick Her in the Teeth!”) As North American teens grew up in the 1950s, the first wave of rock ’n’ rollers, such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, captured mass attention and became youth obsessions. Teenagers related to catchy tunes, fast tempos and (for the time period) outrageous performances. Grown-ups didn’t really get it. In their generation, music critics typically wore checkered jackets and porkpie hats. Accustomed to writing about Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald—jazz singers were the pop artists of the day—they were out of their element. Coverage was patronizing and focused on negative aspects such as teen riots. The Sun ran a page with two columns dedicated to a Bill Haley and the Comets concert in June 1956. Music writer John Kirkwood hit upon the novel idea of taking a reverend with him to the show. His review called the latest music fad “a jarring, jolting combination of primitive jungle rhythm and hillbilly blues.” Especially fascinating to him was “how it weaves its hypnotic spell over addicted juveniles.” Down the page, between pictures of teenagers dancing at the concert and the headline “He’s Nauseated,” critic Stanley Bligh informed readers that he left the show—his first look at the craze—with the opinion that “it has nothing of social value.” Both critics agreed: Rock ’n’ roll was infecting the nation’s youngsters.

Several years later, when The Beatles arrived on Canadian soil in September 1964, music coverage was no longer so alarmist. In fact, the Globe treated the Toronto show like a visit from the Queen: reporting, with breathless anticipation, the group’s arrival; the victorious band at the airport (one article began, “The Beatles are here”); the press conference; the concert; and the fond farewell. As for any critical appraisal of the group’s sudden, massive popularity, Ralph Hicklin told readers he couldn’t hear the music over fans’ screaming. Bruce West, another Globe writer, appealed to his daughter: “I was ordered to attend this conference or never darken the turntable of my daughter’s record player again.”

The naïveté didn’t last long. As The Beatles and other popular musicians became more ambitious, so did the journalists who covered the burgeoning cultural phenomenon. The teenybopper expression “rock ’n’ roll” gave way to an apparently more adult designation, “rock.” New American magazines such as Crawdaddy!, Rolling Stone and Creem (launched in 1966, 1967 and 1969, respectively) were based on the premise that music was serious art worthy of important commentary, and they published creative, indulgent, informative reviews. Newspapers began to adjust to compete and, over the next decade, editors gave music journalists more freedom. “If I wanted to review something, I just put it in the [assignment] book,” says Alan Niester, who first wrote for Creem and then moved to the Globe in 1977. “That all has changed completely—everything’s different.”

Writers such as Niester, Ritchie Yorke before him at the Globe, Bill Mann at Montreal’s The Gazette and Peter Goddard at the Toronto Star spoke their minds about rock and its culture. They adopted a magazine approach: interviewing musicians for previews of local performances and new albums. Now the predominant kind of music coverage, these articles allowed critics to include large amounts of critical thinking in their writing. Yorke let musicians speak for themselves, which gave readers more perspective. Upon the arrival ofCheap Thrills, Big Brother and the Holding Company’s last album with Janis Joplin, Yorke quoted the singer saying, “I’ve never been in anything like this before, and it’s really a gas. I’ve found out what I wanna do, and my aim in life. Everyone goes through a period of indecision. Then it happens: you find yourself.”

Meanwhile, Mann wasn’t above participatory journalism, putting himself into a fan’s shoes by taking advantage of exclusive backstage passes and tagging along to after-parties. “To me, they were a story,” he says. “I would go backstage and interview these guys and get a story out of it.” In 1973, Mann reported how The Who and 14 members of “the group’s entourage” landed in jail for wrecking a 12-room suite at Montreal’s Hotel Bonaventure. He was at the party for about an hour and remembers seeing band members Pete Townshend and Keith Moon “absolutely smashed.” The next morning, he received a phone call from concert promoter Donald K. Donald who needed help bailing everyone out. When Mann got to the jail, the group was singing English football songs—not a good idea in a predominantly French city.

Mann thought rock stars were immature and pathetic but, in 1974, Frank Zappa offered him a rather pointed opinion of rock writers: “Do you know what a rock critic is?” Zappa asked him. “It’s a person who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who don’t read.” Mann replied, “You know, you’re right. You’re absolutely right!” After five years of filing stories to Rolling Stone, Creem and British magazines such asMelody Maker, he quit.

He admits he was quite critical of music at times—he once wrote a column entitled, “Have you heard the ‘good’ singles?”—yet he also went backstage and did drugs with musicians a couple of times, later writing favourable reviews he regretted. “I would call that an occupational hazard,” he says. But, like Niester, he had editors who let him write what he wanted because he understood the music and the culture.

Many critics praised the bands they loved and bashed the bands they hated. What might be called “boosting” or “cheerleading” coverage today was once an entertaining, almost gossip-rag read. This tactic worked because if a writer connected with a musician on a personal level, there was a good chance he understood that type of music and could explain it to readers. “There was the critic who became another kind of musician, and you’d have the really over-the-top, let-me-take-more-drugs-and-I’ll-write-about-it kind of criticism,” says Goddard. “It was so impassioned that you understood it—you could almost feel the music.” Goddard incorporated lyrics into stories and veered off topic when he felt like it. But generally, he tried to focus on criticism. For instance, in 1970, he wrote an analysis of The Band’s popularity. “[The group is] a success. The question is why. Why has the liberal intellectual—probably the only one really listening to pop music these days—taken in a record whose ethos is from the country?”

Niester admits he was a “hanging out” kind of critic. He and his American magazine friends—Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh and Richard Meltzer, all more excessive and indulgent in their writing than anyone in Canada—reveled in the party lifestyle. But Niester’s writing was conversational and highly opinionated. In 1978, his Bob Marley concert review rebutted an argument Bangs made in Rolling Stone that Marley did not merit the “superstar” reputation: “Bangs was right in his assessment that 1978’s mellow Marley is certainly not 1976’s revolutionary firebrand; but Bangs has made an erroneous judgment, and inevitably drawn a wrong conclusion because of it.” He then ended the review with a reassessment of Marley’s worth.

By the 1980s, Niester’s style became personal. He slipped in the personal pronoun as often as he could without upsetting his editors. In 1981, he wrote this concert review: “Heaven knows, I’d be the last smarmy critic in town to denigrate Leslie West and Mountain’s considerable spot in the annals of rock and roll history… But the so-called reunion last night was, I regret to say, an ill-advised mess…”

Newspapers gave such critical opinions a boost in the ’80s when album reviews became a more prominent part of entertainment sections. These pieces could be expansive, running several paragraphs long, or punchy, at just a few sentences. Now any newspaper critic could lambast or praise musicians’ precious offerings on a regular basis.

* * *

On a Friday night in December 2009, a sparse crowd gathers at The Garrison, a Toronto concert venue, to see the We Are Busy Bodies record label’s fifth anniversary showcase, featuring four local acts: Germans, a four-piece rock group; Mayor McCa, a rowdy, bearded one-man show; metz, a hardcore-rock trio; and headliners dd/mm/yyyy (pronounced Day/Month/Year), a math-rock band. With each set, there are more people watching, but the room still feels empty, even when the loud, bold music fills every crevice.

It’s well into Saturday morning by the time dd/mm/yyyy takes the stage, five musicians squeezing in between instruments and gear. Turning knobs, playing the drums or keyboards or guitars, singing and yelling, their intricate music is all in sync until one of them messes up, bringing the song to a screeching halt. All five men pause, then burst into laughter. One of them cracks that even after 100 shows, they still can’t master that transition.

Chris Bilton, a staff writer at Toronto’s Eye Weekly, laughs too, jolted out of the spell the band had cast on him. Later, in his review, he writes that it’s “a hilarious testament to the band’s well-oiled synergy.” Bilton, who often reviews two concerts a week, wasn’t impressed by the first two bands. He wrote that Germans’ act was “too-close-to-Killers-for-comfort” and Mayor McCa’s set was just a “lovable crazy-guy shtick.” The rest of the review is favourable. He’d reviewed metz just a week before and seen dd/mm/yyyy too many times to count: “I don’t really see much of a downside to either of them.” His knowledge of the genre and context about the label make the piece more interesting than a play-by-play. Before the show, Bilton explained Eye’s mandate for concerts: “Our live reviews are generally pretty positive. But we don’t go to terrible shows either, things that we assume aren’t going to be great.”

* * *

When Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain shot himself in 1994, the Globe ran a wire copy obituary a day after he was found. Three days after that, it ran an insensitive Cox News Service column by Howard Kleinberg about drug-induced rock star deaths. “What is most troubling about deaths such as Cobain’s is the mourning and martyrizing by the young people: the fans,” he wrote. “They lament his death, elevate him to a pedestal of deity, then await the next pseudo-hero to mourn and idolize.”

Kleinberg’s disdain for Cobain’s fame aside, skepticism was becoming old-fashioned as the line between critic and cheerleader blurred. Robert Christgau, the self-professed “Dean of American Rock Critics,” declared in 1990 that he’d no longer publish reviews under a B grade in Consumer Guide, his service-oriented Village Voice column, unless the band or musician was so terrible he had to let the world know. Although Canadian critics didn’t follow him right away, his move signalled the long, slow decline of snarky critical music writing, at least in newspapers.

Newspaper journalists began to rely more on previews, letting musicians speak for themselves. Writers were left to provide background information and the pertinent details—possibly dressed up in quirky language. A 1991 Edmonton Journal article by Helen Metella about a ska band had this lead: “Knowing that Buster Bloodvessel fronts ska band Bad Manners says almost all you need to know about the set that played one of last year’s best club dates and returns to the Bronx tonight.” Why would anyone keep reading? It assumes a lot, especially for anyone who doesn’t know who Buster Bloodvessel is, or even what ska is—and newspapers have broad audiences. Unfortunately, writing like this is common because the preview is such a popular formula.

Around the same time, CD reviews became just as formulaic as previews. In 1995, for instance, the Ottawa Citizen reviewed an Eddie Schwartz album. “Schwartz tends to smooth his songs a bit much, leaving a rather bland taste,” Lynn Saxberg wrote. “While it’s interesting to hear his take on his work, Schwartz’s voice seems to lack the distinctive edge of other artists.” She could have said the same about music writers.

As their voices became less colourful and reckless, critics stuck together, reluctant to out-write one another. But they did become interested in how their platforms might promote the musicians they loved. Late last year,Star pop music critic Ben Rayner told the story of how, in 2001, record label friends lured newspaper critics to see the Constantines, an anthemic rock band from Guelph, Ontario. The ploy paid off. “All of us would soon be tumbling over each other in a rush to heap praise upon the band,” he wrote. “Frankly, none of us were expecting to have our minds blown so completely.”

In the 2000s, boosting and cheerleading became the unwritten mandates for newspaper music criticism. With innumerable online music sites such as Pitchfork and blogs, there were more critics than ever. Negative reviews still existed, but less often in print. Space was at a premium because music coverage was shrinking, so writers chose to give most of their words to bands they enjoyed. Some critics believe this led to a loss of real analysis. “I miss being informed and infuriated by people and voices I know,” says Mike Bell, associate arts and entertainment editor at the Calgary Herald. “Half the time you read a new name when you open up a newspaper and it’s like, ‘Well, who are you? Where are you from? What do you like? I have no connection with you. Why would I care that you’re giving five out of five to this?’”

Readers have migrated to the web, where opinions are stronger. But Rayner and Everett-Green believe quality control on the web is lacking. “Everybody thinks they can be a music critic,” Rayner says. “A lot aren’t that good and they’re eroding the quality.” But he admits the web also has positive elements—it’s helped him find his audience.

To Benjamin Errett, who oversees the National Post’s arts section, the internet has raised a formidable challenge for dailies. “It’s difficult for a general interest newspaper to cover music,” he says, “especially these days with so many more bands and so much available on the internet.”

The decline doesn’t bother Rayner and he wonders why anyone would think newspapers are the go-to sources for music journalism in the first place. “They were never the cool place for criticism,” he says. After all, even his colleagues consider the music critic position a “joke job.” He’s happy he’s usually left alone, but says, “You get that vibe that you’re failing.”

Rayner has reason to pay attention to the vibe he gets. Last year, the Star dampened his music coverage when it moved him to features for six months. In Everett-Green’s case, editors barely touch his copy and the paper’s other writers treat him with respect because he can write knowledgeably about a broad range of music. Although he is aware he’s “quite spoiled,” he says reviewing is a complicated process and just because people have opinions doesn’t mean they can express themselves well.

For decades, music writing was opinionated—and even when it was over-the-top, it was thought-provoking. But critics who write only about what they like aren’t doing their readers any favours. As music historian  and writer Nicholas Jennings says, “Music is a central part of people’s lives and criticism is a useful service to people as a consumer guide to what’s worth listening to or what’s not worth listening to.”  Today, unfortunately, readers get only half the story.


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