"Everybody's a critic" is true, why then do so many people
say they hate critics?
Self-loathing, insecurity, validation -- these are the murky secrets
behind the relationship between critics and readers. It's a dysfunctional
relationship if there ever was one, and both sides are at fault. You, whose
identity is formed out of allegiances to certain TV series. Me, whose
scathing indictment of one of your favorite TV series sends you immediately
to the mail with a withering attack on my (fill in the blank) inability to
enjoy life/elitism/parentage, upon the receipt of which I fall into a
bottomless funk because one reader out there doesn't love me and I am
Clearly, the bond between critic and reader is a lot more complicated
than we'd like to think. And so is the bond between critic and art. There's
more to criticism than thumb semaphores and one-paragraph report cards and
interchangeable Hollywood-blockbuster ad blurbs ("The thrill ride of the
summer!") but, sadly, you wouldn't know it from the ever-shrinking space
afforded critical headroom in the media. At its best, criticism is an
informed opinion delivered with wit and strength. It's an inspired riff on
an inspiring subject. It's a declaration of passion and an impassioned
debate. Most people think that art and criticism exist in a kind of mortal
combat, when it's really a loving embrace.
For our first "Personal Best," 14 Salon staffers and contributors
(including one guy who got in because he was having lunch with a couple of
editors and, well, you know how it is) engage in close encounters of the
critical kind with their favorite album of all time (at least for this
week). As you'll see, these are often not obvious or even rational choices.
And the lineup isn't inclusive, nor is it meant to be. But there is a wide
and diverse expanse of pop music represented here, as befits a group of
writers ranging in age from 26 to 50. There are Sinatra and the Stones,
Prince and Elvis Costello, Liz Phair and Jimi Hendrix, the Clash and the
Roches, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen, Moon Mullican and Dr.
Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, the Vulgar Boatmen and the Beatles. What
these essays have in common is this: They're all steeped in time and
memory, most of them reveal as much (maybe more) about the writer as they
do about the album. They are all testament to the chemical change that
happens when music and listener, art and critic, meet.
Any name-your-favorite-album exercise must pay, upfront, its debt to
Greil Marcus' "Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island," arguably the
greatest and most fun anthology of rock criticism of all time. First
published in 1979, "Stranded" has recently been reissued by Da Capo in
paperback with a new preface by Marcus and a new foreword by Village Voice
chief music critic Robert Christgau.
"Stranded" is a collection of 20 essays on the topic, "What album would
you want to have with you if you were shipwrecked on a desert isle?," by
the creme de la creme of '70s rock critics (including Christgau, Lester
Bangs, Dave Marsh, Ellen Willis, Ariel Swartley and Kit Rachlis). Marcus'
"Treasure Island" epilogue, an annotated list of rock 'n' roll must-haves,
is alone worth the price of admission.
A few of the choices may look dated and strange now (why on Earth would
anyone want to listen to the Eagles' "Desperado" for all eternity?), but
every one of these writers justifies their love, in some of the most
rollicking, contentious, heartfelt and plain gorgeous prose you'll ever
read. This is the book that launched a thousand rock-critic-career dreams.
Oh, to be someday included in this company, in this community of
cool misfits who couldn't simply enjoy an album, they had to internalize
it, ponder it, prod it, poke it, romanticize it, argue about it with each
other over a beer and with the artist (one-way, in print, for very little
money) over the years. Surely, this must be heaven, or at the very least,
In his foreword to the new edition, Christgau laments the loss of
community brought by the fragmentation of rock -- and its fans -- into
separate walled-off domains. But, oddly, it's the allegedly crankiest and
most negative members of that lost community who have emerged with their
vision and optimism intact. The music scene -- and the world at large -- may feel "too much like chaos," writes Christgau, but "at least...it's
still a world where writers can strive not only to make sense, but to find
deep human possibility in the music that lifts us over and gets us
June 17, 1996