The InsiderOne Daily Report

  Tuesday, February 27, 2001

The Problem With Critics (Or Writin' About The Mail)

InsiderOne's Michael Goldberg writes: Finally, the musicians of the world have a spokesperson! None other than my man Mike Doughty, former leader of Soul Coughing, a band I'm still quite fond of for several reasons. I first encountered Soul Coughing during the early days of my online music magazine, Addicted To Noise; the group's debut album, Ruby Vroom, was constantly playing as we put together the early "issues." Also, and perhaps more important, that album and the two that followed were really good. I'm looking forward to a Doughty solo album (his collaboration with BT last year was terrific). However, we're not focusing on Doughty's music today, but rather his recent rant against rock critics — specifically Robert Christgau and the Village Voice's 27th or 28th annual "Pazz and Jop" poll. Doughty wrote in the New York Press to the 590-plus critics who participated in the poll (as I did): "...I would like to take a moment to stress what a jerk you are. You are just about as definitively jerky as a jerk can be. In the guise of a love of music, you've taken the most beautifully nebulous form of human expression, squeezed it through an asinine points-scoring system specially cooked up for this pointless perennial, and forced it into this baffling, heinous chart system. As if the cold reality of the sales-based Billboard charts weren't harsh enough, some insecurity drives you to think your opinions worthless unless musical quality can be quantified with a chart, too. What the fuck? This is incredibly offensive to me. It is wholly, grossly, patently unmusical." Well, not exactly. Certainly the idea of listing an amazing work of art such as P. J. Harvey's Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea as the second best album of the year (ahead of Radiohead, behind Outkast) is ridiculous. All three albums are amazing — one isn't better than the other. Still, it's interesting to see what a bunch of people who spend all their time listening to music agree is good. It doesn't really mean anything. But it's interesting all the same. And certainly those who don't care for the idea of a poll of music critics don't have to look at it. "Jerky as a jerk can be"? I don't know. I've met a lot of music critics. Some are jerks, some aren't. But does participating in a poll make one a jerk? Certainly the Voice point system has always been questionable. Why not just list ten albums you thought were great? Does it really mean something if a critic gives one album 20 points instead of 10? And how does that really make the poll more accurate? Doughty used to pen the occasional review for SonicNet and other media. I'm sure he knows how many really bad albums come out. The musician's heart and soul may go into them, but they're still lousy, and one of the things critics do is help people figure out which albums are worth their 19 bucks and which aren't. A poll like the Voice's, or the one Rock 'N' Rap Confidential publishes each year, ends up being a pretty good list of 100 albums that are probably worth a music lover's time, for one reason or another. Doughty also lays into critics, and specifically Christgau: "...let's face facts here — what Robert Christgau does is basically write about his mail. He gets CDs in the mail and he tells us what he thinks about them. If you are a young, talented person who has something to offer the world, I'm sure that a gig as a rock writer can be great fun for a little while, but please, please, eventually go out into the world and write about real stuff. Don't channel your gifts into a life spent writing about your mail." As someone who has among other things, written news stories, reviews and columns about music and musicians for many years, I have to point out that there's another side to this. I can only speak for myself, but these days one reason I write about the music that moves me is the hope of turning others on to it. And to think there's something inferior about Christgau because he spends much of his time writing about recordings (which he happens to get in the mail) and then to dis him because he's not writing about "real stuff," is just silly. A good, insightful writer can find something worthwhile to say in the course of writing about just about any subject. Greil Marcus, a critic I respect greatly, can experience more listening to an album than some people experience their whole life, it seems. Certainly his writings about music and what he hears are extremely illuminating. "Real stuff"? It doesn't get any more real.

Datastream: Don't ask how he managed to pull it off, but Chris Slusarenko's "concept album," Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel, to be released on Slusarenko's own Off Records, features new material written and recorded for the album by — get this — Guided By Voices, Stephen Malkmus, Quasi, Mary Timony, Howie Gelb, Minus 5 and Grandaddy. Not to mention the Black Heart Procession, two members of the Make Up going by the name Weird War, Lou Barlow, Russell Pollard going by Sentridoh and more. Plus liner notes by the legendary (and now former) rock crit Richard Meltzer, who describes the album as "...a whale of an object — a veritable shitload (pardon my French) of sonic oo-poo-pa-doo w/ lyrics..." If you like some of the above-named artists, you'll probably love Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel, due March 20. We did ask Slusarenko, via email, how he managed to pull it off, and he responded: "It was just an idea I had been sitting on for a couple years. I kind of assumed someone else would beat me to it. So on a whim I made up some vague chapters for this character, Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel, and showed it to a few friends (Joe Sacco, Sam Coomes and Charlie Campbell) and I was really surprised at how enthusiastic their response was. It just gave me the confidence to start cold-calling the other artists and musicians that became involved. I'm still in awe that I convinced them to collaborate on the project. I think a lot of the artists were relieved to be working on a project unlike anything they had done before. It wasn't a typical compilation or tribute album where they could just throw me whatever tracks couldn't even make b-sides. They had to look at the whole story and work in a more abstract manner since none of them got to hear the others' music until it was done. I was a bit worried that it might be overly laborious for some but the consensus was that it was a blast to work on." And there you have it.

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Michael Goldberg is the president of He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

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