Our reigning, defending, undispluted heavyweight champion of rock criticism explores the great generational divide at the core of music journalism in 2019
My name is Tim Sommer. I have been writing about rock and pop for forty years. My work has appeared, often with great recognition, in most of the major English-language music journals of the past five decades.
I not only know a great deal about rock and pop music, I also consistently seek to place this information in a larger context. In doing so, I hope to reveal a narrative historical arc to the development and dissemination of music that is, in my opinion, far greater and far more interesting than the story that is usually told. In addition, I have a personal history – what they would call “life experience” on a resume — that allows me to comment on rock and pop from a multi-faceted perspective that is fairly rare for someone in my profession.
At age 57, I believe my insights about music have never been greater, more eclectic, and more based on experience and observation.
Yet it is hard to get any editor to return my emails. Not impossible, but very difficult. This inability to get editors to acknowledge me would seem to be not in keeping with my experience and credentials.
I believe there is one primary reason for this: I am an older white male.
To an astounding degree, the entire elder generation of music journalists have been forcibly retired, buried under a mound of unreturned emails and sidelined by the cold-shoulder of young(er) editors. Virtually every site or magazine I approach has chosen to work, almost exclusively, with young people, and especially women and people of color.
And this is exactly and precisely as it should be.
For far, far too long, music journalism was largely the province of white men. This bias shaped the entire manner in which the history of pop was written, and has caused us to promote artists who reinforced our white-guy narrative, which was largely based on old gym-class grudges, fears of exclusion, and our desire to see ourselves in our musical heroes. I won’t go into great detail about this, let’s just say that it elevated mediocrities like Elvis Costello to sainthood, and caused multiple generations of music critics to seek “their Beatles, their Stones, their Dylan,” and so on, instead of looking past these archaic appellations.
My god, we needed to get out of that shadow. Our white guy framework, you see, was formed very early on, reinforced by small-minded revisionist clown shows like Rolling Stone, along with college radio and so-called free-form FM of the 1970s and ‘80s that preached being open-minded but generally reflected a narrow spectrum of white, middle class pop and rock. There was a common thinking to music criticism in the white guy era, and it affected everything.
Music was (and always will be) a sphere, not an island. It not only reflects the pain, the pleasure, the genius and the stupidity of every shade of color under the sun, stars, and moon, it also sprouts roses and weeds in every corner of the map. I can aver that, with some real exceptions, the old school music critics were not prepared for this development; so very many of them thought chattering occasionally about Jam Bands reflected some aspect of musical adventurism, or that name-dropping Coltrane or Tupac every now and then made them racially sensitive.
The new generation is not like that. They were born at a time when alternative and mainstream pop had lost its’ (relatively exclusive) white identity, and the Internet had made the sounds of every hill and vale of the earth available, instantly.
They are drawing from the world. We were drawing from Random Notes, the NME and college radio.
Secondly, there is a profound practical reason for the (general) exclusion of the older generation of music writers: Virtually every outlet today is driven, both in consumer and commercial terms, by social media. Editors, plain and simple, have a logical and necessary expectation that their contributors will be able to boost and promote via social media with complete ease and skill. For many older journalists, mastery of social media is as alien as mastery of “the clicker” was to my grandparents. Today’s editor does not need to ask whether their younger contributors will be able to assist in the promotional process; they can take this for granted, and must do so in order to survive.
Of course I am aware that there are profound problems with this new reality.
Frequently I am appalled by the ignorance and shortsightedness of this younger generation of music journalists. They often make very basic mistakes; lack the ability to skillfully relate anything to a larger context; mistake crass pop for art; are woefully unable to see outside of their own decade; and they have been largely responsible for propagating the myth that guitar-based music is no longer a vital consumer and creative medium (almost all the major mainstream sites seem to have missed the astounding explosion of guitar-based Post-Punk and extreme metal in Central Europe, Mexico, Scandinavia, Russia, and the former Soviet States).
But they will learn. Lord knows I fell into profound potholes of ignorance and made a lot of embarrassing mistakes in my first few years behind the typewriter. And the great diversity of voices will allow for new discoveries, new avenues of adventure, new factions to be uncovered, and new obscurities to be trumpeted.
Thanks to these new developments, this Affirmative Action in music criticism, we will now have a mirror on pop culture that does not just reflect what I will call the Emersonian Ideal: i.e., a point of view reflecting the perspective of people who went to Emerson college (and NYU, and Oberlin, and Syracuse, and UCLA) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and who worked at college radio stations where they played a lot of chime-y white music.
Honestly, the apogee (and archetypal example) of the clique-ishness and limited perspective of the old-school music journalism is the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, which consistently tries to turn its own bad judgment and ignorance into gospel. It is rock history as written by a very, very small group of people who know far too little about the field they claim to opine definitively about.
And one of the best things I can say about the young, more diverse generation of music critics is that I suspect they do not give a damn about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and would care even far less about the Hall’s spurious claim to legitimacy. Even if these young journalists get a bunch of stuff wrong and even if their knowledge is limited, at least the crowd now doing the record-keeping are thinking of pop in a far more ethnically and genre-diverse manner.
Literally, an entire nation of music criticism had its roots in this Emersonian Ideal, and they never really strayed far from it. It is now time for us to move over. Let us be proud of what we have done and acknowledge that thanks to us, when the archaeologists of some far-future generation troll our landfills they may ask, “Who was this King Crimson, and why did so many people write so many words about him?”
I will continue to point at the wild mistakes made by the new generation and sputter with indignation. I will continue to froth at the mouth and go on and on about Hawkwind, Wire, the Beach Boys and Neu!, and point out that no one seems to understand how most everything in pop for the last forty five years goes back to Wilko Johnson and Kraftwerk. Most of all, I will continue to aver that the history of pop tells us far, far more about America than most people realize, and therefore it must be studied both as an aspect of and framework for history. Rock ‘n’ Roll is the sound of America’s disenfranchised, made electric; it has a lot to tell us.
I will continue to be an enormous supporter of this Affirmative Action in music criticism, because it is well and truly about bloody time that women and people of color added their voice to the choir that tells the amazing story of pop in America, and the story of America through pop.
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