[the palaverist]

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

[critical confusion]

Okay, so what the hell is wrong with Sasha Frere-Jones?

I recognize that SFJ, the pop music critic for the New Yorker, is an anti-rockist, and not much of a rocker. His opinions on UK hip-hop have been revelatory, at least to me, alerting me to the thrilling music of M.I.A., Lady Sovereign and Lilly Allen. His efforts to expose the US to the London grime scene are to be applauded, even if I don't quite share his passion for Dizzee Rascal.

But when it comes to rock, it's like the man's retarded. Back in June, this is what he had to say about Radiohead:
I seem to know about a hundred [Radiohead] fans, and they constantly urge me to give the band a chance. Until recently, I hadn’t seen much point in doing so.
Okay. Fine. Not everyone has to like Radiohead. I would have been willing to let it pass — especially considering that the review was ultimately positive — except that this week, SFJ has chosen to go all jelly-kneed over Deftones, of all bands.

SFJ rightly puts Deftones in the nu metal camp, which also includes such wanky bands as Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit and Korn. (Apparently hip-hop spelling techniques are a hazard of the genre.) I dabbled in nu metal back when I was a metalhead, and I found it to be the musical equivalent of staying in your room to get high and jerk off: it sort of feels good even though it's also sort of depressing, and even though it occasionally seems meaningful at the time, it leaves you with a hollow feeling of life wasted.

The thing is, of all the nu metal bands, Deftones sound the most like Radiohead (who could conceivably have been considered nu metal back when they were still a guitar band). First, check out the video for Minerva, by Deftones, from their fourth album, which SFJ calls "nearly perfect." Wanky, right? But Chino Moreno's voice somewhat resemble's Thom Yorke's, and the wall of heavy sound is a tool Radiohead also has in its arsenal.

Then check out the video for Radiohead's Paranoid Android. (The point here is really the music, so just listen, don't necessarily watch.) The song moves through moods and phases and episodes with precision, depth and clarity. Its odd noises are better, and so are its soaring melodies, its quiet bits, and just about everything else.

So what the hell is wrong with SFJ? I mean, freaking nu metal? It's one thing to be an iconoclast, and certainly rock critics as a group are always in need of deflation. But Deftones is simply not that clever or deep or sonically interesting. The only thing I can think of that makes them worth the New Yorker's page-space is the fact that they are not worthy, so that reviewing them anyway seems a little daring.

It isn't. They're just a mediocre band that sounds an awful lot like a number of other mediocre bands. SFJ has gotten away with praising a pet band of his in the New Yorker, but at the cost of revealing once and for all that he hasn't the foggiest notion of what makes for good rock.



Blogger That Fuzzy Bastard said...

SFJ has some good likes, some bizzare dislikes, and some equally bizzare likes. In short, he's a music critic---they tend to be an arbitrarily-opinionated lot, like most critics, but less inclined than, say, film or book critics to provide reasons (as opposed to rhetoric). Chalk it up to rock criticism's grounding in adolescent tastemaking, though classical music criticism is only slightly more elevated (and was much less so up until the 20th century, back when classical music was actually relevant).

More annoying is SFJ's tendency to the totalizing putdown, which makes it harder to treat his goofy personal preferences as goofy personal preferences. For that I blame Pauline Kael and all her descendants, for making succinctly-phrased cocktail-party-excommunication ("oh you can't *possibly* like that!") the model for criticism. If he were more willing to cop to his own subjectivity, it'd be a lot easier to treat his columns (and blog) as a document of one guys's tastes and opinions, instead of the weirdly dumb provocations they come off as.

1:53 AM  

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