Looking at the fairness of the publication’s snap decision to axe the longtime Country Music Critics’ Poll
Believe it or not, there was a time when music journalism was permitted to piss people off.
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Perhaps even required to do so, at least occasionally. As if it were part of the job description. Because those who did this sort of work or read it thoughtfully knew that if everybody liked everything you wrote, you probably weren’t saying much of anything at all.
Not that you’d go out of your way to piss people off, or write something you didn’t believe, just to get a response. But maybe you weren’t overwhelmed by some music that everybody else was gushing over. If you had a notion that seemed counterintuitive, cutting against the critical or popular grain, you’d go with it, explore it, stir the pot a little, develop an argument, make a case for your position. Even if you were the only one who seemed to feel this way.
In the process, you would even dare to be wrong. Because this was permitted, at least occasionally.
Apparently, it no longer is, if the recent (and literal) “cancellation” of Geoffrey Himes is any indication. Last week, it was announced that there would be no Country Music Critics’ Poll in the alt-weekly Nashville Scene, an annual state-of-the-music feature that Himes launched 21 years ago and has overseen for that publication ever since. Beyond the poll rankings, it has provided an opportunity for extended rumination on what country music is and where it is going. And it has transcended the typical categorical distinctions between commercial country (which fills the airwaves and largest performing arenas) and Americana, alt-country, whatever (which can generate a lot of critical appreciation but not commensurate commercial success).
For decades, Himes has distinguished himself as a critic with open ears and an affinity for musical roots and traditions that extend well beyond country. He writes with insight about jazz, blues, folk, Cajun and zydeco, and fusions beyond category. He could probably write about sea shanties, sacred steel and Afro-Cuban polyrhythms with equal authority. He travels extensively and works tirelessly as a freelancer, at a time when freelance opportunities have diminished significantly and it’s tougher than ever to make a living at it.
Himes was dismissed by Nashville Scene on the basis of a single column he wrote for another publication, Paste Magazine. It was a column that did what critics once did on a regular basis. It shone the spotlight on an emerging trend and provided a critical roundup of albums, under the headline “Afro-Americana: The Good, The Bad and the Transcendent.”
He set out to be provocative (the column appears under the banner “The Curmudgeon”), he pushed against conventional wisdom and critical consensus, and he dared to be wrong.
Boy, did he! And was he! Given the current trend toward polarization and the critical turn toward “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” Himes was wrong even to attempt this column. It pushed some hot buttons, the hottest of all being race, as it should be. We really can’t talk enough about it, and we shouldn’t stop. A white critic writing about Black artists because they are Black in a predominantly white field should expect some blowback, especially if he has anything particularly critical to say.
Second, the column aimed some of its toughest criticism at female artists, particularly Allison Russell, whom everyone else seems to love (including me). And third it was about artists much younger than the critic, which pretty much all of them are when you’ve been writing about music for a half-century or so. So, Himes hit the trifecta of race, gender and generation and hit the backlash jackpot. He risked accusations of being racist at worst, clueless and out of touch at best.
He made things even tougher for himself by employing that label “Afro-Americana” for the artists he was writing about. It was a tag for a trend, not an attempt to marginalize artistry that has long been marginalized in both country and Americana, and by no means a suggestion for a separate-but-equal musical category for airplay format or whatever. It read more like a cute coinage, like “Brat Pack” or “rom-com” or what Austin might remember as the “New Sincerity” (a term that originally arose out of derision and contempt).
As with “Brat Pack” and “Rat Pack,” you probably had to be old enough to remember when “Afro-American” was preferred terminology. Maybe a younger editor or colleague of color could have red flagged it as potentially offensive, though the editorial safety net in journalism isn’t what it once was, and music journalism has never been as demographically diverse as it could and should be.
So, maybe Himes was wrong to write it, at least in the way that he did, and maybe Paste was wrong to publish it. A strong rebuttal was submitted by a younger Black musician named Jake Blount and headlined “’The Insidiousness of ‘Afro-Americana.’”
Read Himes, as you should, and then read this counteroffensive, as you must. It was published by Paste and elicited a handwringing editor’s note with an edit of the original column, saying that the original suffered from “racially insensitive language.”
The volley from Blount is the sort of response that criticism should generate and with which it should engage. I think Blount has misjudged Himes as much as Himes misjudged Russell. But I thought someone writing from this perspective was valuable, articulating what others undoubtedly felt. Old white guys have been dominating the criticism of country and lots of other music for way too long, and old white guys are as aware of that as anyone. The more diversity of voices, the better, both in the music we write about and in those writing about it.
If you’re taking sides and drawing lines, there is no question that old white guys are on the wrong side of history, and that Blount represents the wave of younger and more diverse voices of criticism that are challenging the last vestiges of dominance by the old guard. And good for him, and for them. Music and music journalism both benefit from that.
Yet I suspect that Blount and Himes might find themselves in surprising agreement on some of the issues raised in either column and could address the issues where they disagree in lively discourse. Himes was plainly writing in the spirit of inclusiveness rather than exclusion, of the “many reasons to celebrate” the greater diversity within the increasingly bigger tent of Americana.
Blount writes, “Himes is not the first white man to see too many Black people moving into the neighborhood and respond by building a wall and shutting the gates.” Let’s talk about that. And let’s talk about his question of “Why should we accept a white man’s subjective taste as a measure of quality” of Allison Russell’s music? And by all means let’s challenge Himes’ dismissal of Russell’s music as “generic” in melody and “sappy” in live performance. And Blount’s charge that Himes is being “condescending” toward the music and musicians in his “cutting” criticism.
(If anything, Himes seems more condescending toward other critics, whom he suspects have gone softer on the music he seems to disdain because of racial considerations and political correctness.)
Unfortunately, the current critical climate has a chilling effect on such freewheeling discourse, and on the clash of opinions that might spark it. Where some of Blount’s assertions were at least as open to debate as those of Himes, his piece served as a social-media lightning rod, where artists, fans and other critics could declare themselves on his side and against the unconscionable Himes, who might as well be wearing a scarlet letter. In an age of polarization, it seemed you had to declare yourself on one side or the other. There was no middle ground.
Little wonder, then, that Nashville Scene chose to dissociate itself from Himes. It initially offered no reason, then admitted that this specific column was the cause, and later replied to a letter from critics protesting the decision that “we were no longer comfortable with Geoffrey Himes representing the Scene, particularly on such a large scale.” I’m presuming that they were comfortable enough with him to let him carry that load for more than two decades, and that all it took was this one whiff of controversy to send him packing.
And here’s another area that should generate discussion, on whether the time was overdue for a changing of the guard at the music poll even before the column that got Himes canned. If there was pent-up resentment, let’s air it. I don’t know why the alt-weekly didn’t or couldn’t just keep this popular feature and let someone else coordinate it. But the agreement with Himes apparently said that it’s his poll, and that he can take it where he wants if the Scene no longer wants it. Both sides were apparently fine with this arrangement, until the response to a single column torpedoed their relationship.
In this climate, why would you dare to write anything that might possibly piss off anyone? And why would anyone publish it? The stakes are too high, and the risks so far outweigh the rewards. Why take any chances at all? Because otherwise music criticism devolves into cheerleading, and it’s well on its way. And uniformity of opinion, which also seems to be the dominant trend, particularly on social media.
Allison Russell will survive this pan by Himes and might even benefit from it, as it has called more attention to what a singular, significant artist she is. (The Black Pumas, also targeted by Himes, might well wonder what they’re even doing in that roundup.). In the annals of music criticism, Sgt. Pepper generated some negativity, and some folks will still admit with a certain pride that they’ve never quite gotten Astral Weeks. Jimi Hendrix was derided as a showboat caricature. Miles Davis, like Dylan, was accused of being a commercial sellout when he “went electric” and expanded his following on the rock circuit.
But it was once okay not only to make bold, provocative music but to generate a diverse, even polarized response. It wasn’t a sign of bad faith or a betrayal of shared values to express an opinion that challenged the consensus.vAnd such divisiveness didn’t much harm those who were frequent targets of critical arrows. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath both experienced decades of negative criticism before their ascent into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And you know what? They both still suck.
Editor’s Note: The opinions reflected in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Rock & Roll Globe and its staff.