Originally published in: Terminal Zone, 1977

Criticism and the State of the Art 1977

Printed matter does not merely catalog information or express somebody's opinions; it structures a consciousness, forming a language to be shared by a community of readers, filtering through the whole run of communities through everyday speech, a lexicon of borrowed trappings reflecting innate interests. People mold their perceptions into understanding, which is articulated both in nonverbal action and in everyday speech. This whole process comes to the fore in the concept, the turning point of thought and action. Interests create paths for themselves through the concept; yet shortcomings in the material situation may distort or even preclude the true articulation of interest.

The task of critics is to produce and disseminate concepts. This is neither a special franchise for an elite group of people, nor a command that everybody should follow. It is simply, given a situation of material scarcity, work to be done. The swarm of interactions everyone confronts in their daily lives requires mediation and exacts interpretation, regardless of one's conscious motives. The question turns on the practical and heuristic value of the concepts.

In the case of a relatively new matter like rock and roll the most accessible concepts are those easily borrowed from related matters like other musical forms, arts, popular culture theories, politics. etc. Such concepts are often useful for limited associations, but as long as their appropriation is eclectic their reliability must remain in question. Only a thorough, systematic rethinking of the matter can provide consistent results; and the sole valuation of concepts lies in their utility.

The problem is that the borrowed concepts fail us; rock and roll is not simply a new item on the cultural counter, but part and parcel of a macrohistorical revolution that permeates every facet of daily life. True rock criticism must know that; rock, in its primal definition of space and time, in its quintessential transformation and modulation of energy, in its demarcation of class and community, provides us with the truest index of macrohistorical change. Yet the common rock criticism, satisfied with borrowing concepts from pre-rock sources and/or subjecting rock materials to all manner of fallacious methods and uncommon interests, seems all but disinterested. Those who would ask more stringent questions are discourage by the unfriendly atmosphere. While there are intelligent and committed critics taking potshots at isolated phenomena, there is hardly even a language that aspires to the whole. Invention all but invites misunderstanding, yet the present estate remains totally unsatisfactory for our needs.

To underscore this fact one need only point out that 20+ years into rock and roll's history we are left with only two systematic interrogations of rock: Charlie Gillett's historical/analytical The Sound of the City, and Richard Meltzer's off-the-wall The Aesthetics of Rock. Both are landmark books -- the best reference points we have other than the material itself -- but both are also seven-years dated, and fall far short of what we need.

The two authors' approaches could hardly be more different. Gillett's commitment is to fifties rock and its R&B antecedents; this allows him to delimit his subject and approach it with scholarly distance. Emotional appeals may help explain how or why Gillett wrote the book, but they are not proper to the book's merit. The Sound of the City shines in its details -- it is easily the best primer in print -- but it coheres in its classificatory logic. Gillett's approach is borrowed from good science; it is nomological and correlative, yielding an index of style sand a map of interrelationships.

This aids the book's clarity, but also harbors its greatest weakness. Naturalistic science has long been more satisfied with naming than observing. Functions and interactions are routinely subsumed to topographic reference; they are complex and unruly, while the encyclopedia is kept tidy and neat. This is not to imply that Gillett's typology is useless, or even misguided, for a dialectical reconstruction that could treat it as a moment in conjunction with more functive heuristics; but it does run the risk of being a sop to the naturalist/positivist mindset, and if so accepted obtains its prototypical use in cocktail chatter.

Meltzer, on the other hand, lacks distance and abandons reservation. Whereas Gillett worked from the outside in, taking rock as the object of his investigation, for Meltzer rock becomes subject, his own writing merely instrumental. Meltzer understands rock following its imperatives instinctively: The Aesthetics of Rock could just as well have been titled Roll Over Kant (Pun Intended). Needless to say, the result is a logical abomination, but there's no denying that that's the purpose. The book wages guerrilla warfare against the pre-rock mindset; it is an aggression of low-brow kulchur upon the proprieties of respectable thought. The modus operandi parallels, even parodies, rock in its eclectic apropriation of conceptual material; concepts are seized upon and discarded like a mad shopping spree.

Gillett informs; Meltzer titillates. Gillett's book is methodical; Meltzer's is inspired. But neither suffice, nor do they compensate for each other. Gillett would hardly be improved could he monger concepts with the aplomb of Meltzer. And Meltzer would simply become pompous to adopt Gillett's analytical methodology. Happy means are impossible, for what subverts the books is not method but history. Gillett's increasing uneasiness with the unfolding of sixties rock indicates an unwillingness or incompetence to come to terms with the real import of rock's revolution; his social/historical conceptualization holds up short with "They got what they wanted."

Meltzer, on the other hand, never holds up short; his instinct for the deep-end is impeccable. History subverts him in a different manner, by simply outgrowing him. In an historical situation seemingly on the verge of breaking asunder rock was veering toward the ultimate throes of saturation; Meltzer's book fits in as a gratuitous exercise in millenarianism. But while Meltzer stood at the point of obliterating history, in the postcounterrevolutionary world history attains a new resourcefulness. Whereas the rigors of method had once seemed unessential, they now become imperative. The Aesthetics of Rock becomes a document as much as a treatise; in the reconstruction of rock criticism it works fitfully, distinguished by its uniqueness, its felicitude, and its brash low-brow pride.

In 1977, however, we find the tables turning: the manifest disjunction of rock and reason that was hegemonic in Meltzer's book is becoming a matter of the past. Musicians like Sean Tyla, Dwight Twilley and Graham Parker have moved to ritualize contact in a manner that has to be knowing; the whole pub/punk rock movement reaffirms rock and roll's initial vitality as much as it reflects depressed social conditions. The link-up is natural in a pre-conceptual way -- for perhaps the first time since the mid-sixties British rock renaissance -- yet the quality of the knowledge embodied is not tarnished by its implicitness.

Critics, however, don't have it so easy. Musicians translate their understanding into music; as hearing is itself pre-conceptual, the process from perception to production, especially in the subliminally -- e.g., macrohistorically -- determined form of rock, can easily be immediate. Critics must deal with concepts. But even among the critics there are ways of knowing that do not receive full articulation. One need only note the tremendous receptivity of rock writers -- and for that matter most people who have had the chance to listen in -- to Graham Parker's two albums to establish the fact of a whole new historical situation. The spirit is willing; only the concepts to articulate it with are lacking.

Without an appropriate lexicon of concepts, critics reflect that changed situation only implicitly; lucky, if a bit ironical, that the rock-critical tradition of Meltzer and Paul Williams placed so great a faith in intuition, the ability to translate apperceptions into words without necessarily understanding their full impact. On the other hand this allows critics to reflect the material situation with an almost immediate faith, permitting them to adjust more readily to historical changes than the language can; on the other hand it tends to manufacture all manner of concepts, many of which prove to be spurious but some of which survive as insights.

The present state of criticism leans to pot luck. Epigones of Meltzer and Williams continue to crank out fitful insights, while chroniclers after Gillett like to augment their useful facts and topical observations with dubious theories. Both are useful referents; the task we are left with is the problem of appropriating their merits while systematizing them, uncovering and perfecting methods for dealing with the material, and carrying on.

Archaeological notes: May 10, 2002; July 9, 2004

This piece was published in Terminal Zone, sandwiched between Paul Yamada's expansion on Charlie Gillett and Don Malcolm's dissection of R. Meltzer. Other than that I'm hard pressed to explain why it pontificates so much on both books without really saying much of anything. If the point really is just that neither approach suffices, it might've been better to use the space to sketch out at least the requirements that a sufficient approach must meet.

Allen Lowe wrote to complain that "Charlie Gillett not only writes badly but makes a zillion mistakes." He's probably right: 25+ years later it's not a book that I go back to. Ditto for Meltzer -- though I've thumbed through A Whore Like the Rest in the bookstore, I don't own a copy.