What rock critics’ coverage of Meat says about the art of rock criticism
As many of us did about 10 days ago, I was perusing the various tributes to Meat Loaf upon his death.
I was being guided down memory lane when suddenly I tripped as I hit a speed bump in the New York Times. High up in the appreciation was this: “Despite his success, he earned little respect from critics.”
I’ve been a rock critic for more than four decades and reviewed Meat Loaf numerous times, and my take has been a mixed one. Writing of a 1993 concert in the Boston Globe, I said “If Meat’s boy/girl tiffs are overly melodramatic and a trifle goofy, they also provide giddy chills and thrills. His is a gargantuan sonic roller coaster where a soft passage can only lead to bombast and vice versa, where love will always lie bleeding (but what the hell), where major chords and eternal teen dreams will reign supreme.”
Though his bombastic operatic belter style ran counter to most of what I valued, I had to hand it to him (and co-creator Jim Steinman and Meat’s bands) for often making me at least a temporary convert in concert.
But my take – pro-Meat or con-Meat – really isn’t the point here. It was the Times’ linkage of despite and little respect regarding rock criticism and its effect on mass taste. It was either specious reasoning or lazy writing because – this should not be a shocker – rock criticism has a very minimal effect on mass taste.
Or as former Chicago Sun Times critic Don McLeese put it in response to a Facebook post I made about this topic: “No correlation between critical acclaim and commercial success. Which is why album promotion didn’t squander the hookers-and-blow budget on what was then called ‘print media.’”
I suspected as much when I got into the game in the mid-1970s and nothing since has changed my mind. And that’s always been fine. I’ve talked about this with many friends in radio for years and always ceded the “make them a star” territory to them, be it Top 40, at times, or especially FM rock radio, whether it was AOR or alternative. (We’re talking about the pre-streaming era when rock radio mattered a whole lot more than it does now, whatever there is left of it.)
I don’t mean to be faux-humble or disingenuously self-deprecating. There’s ego involved on my end and for anyone, I presume, who dares to put forth their hot takes on pop music. Writing in general. Yes – we’re all saying – my opinion matters! Consider it! (And after that, accept or reject it as you will, but think about it.)
“I always read about music,” said singer-guitarist Jon Macey of the Boston band Fox Pass. “I miss the peak of all the music magazines and writers. But I also know my tastes were mostly not mainstream -with a few big exceptions – and it didn’t matter. I was a large consumer of music and also a follower of certain writer. For me, it was the whole package. I actually enjoyed disagreeing with writers that I admired.”
I got a kick out of running into people at clubs in the ‘80s and when some of them found out who I was, expressing enthusiasm for (and sometimes amazement with) my expansive coverage, especially, of the punk, post-punk and new wave worlds in a big city paper. They expected (and got) Bon Jovi in the hockey barns, but they also got Wipers, Buzzcocks and Public image, Ltd in clubs. The Boston Globe was very profitable in those days, had a daily arts section, a Friday music section and acres of newsprint to fill. And the editors pretty much trusted my judgment in terms of what merited coverage.
In the 21st century, there’s far less personal interaction – and I exited the Globe in 2005 – but I still get a kick from online comments about various reviews and features I’ve written, posted or reposted. It’s not unappreciated.
Rock critics have had the power to influence and to shape taste, certainly, to be out in front of the curve, to signal something good coming down the path, bolster the profile of an older, but commercially neglected, artist, or warn about some piece of over-hyped dreck. We kicked open doors for Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop once upon a time. But it took radio to pick up the torch and spread the music to the masses. Many of us were early champions of U2, but here in Boston in was the attention they got on college radio – we have a bunch of stations – and then the commercial powerhouse, WBCN, that broke the band in Boston – and, in a sense, in America. Other stations picked up on WBCN’s lead.
“I suspect the (small bit of) thought behind the phrase that pays is not the assumption that we create stars, but the inexplicable disconnect to those of such mind between success and critical admiration,” said Ira Robbins, editor of Trouser Press, former Newsday critic and novelist. “The idea that an artist who is really successful could earn the wrath of the nattering class confirms the worst fears such people hold about our irrelevance, wrongheadedness and contrariness.
“In that sense, they hold the same view as many of said artists, who can’t fathom how out of touch and stupid one would be to not appreciate what the masses have endorsed. They can’t believe that artistic quality and commercial approbation could somehow fall out of eternal synchronization. I suppose it helps those who are successful to shrug off criticism and those who are to blame it. In either case, we get called dancing architects and urged to kill ourselves.” (Reference point: Frank Zappa’s quote that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.)
Yes, there were “critic’s darlings” but it wasn’t like rock critics spoke with one monolithic voice, either. We bitched and moaned about others critics’ takes, too. And our influence was felt only among those who care deeply enough about the music to read about it, not just flip on the radio. That’s a minority of fans and always has been, though it presumably includes you as you are reading this. (Impressive deductive thinking there, huh?)
AUDIO: U2 on WBCN-FM 1983 and 1985
People who read tend to be more rabid and more curious – the music means more to them, it’s not just music of their youth or background noise – and it’s always been a pleasure writing knowing readers will have at least some scant knowledge of what you’re writing about (sometimes, maybe even more) and, moreover, a thirst to learn or engage. A critic’s report is a judgment filtered through the critic’s taste. I remember an essay English rock critic Paul Morley wrote where he was lambasted for some review by a reader – it was just his “opinion” after all – and he went to town, rather articulately, humorously and scathingly and essentially said, “Yes, of course it fucking is!”
Last word goes to Julie Panebianco, a friend from Boston who has worked both sides of the ledger. She was a rock critic first and then went on to do A&R and marketing for R.E.M., the Beastie Boys and others, and is currently the director at the Archive of Contemporary Music. “This is me now, speaking not as a rock writer, but later when I worked with artists at record companies or directly,” she said. “The musicians that fell on the rock critic darling side wanted popular success more, and the ones that were popular but got no love from the critics were desperate for a little love from the critics. It just goes to show it’s always what you don’t have.”