I Must Be An Acrobat

A few weeks ago at the “Elizabethtown” premiere party, a woman from UPI asked me, “So, are you a critic?” I answered quickly enough to offend every critic within ear shot, “Oh no, no, no, no. I’d never be a critic.”

True, I was on the job for MTV News, so she’s to be forgiven for asking. But being a rock or movie critic was never something I aspired to. What do critics know? What has a critic made? At the end of their days, what do they have to show for themselves?

Frank Zappa famously said, “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” Hyperbole, to be sure. And back when I wrote on the regular (as opposed to coming out of retirement to interview my heroes), I took umbrage with Mr. Zappa’s statement. I’m still not sure I agree. But rock criticism? Complete bullshit.

Here’s what got my goat. Today I stumbled onto an interview Chicago Tribune Music Critic Greg Kot conducted a few months ago with Bono. Ends up Kot had written a piece declaring “U2’s March of the Tired Warhorses Hamstrings Fine Ensemble Effort.” Now, I’ve read enough post modern language theory and penny ante psychology to know that every author writes himself into his work. Feeling like a tired warhorse, Mr. Kot? Cranking out lame rock criticism for a second rate newspaper got you down? But I’m not going to go there. Instead, I’d like to simply ask: what good has ever come of criticism?

Kot calls out Bono for selling out to Apple. He suggests that licensing “Vertigo” to an iPod commercial cheapened the song. He has the stones to tell Bono what good for his art! Bono replies:

I hear so many songwriters describe their songs as their children, that they have to look after them. Bullshit! They’re your parents, they tell you what to do. They tell you how to dress, how to behave when you’re playing them. They tell you what the video looks like. If you listen to them, they manage you. And if you get it right, they pay for your retirement [laughs]. Because songs demand to be heard!

I started my career at a tiny paper in Saratoga Springs, New York, called The Saratogian. I had a column called “B-Side” (I wanted to call it “The Electric Banana” but they wouldn’t let me). My objective was to celebrate the vibrancy, immediacy, and unadulterated (check out the root of that word: un-adult, as in “child like”) joy of the 45. Too young to remember the 45? Nowadays we’d call it a single, or a download. Used to be it was a slab of vinyl with a hit on one side, and some experimental, live or album also-ran on the other. And I loved both sides! The radio hit and the weird flipside where the artist stretched out just a little bit. Check out the root of that word: art. Know what that is, Mr. Kot? Ever made any? Ever made anything?

Obviously, the subject of criticism gets my goat. Probably because I hear tons of it around the office. “This sucks” or “That’s lame.” And this from a bunch of people who wouldn’t know how to pour their hearts out into a microphone if they took classes! This from a bunch of people who have never made anything original or heartfelt.

Make no mistake: doing so — creating something original and heartfelt — doesn’t entitle one to be critical of other people’s art. Instead, I believe, it enables one to be empathic of the artist’s way. It enables one to appreciate the process, if not the outcome. And in doing so — win or lose, thumbs up or down — it makes all art that much more meaningful.

Or you can just sit at your desk, stare at a computer and say, “This sucks, that’s lame.” Whatever. Artists go to the grave with a body of work. Critics go to the grave with a bunch of press clippings about someone else’s work. Who’s Saint Peter’s gonna be most psyched to see?