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The Curse of Lester Bangs’ Influence

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Lester Bangs was a genius.

He was a phenomenally talented writer who, for the 13 years between his first publication in 1969 and his death in 1982, wrote some of the most eminently readable, insightful, and downright entertaining music criticism in the history of the form – a form that is not generally known for being entertaining. Truth is, I'm not even sure that it's fair to call him a music critic. Lester Bangs was a poet and essayist who found in rock album reviews the perfect vehicle through which to express himself.

His influence was staggering and vast, continuing in the pens and keyboards of two generations of writers for what is now 25 years since he shuffled off this mortal coil.

Lester Bangs himself may be the greatest thing that ever happened to rock criticism. His continuing influence is perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to it.

There are thousands of rock writers (and aspiring rock writers) who will scream "BLASPHEMY!" at the very notion of calling Bangs' influence a disaster (as Blogcritics' own Mark Saleski did, with his tongue at least partially planted in his cheek, upon my announcing that I intended to write such a thing). But hear me out.

What made Bangs an indisputably great writer was that he was incredibly novel, fiercely original, and – this is key – 100 percent idiosyncratic.

It's often remarked upon that he was unafraid to break every rule in the bible of criticism, including the Golden Rule – "Remove yourself from the writing" – but in fact, breaking those rules was the least of his innovations. Anyone can break those rules. What made Bangs a legend is that he did it well.

Got that? Bangs' criticism worked not because he broke the rules, but because he broke them well.

Therein lies the problem.

The rules, you see, are there for a purpose. Their purpose is to provide the critic with the boundaries that separate good criticism from poor criticism. That's not just the rule against putting yourself into the review, you understand. It's also the rule against freewheeling, elaborate and extended metaphors; the rule against making broad comparisons between the subject of your review and a general sense of society, life, or the world at large; the rule against writing a music review that isn't actually focused on the music you're reviewing; and the rule against making your observations and opinions personal, esoteric, and/or highly subjective.

In particular, there is a rule that has been true since the dawn of criticism, and it remains just as true today: Every time the word "I" or "me" appears in a critique, in any context, the critique is thereby that much weaker.

If you are Lester Bangs, with all of his talent and skill and breathtaking originality, you can break all of these rules with gleeful abandon and have your writing not only not suck, but have it be compelling and inspiring and wonderful.

If you are not Lester Bangs, when you break all of these rules your writing sucks.

Two points of comparison come to mind, for the sake of illumination. First, take the only real parallel for Bangs in modern American letters: Hunter S. Thompson.

When Thompson first began his career, his journalistic prose was riveting and radically different — it unfolded like a novel. It made huge and sometimes outlandish pronouncements. It was frequently distorted and abstracted (sometimes compellingly, sometimes hilariously) by the drugs in Thompson's system. And it was always, on some level or another, about Thompson himself as much as, or more than, his ostensible subject.

Very much like Bangs, that.

So radical and innovative was Thompson, in fact, that the journalistic world declared his approach to be "New Journalism." The idea was that all future journalism would be that way: eccentric, self-referencing (and self-effacing), unabashedly narcissistic, embellished, and subjective.

It didn't take.

Journalism experimented for a while — a painfully short while — and eventually, although Thompson remained a giant and there were an (extremely) few notable exceptions, settled back into largely what it had been before his arrival on the scene. The reason for this is that the practitioners of the journalistic trade attempted to pull off what Hunter S. Thompson actually did pull off…and discovered that Hunter S. Thompson was the only one who could make it work.

The other is the example I so often return to: the legendary and brilliant Florida talk-show host, Bob Lassiter.

Lassiter, a man whose cult is steadily growing, thanks to the airchecks collecting on the web and elsewhere, had the astonishing ability to tell deeply personal stories about himself, as well as launch into idiosyncratic and erratic rants, that could sometimes last up to three hours. He could ramble about Ronald Reagan and make it impossible for you to turn away, or tell you about every Christmas he lived through and make you weep.

However, when his monologue didn't last an entire show, and he would make ready to take phone calls, he was very clear about who wasn't invited. "You're not welcome to tell long, complicated stories about yourself and where you were the day that John F. Kennedy died," he said more than once. "It may be the most meaningful and poignant story in the world to you, but it ain't meaningful or poignant to anyone out there listening.

"Unless, of course, you're an extraordinarily good storyteller. And you're not."

These, unfortunately, are the lessons that the followers of Lester Bangs haven't learned. As a result, we too often get crap like this real-life excerpt from a Ben Folds review that appeared on Pitchfork a couple of years ago:

Back when he was Five, Ben Folds made punk rock for wussies. With a goofy drawl and sloppy piano-fisting (SFW, natch), Folds alternately threw stones and built glass houses. He'd mock a too-cool coterie of nose-ringed goths and closeted ex-Cure fans (ah, those innocent pre-Killers 1990s!), then let his guard down for ballads about heartbreak and, yes, the abortion that hurtled the Five through fame's window like a post-Final Four student rioter's "Brick". His hipster-baiting, sincerity and modest fame guaranteed a few nasty reviews, sure. Still, Folds challenged cred-consciousness before crying "rockist!" was OTM. Wussy, yes, but worthy.

Said one all-too-accurate observer, "I'll give $5 to the first person who can tell me what this idiot is talking about. Other than amusing himself with his hilarious little snark puns and masturbatory inside jokes, this entire paragraph tells me nothing about the music of Ben Folds, and whether or not I might like it. This is 100 words of wasted time."

Hilarious little snark puns and masturbatory inside jokes are the essence of Lester Bangs' legacy. Again, they worked when he tried them. They don't work when, oh, anybody else on Planet Earth does.

That, of course, covers only one of the three positives I credited Bangs with earlier in this article: "idiosyncratic." The others, "original" and "novel," speak for themselves at this point. What he did was original. What his followers do is emulation of him, which is exactly the opposite of original. And since Bangsian criticism has become de rigeur, it's also exactly the opposite of novel.

I talked earlier of a figurative "rule book" of rock criticism. But there's another rule book that is, at least in American English, practically mandatory for any writer worth his salt: Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Near the end of the book, when the grammar and mechanics have been covered, E.B. White adds a chapter about developing a writing style. He includes within the chapter a set of guidelines; the second of these is: Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you.

Lester Bangs did exactly that. Too, too many people have spent time ever since then writing in a way that came easily and naturally to Lester Bangs.

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About Michael J. West

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Let the games begin.

    I think it goes without saying that you have written a very thought provoking article that is almost certain to open up a lengthy, perhaps even overdue, debate amongst our music scribes here.

    SO bravo to you Micheal. Seriously, this is the sort of stuff I love diving into both as a writer, and as a guy who loves rock and roll journalism.

    Which I guess brings me to my point:

    What Bangs did for me was allow me to discover my own voice as a writer. He also cracked me up more often than not in the process of doing so. He made me realize that I don’t necessarily have to follow the so-called “rules” to be a good writer. You said it yourself in your article, quoting E.B. White:

    “Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you.”

    Thats what Bangs taught me to do. For me, what I discovered fairly quickly was that meant breaking down records in a fairly geekish sort of manner –this is what comes naturally to me — and maybe spinning some personal yarns along the way, that hopefully allow the reader to become more personally involved in an artist or a piece of music he might otherwise may not have ever given two shits about.

    I could never recreate the sort of brilliance of Lester Bangs doing battle in Creem Magazine with Lou Reed for example. I’m neither funny enough (well, at least until I get a couple of beers down me), or confrontational enough (see last paranthetical commment).

    But what Bangs did teach me was that simply being myself — geeky as that person can be when it comes to music — was not only okay, but could make for reading that might entertain someone while teaching them about something they didn’t already know.

    Once I found my own voice, I’ve found that the best writing is done when you make it read like you are talking directly to the reader.

    Bangs taught me that.

    I do agree that the flipside is the way some writers believe this grants license to verbally masturbate all over the page. Much as I love Bruce Springsteen for example, I’ve suffered through written accounts of guys parking themselves outside his boyhood house in some sort of bizarre pilgrimmage.

    Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve read people who write about artists with such a transparent personal axe to grind, that it is simply laughable.

    But thats what Bangs brought us, for better or for worse (mostly better in my opinion). So I guess I agree with you that like most creative breakthroughs, the “bad” will come with the “good” that comes from it.

    This is going to be a most interesting debate I think Micheal.

    I don’t agree with all you said here. But thank Bangs, at least in part when it comes to rock journalism, for the comfort you felt in expressing it.

    -Glen

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    Most of the time I agree with you, Michael, but this time you just sound like somebody’s parent complaining about the kids.

    The example you quote re Ben Folds five is particularly apt. It makes perfect sense and I’m sure the opinionated blogger you quote has long since paid out the five dollars.

    PS: Your mum fibbed!

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Nice Piece…

    I can definitely appreciate Mr. West’s p.o.v. and I think becoming mediocre happens in every career/job. But, I love writing reviews about music that I love. I wouldn’t want to waste my time trying to be reflective about an album (Metal or not) that I wouldn’t spend my hard earned money on. I like to try an infuse my experience & my ear as a musician…

    Still, Michael wrote a great article and maybe it’s something that goes against the grain but I give him credit though I forsee alot more explanation occuring in the comments section.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    hmmm…….hmmmm….

    uhm, i have writing to do. i’ll be back.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Bravo to YOU, Glen! You get it. You understand the influence that a good writer is SUPPOSED to have: to inspire you to find your own way. I think that you are particularly adept at that – primarily because you understand to keep the focus on the music, not yourself.

    However, I can’t agree that Bangs’ influence has been mostly for the better. The number of bad writers it has spawned vastly outweighs the number of good ones. It is directly responsible for the most pretentious, wanky, pseudo-literate, and critically useless writing on the face of the Earth. In other words, it is directly responsible for Pitchfork.

    The current belief that rock reviews are supposed to be entertaining and quirky – even if it means subtracting from their focus on the music – is not, in my opinion, a good development.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    You are to be congratulated, Chris, for your innovative, simultaneous employment of both the appeal to ridicule and guilt by association fallacies!

    The example you quote re Ben Folds five is particularly apt. It makes perfect sense and I’m sure the opinionated blogger you quote has long since paid out the five dollars.

    I’m glad that it makes perfect sense to you. (Follow the link and perhaps you’ll get your five dollars out of it, maybe even converted to Euros!) Of course you ignore the rest of the opinionated blogger’s complaint: “Other than amusing himself with his hilarious little snark puns and masturbatory inside jokes, this entire paragraph tells me nothing about the music of Ben Folds, and whether or not I might like it.”

    The fact that it makes sense to you does not make my example a good piece of music criticism. It’s not.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    i dunno michael, i would be willing to bet that most of the people writing for pitchfork have never even heard of Bangs.

    to me that, that quote above isn’t good not because there’s too much of the writer in it but because it’s not addressing the music itself. this is almost always a flaw in writing that’s snarky for snark’s sake.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    I thought one of the key points about the Bangsian school of writing was to eschew the overly pretentious type of rock writing that was pre-dominant pre- say 1976. The type of stuff that was swept away with all the boring old dinosaur muso stuff that was so stifling things before the much needed Punk revolution put some life back into music.

    Then factor into that the development of blogs, social networks and even our own dear Blogcritics and the increased focus on a more democratic and greater plurality of expression that all that implies and I find myself even more dismayed…

    Music is the most immediate and passionate of all the art forms and to try to depersonalise that experience and write about it in the way you seem to be saying is better seems to me to entirely miss the point of this awesome art.

    Sure, part of a writer’s art is to inspire and even guide but to attempt to proscribe and limit the ways of going about that seems unhelpful and overly controlling to me.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Mark, I find that Bangs (along with Thompson) gets name-checked on Pitchfork more often than anybody except Thom Yorke.

    You’re right about what makes the Pitchfork quote bad – it doesn’t address the music, it’s just jerking off. That’s another legacy of Bangs, though. He made sweeping pronouncements about the artists, too, sometimes without directly discussing the music – but when he did it, it was so insightful, and surprisingly descriptive of what you would find if you put the rcord on the turntable, that it worked. I’ve not yet found anyone else who can do it.

    Chris, when you say “part of a writer’s art is to inspire and even guide,” you are speaking in general terms of what writers, as a whole, indistinct body, do. The critic is a particular brand of writer.

    To guide is the critic’s ENTIRE purpose. His/her job is to appraise somebody else’s art in such a fashion that he/she convinces the audience of whether or not that art is worthy of perusal.

    Depersonalizing it is important precisely because music is by far the most subjective form of art forms. My experience of the music on a personal, emotional level is almost surely going to 100% different from yours, so how is hearing about my emotional experience of it supposed to help you decide whether or not to listen to it?

    There’s a writer named Andy Wilson who’s written a book about the German band Faust, and his discussion of the music is filled with his tying it to the memories he has of where and when he listened to it and derived certain experiences from it. Or, what images it conjured in his head. Good for him, but it doesn’t do shit for the music, and it’s not interesting or relatable in terms of himself – and I didn’t want to read about himself anyway. I wanted to read about Faust.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    Every time the word “I” or “me” appears in a critique, in any context, the critique is thereby that much weaker.

    and here i obviously have to disagree. honestly, i didn’t even know that there were any rules.

    and without getting into a direct defense of my writing, i never really set out to emulate Lester. it’s more that i write like i speak, and sort of cobble together in words pretty much exactly what i would say if having a discussion with somebody about a particular album.

    i suppose there’s this whole notion of how a critic is supposed to function in society…and i don’t give a hoot about it. there’s music out there that i like and it’s my desire (‘desire’ isn’t quite right. need is closer) to let everybody know about it.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Mark, please don’t think that I’m attacking your writing. I enjoy it tremendously.

    But yeah, there are rules, just as there are rules for any particular type of writing. Criticism is a serious craft, and just like all serious crafts there are ways to do it right and ways to do it wrong.

    But Mark – PLEASE don’t take this the wrong way – I’m not sure it’s fair to call you a critic in the traditional sense. You’re more like what Glen Boyd describes himself as: a music raconteur, who wants to express the joy he receives from the music he loves.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    oh i didn’t think you were attacking at all…just wanted to pitch for my viewpoint.

  • Mr. Bonkers

    As the editor of seven national magazines over the past 21 years, I was highly amused by the Pitchfork excerpt. I have some theories as to what it meant but I won’t waste any more of anybody’s time with it. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t let it get through. I think all would-be music critics should hang the following quote of their wall from iconoclast Frank Zappa, “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”

  • Mr. Bonkers

    . . . quote “on” their wall. Don’t you hate typos?

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree, Michael. I am entirely opposed to your view of the role and approach of a music writer.

    I can’t imagine what flight of ego would lead any music lover or critic to imagine that they have the right to lead anybody anywhere, nor by what criteria they would imagine that they knew better.

    Michael, I’m far more interested in what and how the music made you feel than some arbitrary set of ideas about what makes good or bad music.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Michael, I’m far more interested in what and how the music made you feel than some arbitrary set of ideas about what makes good or bad music.

    And I like to know more about the music than the reviewer. Yup, I guess “agree to disagree” is the best course of action.

  • http://marchogan.blogspot.com Marc H.

    Michael,

    I wrote the Ben Folds review you cite here two and a half years ago. I’d been writing for Pitchfork only a few months and might not even have been getting paid yet. Believe me, I’m sure you can find much worse examples of my writing from that era if you try! But the commenter above is correct that all of my references should’ve made sense to the intended audience. (Besides, it’s not hard to Google “OTM” if you don’t know what it stands for.)

    If the strongest supporting example you can find is from spring 2005, what does that say about your argument?

    Gonzo journalists like Lester Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson inspired tons of terrible writing. The Velvet Underground inspired plenty of terrible bands. They were highly inspirational figures. In the age of blogs, there are bound to be many more terrible Lester Bangs-style writers… but I hope we’ll come across a few writers with great voices in their own right, too. Not all writing needs to be impersonal, especially when you’re doing it for free (or for peanuts).

    Best,
    Marc

  • http://marchogan.blogspot.com Marc H.

    Wait, actually “OTM” apparently IS hard to Google nowadays, sorry. It means “on the money” or “on the mark” and was common Internet music-geek slang at the time.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    There’s one point you make that doesn’t hold up, Marc:

    If the strongest supporting example you can find is from spring 2005, what does that say about your argument?

    It says that my argument was valid 23 years after Bangs’ death. It’s a very small leap to suggest that it would still be valid 25 years after his death.

    Other than that, fair enough, Marc. I’m certainly not sure my reviews from spring 2005 would represent me very well.

    A good point about blogs, too – the REAL “new journalism.” They’re still enough in their infancy that it’s hard to know what will happen once we’re really able to separate the wheat from the chaff…but the blogosphere certainly is uniquely suited to nurturing and introducing new voices.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    I should also, in fairness, point out that I’m a jazz critic, not a rock critic. I’m sure that that colors my perception – jazz and rock are two very different musics, and thus require two very different criticisms. There are phrases and writing styles that are appropriate in jazz reviews that wouldn’t be appropriate in rock reviews (and vice versa).

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    Interesting piece, Michael. Interesting, but severely flawed.

    Criticism, and particularly music criticism, is not a science. It’s subjective, and as such, is not bound to any one set of “rules.” The creation of music, regardless of genre, implicitly makes that clear. Music is an organic entity, constantly shifting and evolving. Its lifeforce depends on breaking cherished rules so the entity may flourish.

    Writing about music (or anything else, for that matter) is no different. Any writer “worth his salt” is keenly aware of the rules, and knows instinctively when and how to break them for maximum impact. Yeah, there are a lot of people out there who read a review or two by Bangs or Marsh or Christgau, and go gleefully imitate them. Those people are not writers, and never will be.

    It’s this notion that there are certain rules of criticism to which we must adhere that sticks in my craw. Music critics are generally hated, particularly those who come off as a voice from on high. And when a critic approaches it in that regard, he’ll be dismissed as a blowhard elitist.

    That’s not to say the writer should pander to the audience. If something is great, then say so, but make it clear that it’s great because you think so, and this is why. And if it blows, you approach it the same way. It’s impossible to separate your personal prejudices and experiences from the piece you’re reviewing. The audience already has their mind made up. It’s the critic’s job to either agree, or tell them they’re wrong.

    I let the subject dictate my approach. If it’s going to impact my point, I’m going to use personal pronouns, draw on my own experience and let the reader decide whether I’m full of shit. That doesn’t diminish my criticism– if anything, it gives the reader an opportunity to bond with me, for better or worse.

    We could debate forever the virtues of personalizing a review, but that’s not my purpose here. I will, however, go on record as saying, “the first rule is there are no rules.”

  • Kory Lanphear

    Great article, Michael! Bangs’ influence and the widespread propensity for imitation thereof cannot be overstated.

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    The audience already has their mind made up. It’s the critic’s job to either agree, or tell them they’re wrong.

    True in some situations, but not true as a generalization. I write a lot about fairly obscure indie acts. My purpose, almost exclusively, is to inform readers whether, in my opinion, they’re worth checking out. And in fact, the same is true when I review a Doors or Janis Joplin reissue – although fans already know the music, I might help them decide whether this particular reissue is worth spending their money on.

    I have no interest in telling people who are into, say, Mariah Carey, that they’re “wrong.” What would be the point?

    On the flip side, let’s not forget that we have in our ranks a writer who goes very much his own way – I speak of the Duke de Mondo, of course – surrounding his criticism with huge gobs of entertaining personal stuff. Like Bangs, a unique and original voice, able to “break the rules well.”

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    Excellent point, Jon–and I couldn’t agree more.

    I review a lot of obscure stuff, too–Ego Plum comes to mind–and like most of the writers here, I think we act as a consumer guide as much as anything else. My point is the last thing the reader cares about is our music geek “knowledge”–it puts them off instantly. They just want to know if they personally will like it.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    Michael, re your #16, you can’t separate the two like that; without the listener, the music has no effect, so obviously how it makes you feel is vital. The trick is understanding both the music and the reviewer with some emotional intelligence. That’s just as true for Jazz as it is for rock or any other genre for that matter.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    It’s probably even more true with jazz, Chris. But, yeah, you’re right–music is a symbiotic experience. To try to divorce ourselves from the personal experience in favor of getting into dissertations of theory is ludicrous. It’s equally ridiculous to attempt to write an “objective” review. No matter how you phrase it, and no matter how much you avoid personal pronouns, you can’t deny the core fact you’re writing about the music from the viewpoint of personal experience. The trick is to embrace that, and convey it in a manner that’s easily digestible, but still has an air of authority. In that regard, “I” can be your best friend.

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    So sez Marc, the Pitchfork dude:
    “Wait, actually “OTM” apparently IS hard to Google nowadays, sorry. It means “on the money” or “on the mark” and was common Internet music-geek slang at the time.”

    No no no…”OTM” stands for One Track Mind. Sheesh.

    And Michael, just as I predicted, you wrote another thought-provoking, informative article. I’m having a hard time reconciling two of the points you made, though. How can a critic follow a certain set of rules, such as avoiding the use of self-references, and write in the style that comes most naturally to them if their natural style breaks the rules? Not trying to give you a hard time, just trying to make sense out of what appears to be two conflicting tenets.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    Pico, I hadn’t seen the OTM acronym before reading it above but only “on the money” makes sense in the context of the quote. Nice self promotion though ;-)

  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com Elvira Black

    I think Tom Wolfe (sp?) would be another prime example of the New Journalism gurus for sure.

    Personally, my def of a good review or critique is: does it stand on its own as an entertaining, informative, even enlightening/inspiring piece of writing–even if you’re not familiar with the artist being reviewed?

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    Elvira! Great to see you here again. As always, you are as wise as you are beautiful!

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Thanks for fixing my link, Christopher. As a token of my gratitude, I will promote your favorite site, too:

    Robot of the week

    :&)

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    That’s kind of you, Pico, but it isn’t actually my favourite site yet, not by a long way. It’s just a little idea I’m developing for fun and also as a way to polish up some of my limited technical skills.

  • JC Mosquito

    It’s just after 5 AM and I’m stuck on a hotel guest computer so I’m just catching up:

    Because we’re all human beings with different experiences and different ways of internalizing information, of course there’s an element of subjectivity in anything people write. And there is no government agency or other “powers that be” that impose a set of critical “rules” that one must follow.

    But if we don’t have some common ground we can never hope to communicate with each other.

    That’s what’s meant by critical “rules.” I have no beef with anyone’s personal taste, but if it’s all about the subjective experience of music (or anything else), I can’t have any kind of dialogue with anyone that goes any deeper than, “I like this – I don’t like that.” “How about that! – I feel differently.” Which is nice enough, but doesn’t give me much further insight into the subject at hand. Even citing the reason you feel that way only gives me a glimmer into how you yourself process things – and if I don’t know you well, then I’m back to square one.

    Interestingly, we’ve been through variations of this discussion before, and usually know where many of the bc regulars stand on this issue. Maybe this is part of the modern internet age – perhaps because the majority of us will never meet each other in person, the essence of our personalities are distilled in or writing, and we really can learn from someone simply expressing his or her feelings about something withot having to fit a proscribed critical format.

    But I like my Strunk and White – and my Sheridan Baker (The Practical Stylist) and my Northrop Frye (Anatomy of Criticsm).

    Oh, and my Saint Lester.

    Skeeter.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    skeeter, I get what you’re saying but, to my way of thinking, you and the other members of the “dispassionate” school have it entirely backwards.

    Yes, we all have our own perceptions but there is far more to say about music and the experience of music than the two tragic examples you put forth. For example, if we were talking together and you told me you loved some band, that would probably be a jumping off point for a whole wide-ranging conversation, rather like when one of the Blogcritics comments streams goes off all over the place, and we’d forge our own common ground and have a great time.

    However, if you simply tried to place them in some artificial hierarchy of “good” and “bad” music based on some dull abstract theories of criticism, I’d tell you not to be a boring old fart!

    My way, we’d have a really deep multi-facted conversation; your way we would be struggling to stay awake from boredom.

  • JC Mosquito

    Christopher,

    Well, I guess I wouldn’t use dull abstract theories – I hope we would be using current, vibrant ones and forging new ones at the same time.

    As I’ve said on other occasions, in my real life “dispassionate” is about the last thing anyone who knows me would say about myself and my relation to all things artsy, but in particular, music. Maybe I’m just not making myself very clear.

    G2G – the hotel concierge is looking at me funny.

    Sk.

  • http://templestark.com Temple Stark

    On this, M. West is much more right than almost anyone here cares to acknowledge. That’s natural. What’s been overlooked is his point about talent. Talent is not overrated.

    Writers can self-pleasure themselves all day long and be true to their own vision and “write what comes naturally.” But “naturally” in most cases is complete shit. More people need to hear that. The worst habits can be removed and a person’s writing can be improved but only to a certain point.

    And that’s just talking about the writing.

    A critic has a job, to impart their opinions about the sounds in their ears. Readers get to trust certain critics, in part because of shared tastes. If someone has completely different tastes reading that person is not going to be a regular thing. The exception is the talent of strong writing where all elements of timing, phrasing, and tangents with a purpose come together, if you can’t do the job of critical thinking,

    In the realm of music criticism, I don’t read anyone regularly anywhere. I read music criticism but there isn’t a lot of talent out there. And talent is often being willing or able to put in hard work, not solely just what comes naturally. I read a lot about bands I don’t know and there ARE certain shortcuts that trigger useful information for the reader. For example, comparisons to other bands, while not always a pleasant tool, do in fact work. They DO THE JOB. The rest is music writing. It’s icing, It separates the bang from the bore, washed up on the shore, wishing no more.

    Doesn’t anyone else think once Bangs found what works for him that he only continued because people liked it and realized he had an ability to get music criticism across? That was his job. If people didn’t like it, no one would know his name today.

    Don’t let anyone tell you blogging is new journalism either. (In my mind art criticism and punditry isn’t journalism but I know I’m in the minority in this view.) That’s illusionary and makes no sense whatsoever. If we’re talking about writing the only differences are, write shorter and add links. Knowing your audience is true no matter your medium. Certain basic rules of writing DO apply. That doesn’t mean follow them all the time, but it does mean if you try and fail, you’ve failed and need to try something else. Failure is a part of becoming better but some people are destined to always fail and should be told this by readers (plural) and not encouraged insincerely by people just trying to be nice. That’s often subjective but not always, so caution ahead. Don’t be jerk just to be a jerk either.

    Anyway, good writers realize that if very few understand what they’re saying, they are the problem. If more people are bored than excited by what you’re producing, then that should, at least, start a self-examination.

    As a side note, any effort to ramble on about formulaic writing misses the points being made here. Of course it sucks. It’s obvious so shut up, already. We’re talking about what makes and breaks the formula.

    Talent.
    Talent.
    Talent.

    Writing for an audience – which is the only reason art criticism exists – is not merely about doing what comes naturally. There are certain things you need to do so other people want to read what you’re typing. If you can. That’s what West is on about.

    temple

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    [Insert Temple’s entire comment here]

    Quoted for truth.

  • JC Mosquito

    Must be some serendipity goin’ on here – I just got a copy of Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader (ed. John Morthland) as a withdrawn item from the public library. It’s in great shape – but apparently no one takes it out much, so it was cut from the catalogue. Maybe Lester Bangs is less of an influence on rock journalism than any of us thinks he is?

    And yes, it’s a great read, too.