I am not a rock critic. Rock critics are a sorry lot. Too many frustrated musicians who use their platform to snipe at the luckier or more talented souls who have actually made it. Or glorified groupies willing to trade print blowjobs for the opportunity to hang with the band. Sure, there are exceptions A Saint Lester springs immediately to mind A but by and large the field is populated with fickle parasites whose berths on the popular-music gravy train are dependent upon their ability to figure out which way the public opinion bandwagon is headed and jump onto it as early as possible. The ability to take simple music and erect monoliths of opaque, obscure verbiage to explain it is nothing to be proud of in my book. Obfuscation, pontification, and masturbation compose their metier.
The rock critic's wet dream is to be the first to discover a groundbreaking new band. This can be extremely difficult, because only a minuscule percentage of critics actually listens to new bands.
One of the tricks of the trade is to make it look like you just happened onto a new release, when in fact you already read a more on-the-ball colleague's review. It doesn't matter much in the long run -- nine new bands out of ten are just recycling something someone else did well anyhow.
Everybody plays the game. But by the time the major mass-market publications such as Time, Newsweek, and USA Today recognize an artist, the career-minded, forward-thinking rock critic should have moved on to the next phase: the backlash. This is where many of our more experienced, less adventurous critics earn their paychecks. While their gung-ho peers compete with each other to find the next big thing, the wily veterans lie low and sharpen their quills in preparation for an ambush.
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Pity the unsuspecting rock band that, blessed with a modicum of success and slightly dazzled by the bright lights of sudden fame, wanders into the crosshairs of the skulking critic. Quicker than you can say "Spin Doctors," you've been tagged, slagged, and bagged. You're uncool, derivative, yesterday's news. The fall from critical grace is often as steep as the initial heady ascent from obscurity.
Case in point: Counting Crows. By now every American citizen with an FM radio has heard the band's breakout single, "Mr. Jones," at least 12,000 times. Buoyed by the usual elements A mainstream radio airplay, a Saturday Night Live appearance, a video on MTV A the Crows's album August and Everything After has edged its way into Mariah country: the Billboard Top 10. In January Rolling Stone's "Critics' Poll" named Counting Crows best new band, and their frontman Adam Duritz best new male singer.
Now at one time Rolling Stone was a genuine cutting-edge music magazine. It has since become as sickeningly slick and mainstream an institution as the newsweeklies to which it was originally supposed to be an alternative. Certification by the Stone "Critics' Poll" has become the equivalent of donning a large fluorescent target. Within days of receiving their honor, the Counting Crows began facing the backlash.
Unimaginative. Calculating. Conservative. Sluggish. Drearily familiar. The Accounting Crows. Everything from Duritz's wardrobe to his slight facial resemblance to brat-pack actor Judd Nelson has been maligned, as if the singer chose his bone structure, or was the only rock vocalist to wear a baggy shirt and a sock hat over his not-quite-shoulder-length dreadlocks.
"They sound too much like Van Morrison (or R.E.M., or the Band)," went the critical refrain. Too much like Van Morrison? Is that valid criticism? Do you have to sound like Pavement or P.J. Harvey to be worthwhile? I mean, if you're gonna emulate someone A and everyone has roots A it seems to me you could do a lot worse than Van Morrison. And that's assuming you agree that the band consciously tries to ape Van the Man's astral squeaks, which I don't.
Hey, I readily admit it: I liked the Crows the first time I heard them and I still like 'em. In fact, I think maybe I like them because they sound a little like Morrison, R.E.M., and the Band. And while you're at it, throw in U2, 10,000 Maniacs, and Dylan. The more the merrier.
Even Hendrix had his antecedents. I wouldn't get upset if people said my writing style reminded them of Lester Bangs. I'd be thrilled. I'd use it as leverage to try to pry a raise out of my employer. Just like a rock critic.
Counting Crows perform Saturday at 7:00 p.m. at the Edge, 200 W Broward Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 525-9333. Tickets cost $12.
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