Rant time. One of the most tiresome canards of rock criticism is that clever musical ideas are automatically pretentious. Progressive rock, guitar solos, jazz fusion – anything that takes lyrics away from the equation – these are the most misunderstood and misrepresented concepts in popular music.

The reason I bring this up is this somewhat lighthearted article at Onion AV Club. It takes shots at instruments that somehow are intrinsically pretentious. As though the mere existence of a Chapman Stick in a player’s hands designates them as pretentious. They even go so far as to pick on Trey Gunn, implying that he treats conventional guitarists with “contempt” because he’s so “serious” and advanced with his avant-garde instrument, which is such a crock. They really want to believe that, because that would make them feel so much better about themselves disliking Gunn and the Stick. Trey’s just a guy with a weird instrument – the only reason to bag on him is because the writer feels inadequate that there’s this instrument and level of musicianship that he just doesn’t get.

Anyway, I’m not annoyed by the article itself, but the conventional wisdom in popular music criticism that underlies it. I’m just so tired of it.

The real truth is that so many rock critics distrust pure music. They only understand lyrics. They don’t particularly care about actual music because it’s far more difficult to write about music than it is about lyrics. And very often rock critics are frustrated musicians, so there’s tremendous resentment against skilled instrumentalists. Every rock critic worth his sour grapes will tell you that Yes are a bunch of pretentious asses who plays needlessly noodly wank, while the truth is that they are actually one of the most musically creative bands rock has ever produced. There’s this peculiar insistence that rock must be dumb, that every band should be as harmonically inept as the Ramones and that’s just moronic. And I say that as a Ramones fan. Apparently there’s just not enough room within the definition of “rock” for Joey Ramone and Rick Wakeman to coexist. Yes, they are polar opposites but they both make good music.

Personally I find critical darling Michael Stipe to be far more pretentious than, say, guitar shredder Yngwie Malmsteen. Both are just guys who do what they love to do, they play the music that they’re passionate about and they do it like no one else can. Isn’t that enough? So Malmsteen has been making the same record since 1985, hasn’t Stipe been doing the same thing? So Malmsteen’s music is lyrically boneheaded – he has a singular style that is often imitated but never duplicated. By the same token Stipe is a legendary lyricist (also often imitated) but from a purely musical standpoint REM is just the same boring major and minor chords. I love both these guys and it really bothers me that there are such divergent crowds who insist that I pledge allegiance to one or the other.

There’s so much more to music than the petty rules and politics people want to impose on it. It’s so much bigger than we can even imagine.

UPDATE: As usual, Strange Pup says in two sentences what took me this long-winded and semi-coherent diatribe to not say.

One thought on “Pretense”

  1. Absolutely. As Paul Simon says, music criticism ought not be English lit. With too many would be rock critics, that’s all it is.

    (How come I can never get the security code right the first time?)



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