Most folks considerÂ Paul Williams’ 1969 bookÂ Outlaw BluesÂ to be the first wordsÂ of rock criticism ever written. CompiledÂ two years after he foundedÂ Crawdaddy!, a music magazineÂ that preceded both Creem and Rolling Stone, Williams laid a foundation for how we talk about music that would proveÂ more diplomatic, more objective and less generallyÂ irate than an entire generation of critics who followed.
At this acid-spangled turning point in American music, WilliamsÂ wasÂ learning how to describe the sounds he was hearing, and much of the fun from Outlaw Blues comes from bearing with him as he findsÂ the language of music criticism and poses some serious questions.
The first such question comes up when Williams is trying to make sense of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds:Â Why was itÂ the first album of theirs in several years not to become a “million-seller”?Â He comparedÂ it to the band’s previous album, Beach Boys Party, “which most of us heavy rock listeners looked down upon as a sloppy, drunken recording of moldy oldies from 1961.”
Then, counter to every contemporaryÂ critic’s assumption of what he ought to say next, Williams stands up for Beach Boys Party, telling the reader that there’s got to be something we canÂ learn from its success. Whether they’re technicallyÂ any good or not, those moldy-oldie hits are relatable, and easy for people to genuinely connect with, he reasons.
âNet media coverage of music subcultures can cheapen the importance that those subcultures have to people. Blunt, un-nuanced attention is suffocating. It turns the music into content.â
He then asserts a critical maxim so profound it sounds obvious today: your personal opinion is paramount, but popularity is importantÂ to consider.
“Not that I want to say that if lots of people like something, it’s good,” he writes. “We all know what Humpty Dumpty said, and since I’m the one who’s stuck with whatever definition of the word I care to accept, I’ll feel more comfortable believing it’s ‘good’ if I feel it is rather than it’s ‘good’ if it wins the popularity polls. But we are talking about the relationship between what a performer feels like doing and what the audienceâlarge enough to pay for that performer’s studio timeâfeels like listening to. So the extent to which large bunches of people are able to relate to something is pretty important.”
Williams passed away in 2013, and while we can’t ask him what he thinks about howÂ the tastemaker culture has changed, he’d likely have some words on the matter.
For one thing, the idea of an artist’s popularity being solelyÂ based on theÂ relationship between what they want to createÂ and what the audience wants to hear is now soÂ romantic it’s almost antique. Williams’ words recall a time before music was integrated into our technology and broadcast media, before curatedÂ gatherings, beforeÂ festivals had sponsorsâbefore “branded content.”
OurÂ eyes glaze over at the mere mention of such corporate smegma, and that’s how these words make us numb to their effects.
No one kept hitting up Paul Williams and pressuring him to cover their clients; he just wrote about what he liked.Â PerformersÂ playedÂ music for people, and those people told more people about the music if they enjoyed it. And the performers were playingÂ the music theyÂ wanted to play. No algorithms, data, orÂ market research crept in to shape them. Oh, but howÂ things would changeÂ just a couple of years later in the ’70s.
DIY venue owner and patron saint of Brooklyn,Â Todd Patrick had some choice words for the tastemaker changing of the guard that’s happened over the last 15-20 years when we talked last week.
“So yeah a lot of people are looking to score that legit upper-middle-class career but working with music,” he said. “Theyâre told that the best thing you can do is have your work be facilitating the thing you enjoy. This manifests all over in lots of different industries, but in music hence we have created this whole class of individuals who are booking agents, publicists, managers, etc., who have ‘professionalized’ a scale of heretofore unknown musicians that used to just do it themselves.”
With so many specialized infrastructural roles considered necessary to represent your band or act “professionally” these days, who’s really the tastemaker? A snotty sense of piety comes from those of us who went to journalism school lusting afterÂ filling that role.Â And any writer whoÂ cherishes time-honored news values knows a good story about a popular musician hits three out of six of them: timeliness, impact and prominence.
But to honor Williams’ observations, something can be popular, worth covering or writing about and still just not be any good. This is whereÂ observing that fine line between promotion and actual reporting remainsÂ an ethical consideration. I would often rather not write about somethingÂ but speak negativelyÂ of it, but sometimes speaking negatively of something that’s emblematic of a trend or a fad you perceive to be negative is valuable.
I certainlyÂ wouldn’t write about something at a publicist’s request if I didn’t have anything new to say. This aloneÂ takes some of the unsolicited story topics that flood my inbox off of the table: trackÂ premieres, event previews, branded “experiences.”
There are several publications that happily and heartily publish stories like these, and that’s fine, but often the publicist seeking suchÂ coverage has some vested interest in the success of the publication, or vice-versa. There’s nothing wrong to me with doing some promotional writing, adjunct from journalismâwriting a band’s bio for their one-sheet, for instance, is a common move for freelancers. But you wouldn’t then cover that artist as a reporter or a journalist, right?
Virtually all majorÂ publications now publish “branded” or “native” content, supplemental videoÂ or editorial mediaÂ that promotes a certain product or service and is often indistinguishable fromÂ the publication’s other stories, the Observer included. Publications love branded content because itÂ satiates aÂ need to generate revenue through advertising while preventing the advertiser’s presence from appearing too invasive. When the content is flagged as such, with the words “brought to you by,” “sponsored by” or “advertisement,” transparency prevails (another journalistic value).
It’s more concerningÂ when advertisements and journalism become indistinguishable. Forget the death of print, that’s the corporate absorptionÂ of individualÂ perspective and identity.
âThe highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature, in her manner of operation.â
Adweek ran a storyÂ a couple months ago celebratingÂ a certain prominent media company’sÂ recent launch of its own network that focused on the network’s curated commercials during breaks. It praised the commercials’ ability to fit in with the editorial style of that network, offering a seamless experience between programming and “content” for the viewer that didn’t appear to be promoting anything.Â But that blurring line, that vanishing boundary, is what’s threatening journalism.
Though it robs the individual of connection, though it’sÂ cold and unfeeling and impersonal, “content” still hasÂ its aÂ place. Advertising campaigns needÂ clever slogans, corporations need copy for their branding, and “content” remains an appropriate label for all of that stuff.Â But when we talk about reporting, when we talk about criticism and when we talk about storytelling, the reader is not myÂ customer.
“The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all,” the late John Cage said. “This puts one in accord with nature, in her manner of operation.”
Todd Patrick wasn’t being all that cynical when he left music journalists out of the tastemaker equation during our talk, because they largely feed into this same upper-middle class, largely white group of liberal arts graduates who may or may not have ruined things for everyone. But with all of these channelsÂ soliciting press coverage, the channels through which people can actuallyÂ discoverÂ new music are dirty and flooded.
“Net media coverage of music subcultures can cheapen the importance that those subcultures have to people,” PatrickÂ told me. “Blunt, un-nuanced attention is suffocating. It turns the music into content.”
So what can writers do to curb this?
First, we can lessen the word “content” by reminding ourselves that content has value. Though the semantics of that wordÂ liberate it from any personal associations and essentially wash it clean of its author’s identity, the words have value when the information isÂ reported, intelligent and nuanced. What’s more, the author has value, too. Freelance journalists forget this more often than most, I think, because we spend so much time pitching over-worked power-tripping editors with bursting inboxes and so often see our stories ripped to bits by a rabid contrarian social media echo chamber.
We forget that editors rely on us for ideas, particularly nowadays as more and more full-time staff jobsÂ disappear. It’s not a maudlin, inspirational self-love schpiel to remind ourselves of ourÂ value.Â Our work has value beyond the publication date too, because if we’re doingÂ it right, no oneÂ could have written it but us.
Maybe that’sÂ why Paste Magazine, which turned Crawdaddy! into a blog on its site inÂ 2011, mainly just reposts old Paul Williams essays.
NoÂ one can recreate the sense of perspective, of smarts, of anecdotal wisdom of the true Zelig music journalist. YouÂ can emulate Lester Bangs tomorrow, and go off and write a hitÂ piece describing the process of submitting the members of The 1975 to Chinese Water Torture, but it would be little more than an exercise in form, a shell fashioned from someone else’s intellect.
“Content” functions the same way, a term used by certain moneyed interests to subvert the creative class, thus turning usÂ into creaturesÂ of pure productionÂ andÂ robbing us of a seat at the table to participate in ourÂ own discussion.
To wit, I say fuck that.
The stories we tellÂ must invite conversation with our ideas and our criticisms. We must become inexorably attached to the ideas we introduce and the way that we introduce them, so much so that the work willÂ not be separated from us by anyone,Â or used in any manner ill-suiting our own intentions when writing it.
In the words of the late, great Paul Williams, “for a last sentence, anything with ‘context’ in it is ok.”