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Memoirs of a Music Man
On he went. I envisioned the poor jerk that I would become in the next few days as I struggled to turn this gruel into a feature story, and I actually began to sweat.
Those few fiascos aside, the job has a lot to recommend it. The free albums never stop. I'd get 25 in a slow week. The tickets are comped (when you're doing a review). Ditto the backstage deli platters on those occasions you end up backstage.
Initially, I worried that turning pop into a profession would make me hate it. I'd read an essay a long time ago by George Orwell about how he'd taken a job at a bookstore, mostly because he was broke but also because he loved being around books. You love books, you need a job, you get a job at a bookstore. But it backfired. Lugging around crates of hardbacks and doing all that inventory work turned books into a commodity, which he grew to despise.
When I thought about jumping from business reporting to pop criticism, I worried the same thing would happen to me. But it turns out that consuming a huge amount of music actually expands your appetite. You come across bands you've never heard of; you get into genres you never bothered with; you attend shows you would have skipped. Best of all, you get to hunt for those Live Concert Moments for a living.
Before I go any further, maybe an example of an LCM is in order. Here's one of my favorites. About 10 years ago, I fell hard for a band called Guided By Voices. Since disbanded, they were a quintet from Dayton, Ohio, led by a tipsy genius named Robert Pollard, a guy who'd spent most of his professional life as a (perfectly sober) school teacher and then broke out when Rolling Stone hailed the band's eighth album, "Bee Thousand," as an instant lo-fi classic. Some friends and I became loony fans of this group, to the point where we actually flew to Dayton, where we practically stalked the band. On tour in 1995, GBV opened a show in Washington for the mostly forgotten Urge Overkill.
Now, one of the great things about Pollard is that he often spilled beer, by accident, on the set list -- that's the list of songs the band is going to play -- and at some point in just about every show, he would mutter something like, "The set list is completely unreadable," and then he'd ask for requests. It was like the band suddenly became a jukebox, and with a few dozen songs to its name, there was no telling what the group would actually play. These shows were as close to random as it gets; they all were great, but none were great in the same way.
In the middle of this particular concert, my friend Eli shouted for a song called "Matter Eater Lad." As rock songs go this one is a trifle -- sample lyric: "He constructed a factory . . . Just to see how it tasted" -- but its inanity is kind of magnificent. Pollard immediately went to his drummer, who happened to be subbing in for their full-time guy. The drummer didn't know the song, so Pollard taught it to him, right then and there. You could see the lesson. And then the band played it, and it was a beautiful shambles.
We grinned about that for a couple months. Actually, I'm grinning about it right now. If that's pathetic, so be it. That's the sort of moment I live for.
Maybe you hear a tale like that and think: "Um, you lived for that? Hey, isn't it time to grow up?"
It is, and you have a point. But the truth is that every pop critic, to one degree or another, is a case of arrested development. You have to be. What plays on MTV isn't made for adults; it's made for kids or teenagers, or people in their twenties. I'm now 41. You know how many 41-year-olds are on the Billboard pop music charts right now? Very few. Which is what sets pop music criticism apart from other beats at a newspaper. Restaurants, dance, plenty of movies, theater -- these are all generally produced by grown-ups for grown-ups. Blink-182's "Enema of the State" wasn't made for adults, and neither was Busta Rhymes's "Ass on Your Shoulders." To enjoy this line of work, you really need juvenile tastes.
You can, of course, fake your affection for bands like Blink-182, but it's hard to do that for long, and the people that stay in this line of work aren't faking. I remember reading a rave review in the New York Times of an album by Korn, a crew of goth metal heads who make grim and furious rock for disaffected 14-year-old boys. The review was written by Jon Pareles, the head pop critic for the paper -- and a man in his fifties. He went to Yale, where he majored in classical music. I thought to myself, "This guy must be kidding." How many middle-aged Ivy Leaguers in this country would even listen to, let alone rave about, the new Korn album?
So, initially, I assumed that Pareles was slumming it for credibility's sake, or because he felt the pressure to praise the band because it was so huge. But a few months later I was at the Grammys, in the media room, tapping away at a story about the winners. Korn's lead singer, Jonathan Davis, came out to take a bow and answer questions after collecting the best metal performance trophy for "Here to Stay." Pareles was sitting in the first row, and he asked Davis a question in the slightly breathless tone of a sophomore in the grip of a crush. When Davis was done, Pareles burbled, "It's a really good album." This wasn't a put-on, I realized. Jon Pareles loves Korn. He really loves Korn. The man was born for his job.