[This article originally appeared in the Fall 1992 issue of Nieman Reports.] Last fall I attended a seminar on media coverage of Africa held at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University. The two dozen or so participants represented an impressive range of backgrounds and ideological and professional viewpoints. The prevailing opinion seemed to bethat coverage was highly inadequate, that it painted an incomplete and unfair portrait of Africa, quite possibly for reasons of an, at best, unconscious racism.
I essentially agree with both those conclusions. But, ultimately, what struck me as odd about the seminar was that coverage of Africa from a cultural perspective was—this time for reasons that might best be described as beneath consciousness—entirely excluded from the discussion. When I raised this point, I met with polite bemusement; it was considered, in near silence, for a moment then the conversation moved on, presumably to what were regarded as more serious issues.
Culture is not only as important as politics in its own right, but also one of the most profound ways in which political and social realities—and the fears and anxieties underlying those realities— find honest expression.
There is simply no question that for the past decade or so popular music has provided the most significant forum in which issues of importance to Africa could be explored and brought to the attention of millions of people. The “We Are the World” single and the Live Aid concert brought the story of famine in Africa into virtually every American home. A series of concerts organized by Amnesty International dramatized the plight of political prisoners in African countries and around the world. A day-long concert calling for the release of Nelson Mandela, attended by more than 70,000 people in London in 1988, triggered a barrage of media debate about apartheid, corporate involvement with South Africa and, after the broadcast in the United States was stripped of its political content, the moral culpability of the international community.
And when Paul Simon released “Graceland” in 1986, no review of that album could ignore such charged questions as: Was it appropriate for a Western musician, whatever his stature and intentions, to travel to South Africa to record an album in violation of the United Nations boycott? Did Simon’s use of black South African musicians and musical styles constitute cultural homage or cultural imperialism? How did his borrowings relate to the entire history of white artists, from Picasso to the Rolling Stones, who have drawn inspiration and perhaps more than that from African and African-derived sources?
In our own country, the current presidential campaign makes grimly palpable the extent to which popular music—and specifically rap—has become a cultural battleground. Is it possible to discuss the work of Ice-T or Sister Souljah in purely aesthetic terms, independent of the attacks on them by the likes of President Bush and Governor Clinton? And, as in the days of Elvis and before, every group interested in limiting freedom of expression—an issue of no small significance to the media—finds a ready target in the world of popular music, one of the few cultural arenas that has routinely admitted the voices of minorities and the working class.
This is not at all to say that popular music criticism can somehow substitute for incisive, analytical coverage of news issues. High-minded actions by millionaire rock stars will not save the world, and rapping about a problem does not solve it. If artists wish to engage the world of public events either in their work or outside it, their motives and opinions need to be examined as stringently as those of any other public figures.
The most skillful writing about popular music is able to do this, to balance a full array of concerns—the intentions of the artists, the aesthetic worth of their efforts, and their meaning in the surrounding culture—with grace, intelligence and insight.
The primary reason why so much writing about popular music is so bad is that, particularly at newspapers, pop music criticism simply isn’t taken very seriously. A couple of years ago I ran into a childhood friend who had become a surgeon. When I told him I was an editor at Rolling Stone, he asked, with genuine curiosity, if I thought I might ever be interested in going into “real journalism.”
Many newspaper editors, particularly outside major urban areas, share that sense of wonderment about why smart adults who appear normal in every other respect would pursue a career writing about popular music. Such editors don’t know much about the music, don’t like it, and couldn’t care less. That attitude obviously cannot help but undermine the quality of coverage. Not only do editors tolerate the sort of bad or silly writing about pop music that they would never put up with in other sections of the paper, they subtly—or not so subtly—encourage it. In their staffing decisions and choice of assignments, they might even be said to create it.
Reporters who couldn’t cut it in news or, even more certainly, sports— the area with the most demanding readership and in which the standards of first-rate writing and in-depth knowledge are upheld most rigorously—are routinely busted to the pop-music beat. Liking rock ’n’ roll and a tolerance for late nights in the hot clubs and crowded arenas in which the music is performed are thought to be the only relevant criteria for the critic’s job. Consequently the music rarely receives the type of probing, authoritative evaluation that is accorded without a second thought to the more traditional arts—theater or classical music, for example—or even to the movies.
If I seem to be singling out daily newspapers for criticism, I definitely don’t mean to. Publications that offer more specialized coverage of popular culture—monthly music magazines or so-called “alternative” weeklies—seldom do much better, though their problems are of a different sort. Such publications are typically more adventurous in their coverage, often to the point of being proudly and willfully obscure. The role of the critic is perceived to be something like “Ambassador to the Unhip;” the writing frequently is characterized by a chiding—even, despite all the voguish mannerisms— school-teacherish tone. Attitude substitutes for perspective and opinions replace ideas.
The unstated question underlying such writing might be said to be: “But why don’t you know all this already? It’s so tedious to have to explain it to you.” The stylistic excesses are sometimes justified as the writer’s effort to mirror the energy of the music; in fact, they seem primarily designed to relieve the writer’s boredom. Half-digested academic cultural theory combines with witless adolescent posturing and outrageously indulgent first person rantings to create writing that can be of interest only to the most hardened or masochistic insiders.
Popular glossy magazines, on the other hand, often fetishize celebrity and hold matters of substance hostage to the trends of the moment. “Criticism” in any sense of the term can scarcely be applied to this “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” approach to coverage.
In the hands of witty, keen-eyed features writers, such profiles can be fascinating glimpses of lives trapped in the soft hell of notoriety—or they can just be fun, journalistic bonbons. Most often, however, they serve to inscribe more deeply the idea that the rich and famous are not only different from, but better than, you and me.
Some general observations can be made. The function and meaning of criticism are shifting dramatically in every aspect of our culture. The drama critic at The New York Times may be able to shut down a play with a negative review, but few individual or institutional voices wield that kind of power any longer, and that’s almost certainly for the good. Providing guidance to potential consumers of the arts—“Is it thumbs up or thumbs down?”—is one legitimate function of journalistic criticism, but it absolutely is not the only one, and it should not even be the primary one.
Besides, given the enormous cultural diversity of many of our country’s communities, readers and viewers are becoming increasingly wary of placing their trust in one godlike critical figure. Consequently, the most honest and responsible critical writing these days does not hide behind the troubled, timeworn notion of “objective truth,” but offers an informed, clearly stated view that the audience can understand and evaluate, accept or reject. Criticism, however penetrating, should not be regarded as the final word; it should mark the beginning of a dialogue with the audience, not the end of one.
Like all arts writing, popular music criticism should be driven by the power of the writer’s ideas, not the real or imagined allure of the subject. That is to say, whether the subject is Madonna or the newest, least-known, least-scintillating band on the local scene, the writer’s perspective should provide the story’s most lasting impression. Like all writing in general interest publications, critical writing about even the most rarefied, technically demanding or avant-garde subjects should be accessible to non-specialist readers.
Though Rolling Stone is primarily a music magazine, it does not cover music exclusively, and its audience is extremely diverse. Some of our audience began reading the magazine at its inception in 1967 and are in their 30’s or 40’s; others began reading it last year and are in their teens or 20’s. Some people read it for the general interest features or political coverage; others read it for a broader assessment of the pop cultural scene that includes movies and television, and still others do read it principally for its music coverage.
Moreover, particularly in recent years, significant fissures have developed in the music audience; these are changes in Rolling Stone’s readership that reflect changes in the society at large. Some of the magazine’s readers are rap fans; others hate it. Some, both young and old, revere the titanic figures of the Sixties; others weary of tales about the good old days of peace, love and granola.
Finding a way to address such a splintered audience is a challenge. To avoid being driven mad, I try, both in my editing of the album review section and in my own writing for the magazine, to summon up an imaginary figure I term “the smart, curious reader.” By “smart” I mean possessing a reasonable degree of comfort with the process of engaging ideas; for critical writing especially, this seems the minimal requirement. By “curious” I mean possessing a reasonable degree of interest in the subject, even if that interest is entirely abstract and is accompanied by little or no specific prior knowledge. The aim of writing addressed to this reader is work that rewards anyone who comes to it with an open mind.
To reinforce the notion of criticism as an ongoing dialogue, I also try to keep the section open to a broad range of voices, styles and viewpoints—assuming always that the critic is qualified and informed. A review by one writer will sometimes set forth an aesthetic vision entirely antithetical to the one put forward with equal conviction by another writer in an adjoining review. Some readers, like the sort of student who grows uneasy when, at the end of a vigorous class discussion, the teacher refuses to give the “right” answer, find this approach infuriating. Others, hopefully, find it liberating and enlivening, small but telling evidence of a democratic ideal in which differing ideas are all allowed valid expression.
Beyond this, there really is no magic prescription for ensuring first-rate critical writing about popular music or any other subject, cultural or political. The problems with coverage of the music result primarily from problems in how the music is perceived by the people who determine how it is going to be covered. Unless it is seen as a worthy subject that requires serious assessment in all its aspects by talented people willing to communicate with a general audience, the quality of the coverage will suffer. It isn’t much more complicated than that. More than 25 years after Aretha Franklin sang the words of Otis Redding, defining in terms of an indelible pop song one of the crucial demands of the civil rights movement, the issue is still respect.
Anthony DeCurtis is a writer and Senior Features Editor at Rolling Stone, where he oversees the album review section.