Sunday, April 15, 2012

Pazz Jop, Part Twa: Friendly Critics, Critical Friends

You can rely on your own tribe for only so long.

I could get the Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir solo albums because I was already a Deadhead, but maybe I should have stopped before getting to Mickey Hart - a great drummer, but maybe I didn’t need to have yet another version of “Playing in the Band”.

And known territory was by definite safe.  Too safe.

I forayed into singer-songwriter territory via Jackson Browne, scoring a win with Warren Zevon, and what seemed like a win at the time with Dan Fogelberg (it was good to get that off my chest). I barely missed the rest, thank god.

But this was just making me more knowledgeable about the types of music I already liked. I sensed there was more, and so began to check out some of the popular rock magazines of the day.

I’d like to say that I only got the coolest ones, but there were more than a few “16” magazines lying around from my Monkees days. (I didn’t know "16" was meant for girls, I swear!)

I had to be careful which magazines I brought home because some had dirty words in them. Plus they cost money.

First there was Circus, which was full of puff pieces on whoever was “in” at the time. You know, kind of like how Rolling Stone is now.  But they did have a decent review section.

Then there was Rolling Stone, Creem and Crawdaddy. They were less juvenile, which is what I wanted, even if I was still one myself.

I’d notice the ads for records. There would be quotes that sometimes caught my attention, like "Springsteen is a truly great songwriter", "Little Feat are the best band in America" or Elliot Murphy's Aquashow being compared to Blonde on Blonde.

And I'd read reviews, which, at the time, I took at face value. As dumb as it is to say now, I assumed that one review would be the same as another - that there was a universal standard being applying to the music, instead of the reviewer's subjective taste.

So I’d get some records that would annoy people, and take heat for “listening to critics” - unfairly, I think, since I never “decided to like something” because of a review I read.

Advice, whether it comes from a friend or a critic, may get you to buy a record, but it won’t get you to like it. So is reading a critic any worse than listening to a friend’s advice?  Admit it, it’s usually better.

Were those critics “reliable”? It depends what you expect to get. If you think reading someone’s opinion of a record is going to infallibly predict your own reaction to it, then no. But if you read one looking for evidence that the person listened to the record more than a couple of times, thought about it, and formed coherent thoughts about it, then yes, you can find someone “reliable”, assuming you understand that there’s ultimately no accounting for taste. But if you look for a way of thinking that rings true to you, then you’re on safer ground.

And if you aren’t into opera, but find yourself reading Opera Digest (Why? I don’t know.  You tell me. But hey man, hat's off to you.) don’t buy the record that is “the best opera record of the year”. Get the “ideal introduction to opera” instead.

If anything, I was more likely to fool myself into liking something because I liked that artist’s previous work. Like most young people, I was looking for heroes, and tried to convince myself that everything they did was “great”.

Another viewpoint is valuable to shake you out of such thinking. Maybe the best thing is to find a critic who will tell you that everything you thought before was wrong.

Next: Hearing Voices

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