Writing The Record: The Village Voice And The Birth Of Rock Criticism, by Devon Powers
Reading this book was a very ambivalent experience for me, because it found me once again in a place where I found much to appreciate and certainly relate to and much to criticize and find fault with as well. I am no stranger to music criticism, the subject of this short volume , and clearly this is a book whose complications and paradoxes I “get.” What I found most irritating about this work is that the author appeared to assume that criticism and intellectualism were necessarily anti-traditional and “progressive” in terms of their cultural and political importance. My own chief beef with this book, from which many other criticisms spread, is that I can identify very well with the self-conscious and critical tendencies of the author and those she discusses who were influential in the 1960’s and beyond as part of the founding generation of music critics while I cannot identify well at all with their countercultural and political and moral worldviews, and that means that I can at the same time understand the language and perspective of the author while at the same time being very hostile to it at the same time, which is an awkward place to be.
This book is taken from the author’s doctoral thesis on music criticism and seeks to look at the importance of the Village Voice, an alternative weekly magazine based out of New York City, in the rise of rock criticism as a respected genre which the author herself participates in through the writing of this book. The book shows all the hallmarks of contemporary critical thought with its love of a certain specialized genre and its fascination with certain discourses and hand-wringing over marginalized subaltern groups. After an introduction to rock criticism in particular and critical theory in general, the author writes about the history and the significance of the Village Voice in rock criticism in five chapters that take up less than 150 pages. The first chapter looks at the role of Greenwich Village as a complex bohemian community that was capable of sustaining a hip, alternative magazine. After this comes a look at the relationship between early rock critics and the world of popular music, a world in which these writers inevitably became enmeshed. After this the author discusses hype and the way that hipster criticism sought to delegitimize marketing and advertising as automatically suspect and inauthentic. The author then moves to contentious and complicated identity politics given the fact that most rock critics were and are white men (like myself) with complex views towards racial and class and gender and other forms of political discourse. The book ends with a short chapter on mattering that seeks to demonstrate that even in a fragmented world of music that experience and music criticism somehow matter to a community of fellow intellectuals.
Ultimately, this is a book that is based on a large set of contradictions. It is only going to matter to those who think that criticism as an approach to art and literature and especially rock music matters. Many people will likely find this book and its approach to be entirely meaningless and of no interest to them whatsoever. Yet for those of us who are critics there is much to find worthy of critique here. Of particular importance is the fact that the anti-traditional attitude of many critics cuts out from under would-be critics the legitimacy that comes from having an enduring and worthwhile moral standard by which to judge anything. Many critics, by being hostile to biblical morality, leave themselves unable to have any consistent and legitimate ground from which to critique anything else at all. Without ultimate standards there can be no worthwhile criticism. Likewise, this book is full of contradiction on top of contradiction, as critics wished to have the moral authority of prophets without their moral probity, and wished to make a decent living while criticizing the music business upon which they were parasites, and wished to influence the behavior of the general public while remaining essentially an elitist enterprise. The very act of being seen as a gatekeeper and tastemaker meant that one’s tastes mattered and that one’s preferences would become more common and commoditized, leading hipster critics in a futile eternal search for a place to stand tat would not become mere commercial product that remains to this day and that will endure so long as they remain hopelessly inconsistent and hypocritical in their approach as they have thus far.
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