AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 2000

Golden Oldies   

Some rock critics have been plying their trade for decades. Can fiftysomethings relate to hip-hop and Limp Bizkit?

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

T HE HIP AND TRENDY Joe's Pub at the Public Theater is a pricey bar in New York's East Village that glows a soft red--a candlelit, cabaret-style space that hosts artsy bands and martini-drinking patrons. Robert Christgau, pop music critic for the Village Voice, glances around the tables, wondering aloud how many people there aren't critics or friends of the band.
He had told me he wasn't that keen on the night's act, The Lullaby Baxter Trio, before we walked a few blocks from his Village apartment to the "tony"--as he aptly puts it--Joe's Pub. But he wanted to check it out. The relatively new band, named for its female singer, takes the stage and proceeds to wander from jazzy to folksy to bossa nova, in between chatty introductions from Lullaby. Christgau taps me on the shoulder.
"Is that a green star on her forehead?" he asks, sounding struck by the peculiarity of the shiny gem above the singer's eyebrows.
"I'm not sure if it's green or blue," I answer.
Christgau scribbles notes on a piece of paper, possibly for something he'll write, possibly not. I'm sure he's seen more oddly placed body jewelry than most people his age. The 58-year-old first wrote about pop music for Esquire in 1967, penned his first Voice music column two years later, spent two-and-a-half years at Newsday and has been with the Voice since '74, as music editor for two years and then as a critic and editor.
There are a handful of writers, like Christgau, who started writing about music near the birth of rock criticism in the mid 1960s--and are still going strong. (Influential pioneer Rolling Stone broke onto the scene in 1967, and rock criticism has flourished ever since.) More writers who are in their 40s started their gigs in the '70s. And they've stuck with the odd task of covering an inherently young subject matter as they become more and more removed from the target generation. As the New York Times' Jon Pareles puts it: "Rock criticism is the only job where people would question...if you learned to do your job better as you did it longer."
Sure, music critics get thousands of free CDs each year, free passes to just about any show they'd like to see and interviews with cool rock stars. But it's also the world of late nights, smoke-filled clubs, loud music and periodic waves of teen pop, ŕ la 'N Sync and Britney Spears--and the sex, drugs and rebellion attitude every post-'60s generation has in its teens and twenties, but usually leaves behind to "those kids" growing up behind it. And it's "those kids" whom record companies and music artists often target.
The fact that most pop music critics, particularly those who write for newspapers, are baby boomers and up does prompt speculation. How do they do it? And why? Can aging critics continue to understand and relate to music meant for people decades younger? And, conversely, are there young critics out there who are able to bring the needed perspective to their writing that living through history lends? Does age matter?
In the case of the Washington Post's Richard Harrington, the courts may give an answer. The 53-year-old was taken off the full-time music beat after 20 years in the position. He's now suing the paper for age discrimination, though the Post has said that wasn't the reason it switched critics. Harrington's suit asks for the return of his job--one he wasn't ready to leave. The reason he and other critics are often the oldest people they know listening to rapper Kid Rock, they say, is a love of music.
"This is what I know, and I can write about it well," Christgau says. "I still have a lot of fun doing my job."
Chuck Eddy, the Voice's 39-year-old music editor, also present for the Lullaby Baxter show, adds some admiration later that night. "One of the cool things about somebody like Bob [is that] he totally keeps up on what people half his age, a third his age maybe, listen to," he says. "It's great."
Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn, 60, started writing about the subject for the paper as a freelancer in 1968 and came on full time in 1970. "Every 10 years I probably say, 'I'm not going to be doing this another 10 years,' " he says. But it's the freedom and range of music he can write about that keeps him around, and the excitement of hearing a terrific new act. "Every time that greatness happens, you say, 'Wow, I can't wait to write about that person.' "
Jane Scott, at Cleveland's Plain Dealer, first wrote about rock 'n' roll when the Beatles came to town in '64. At 81, she's still a rock writer with the paper. "I just feel that it's exciting, and it's fun, and I love to go to concerts, and I love to talk to people.... And besides, I don't have to pay for my ticket," she says.
"Some journalists write about stuff they're not interested in," says Pareles, 46, who first got paid for his music criticism in 1975 and has been writing for the Times since '82. "I don't think rock critics do that.... It's not like we do it for the status.... We do it because we love the music."
He continues, "Rock 'n' roll is an endless extension of high school, but at this point of my career, I'm not that susceptible to peer pressure."
Of course the pressure is coming from a different generation, one that's singing and listening to music that speaks of its needs and desires, depression and angst--in its own language. Music is often meant for the young. "Popular culture is created to annoy your parents," says Rolling Stone contributing editor Touré, 29.
There's supposed to be a generation gap.

T HAT GAP, THE SHEER chronological chasm between older critics and new music, creates difficulties in coverage, some say--difficulties that can't easily be overcome.
Robert B. Ray, director of film studies at the University of Florida and a singer and guitarist in the rock band The Vulgar Boatmen, talks of "overcomprehension" among older critics. It's a tendency to go overboard in praising acts that the critic doesn't understand and fears may be the next big thing. Young acts "that critics think are hip" get the hype treatment, Ray says, along with older artists, such as Lou Reed, who are eternally glorified. As in other types of criticism, the acts that have made it into greatness generally don't fall too far from the pedestal when any of their subsequent works are evaluated.
Ray, 57, has devoted a chapter of an upcoming book on rock and the press to the idea of overcomprehension, a term he borrows from the surrealist painter Max Ernst. He pegs its beginnings to the Impressionist movement. Art and culture critics of that time, he says, didn't like Impressionist paintings because they just didn't get the concept. They couldn't understand art not of their generation, Ray says, and they admitted as much. Critics who vilified one of Impressionism's greatest painters, Edouard Manet, realized shortly before his death that they were wrong. "Critics will live in fear of that from now on," Ray says.
He writes in an essay: "In many ways, 'overcomprehension' has become the ruling mode of rock criticism, as critics eager not to repeat the mistake of those who denounced Elvis and Little Richard (with his nonsense like 'Tutti Frutti'), praise everything, because anything--2 Live Crew, Bikini Kill, Mudhoney, Fiona Apple--might be the next Elvis or the Sex Pistols."
Some critics interviewed for this story agree there is too much praise in criticism today. But, they add, it's not as if there aren't any negative reviews--the scathing pans that readers love. Nevertheless, Pareles says Ray has a point. "Sometimes if you're not sure of something, you have to hit a deadline, it's possible you'll overpraise it," he says. Pareles may listen to an album 10 times, laud it, then listen to it a year later and wonder, " 'What was I thinking?' " he says. "Making really stupid mistakes in public and not being able to take them back" is part of the job. But he doesn't see people biting their tongues and then saying they like something they don't.
Personally, Pareles says he's confident enough "to think when I don't like something it's not because I don't understand it."
But Ray would argue Pareles isn't even supposed to get it. Many bands, he stresses, are for youth only. "Bands like Rage Against the Machine are not meant for people in their 40s," he says. And, he adds, aging critics find it increasingly difficult to relate to new music, a condition Ray calls critical senility.
But isn't it possible that some 40-year-olds can enjoy music 20-year-olds do? Can't some comprehend what Korn's heavy rock-rap means, as well as Bob Dylan's poetics? No, says Ray. "If they're doing it, they're faking it."
Those who say aging adds real struggle to a rock critic's job are often those who felt they had to bail out on the beat. James Miller quit as Newsweek's rock critic in 1990, "in part because I no longer felt able to feign enthusiasm," he says in his 1999 book, "Flowers in the Dustbin." Now a professor of political science and director of liberal studies at New York City's New School, he began covering music in the '60s. Two decades later, he no longer had an interest in much of the music of the time. Part of his dissatisfaction was a feeling that music had become more about marketing. But also, Miller says, he and his wife started having children, and "I no longer felt like hanging out in clubs.... Frankly, I didn't feel young at heart." And he grew "tired" of bands like the Rolling Stones that would pretend to be young at heart.
A more harsh criticism: Growing old with the beat, says Miller, 53, can be intellectually stifling. He says he finds it "extraordinary" that Christgau, "a guy of great intelligence in his mid-50s...sits around once a month and grades records.... I find it just a deep puzzle."
Christgau calls that comment "a function of [Miller's] spiritual limitations." He adds of the music beat: "I don't think it's beneath me. Jim thinks it's beneath him."
Many critics take issue with Miller's book, equating his ideas with those of a baby boomer who thinks nothing great has happened in music since 1969. Jim DeRogatis, pop music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, ends a review of the book with, "Geez, gramps: Didya ever once consider that you got too old and the music got too loud?"
DeRogatis, 35, is certainly not short of words on rock critics who just don't get it. In an August 1999 column for Ironminds. com, a college-oriented site that hosts writings and essays, he wrote that "the number of no-longer-give-a-shit critics nearly matches the number of geezer rockers riding the nostalgia train on the summer-shed circuit."
But in an interview, DeRogatis says it's not as much a product of chronological age. "It's a, 'Do you still care about the beat?'... and, 'Have you been seduced by the industry?' " he says. He sees plenty of young critics "who are already too old," because they're into the hanging-out-with-the-stars aspect of the business.
The critics who don't care anymore don't give the music the coverage it warrants, says DeRogatis, a music critic for 10 years, six of them with the Sun-Times. He tells the story of Woodstock '94, the 25th anniversary of the first peace-love-and-musicfest: A group of aging critics spent the majority of the time in the press tent, watching the concert on television, he says. Outside in the mud and overflowing port-a-potties, "it was Calcutta." The Village Voice's Christgau, DeRogatis says, "slept on the ground in a poncho...at the ripe old age of 55."
Christgau says he considered staying at a relative's house nearby, but it quickly became apparent that wouldn't work. He shared a tent with a reporter from Florida. "It was great," he says, "obviously the best way to cover it." But he didn't get much sleep.
Being a part of what's happening in young music, a part of the hot and sweaty crowds, the fevered clubs, can add an intimate aspect to writing. It's writing from the experience. But that kind of youthful stamina often takes a hit as the years go by. While twentysomethings may dance til 5 a.m. at a rave, you won't find the likes of Anthony DeCurtis there. DeCurtis, contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a music critic since 1978, says that type of participation isn't necessary. You write from what you know.
DeCurtis recalls a panel discussion featuring older critics at the South by Southwest Music Conference, a huge annual showcase of music acts held in Austin. At the March 1993 event, a young woman in the audience questioned the critics' authority, asking if they weren't too old to cover rock 'n' roll. The panelists reacted defensively to the notion that they needed to listen to music through the ears of a teenager to get it.
DeCurtis says the idea is ridiculous. "My response would have been, 'When's the last time you saw Jimi Hendrix?' " he says. "You have your experience.... Write out of that perspective."
The music each person listened to from about age 14 to 25 has the most staying power. It's the time most of us were listening to and buying a lot of music and, for some, watching MTV. The Violent Femmes are going to mean something different to a 30-year-old than they will to a 45-year-old. As will Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, Nirvana. The different perspectives inform the writing.
But many say that with a good writer's work, you can't tell the author's age. Plus, as DeCurtis says, some young critics can write with a maturity and rigor you'd associate with age, while some older critics may be "just as quick to shoot from the hip as when they were 19."
Most others dismiss Ray's notion that you have to be 19 to understand what the latest hip-hop or alternative rock artist is about. It's a matter of maintaining openmindedness, says the L.A. Times' Hilburn. The really good music doesn't just speak to youth, he says, it speaks to all. The best music "transcends" generations, he says.
The Plain Dealer's Scott says she likes covering older acts, but prefers checking out new bands--she mentions Scottish alt-rock band Travis, for one. "I love going to something new that people don't know about," says Scott, who also attended Woodstock '94 and "slept in the mud once."
Rolling Stone Music Editor Joe Levy says the too-old-to-rock idea is ridiculous. "The theory that rock 'n' roll should only be made, listened to and written about by young people is a specious one," says Levy, who adds that older critics such as Christgau and Hilburn are doing "excellent, excellent work."
Those who get out of the field do it more because they're just plain tired, he adds. "It's the grind that wears you down," Levy says, "not the fact that the music is hard to be in touch with, or it's meant for someone younger."

R ICHARD HARRINGTON BEGAN WRITING music criticism in 1969 for the Washington Free Press, an alternative journal in Washington, D.C. He became the Post's first and only pop critic in 1980 and, up until January, he covered the beat full time. That's when Arts Editor John Pancake replaced Harrington with a 36-year-old Post legal writer, David Segal, who once played in a rock band. Harrington was demoted to a part-time job writing reviews, mostly for the Weekend section, and took a pay cut.
The move is not popular with many music critics, who praise Harrington's work and/or question how a reporter who has never covered music could be a better choice. The anyone-can-be-a-rock-critic attitude doesn't sit well with seasoned critics. (Segal declined a request for an interview.)
When Harrington's easing out was announced in March 1999, Post staffers and area musicians responded with petitions calling for his reinstatement. Harrington said at the time he was told that he "didn't do enough trend stories and wasn't doing enough coverage of the hot new young bands." He wouldn't comment on the idea he was deemed too old then, but, in March of this year, he filed a suit charging that the Post demoted him simply because of age.
His attorney, Michael Kane, says the idea that papers need a young person to cover young music is prevalent. "I think Richard was just a victim of that," he adds. He says the demotion was made "not for quality, but for appearance."
Pancake disputes that notion. "The issue was the coverage and not his age," Pancake said in an interview in February, before Harrington filed his suit. He declined to elaborate. Segal was chosen because he is a skillful writer with a breadth of knowledge, important characteristics, Pancake says, for newspaper writers who have to address both the general public and the afficionado. "I must've read the clips of 50 to 60 people, a lot of them bad," says Pancake. "The people we came up with for finalists...most of them had some expertise outside of pop music."
In a recent conversation with AJR, Harrington said it hasn't been difficult to grow older and write about music, particularly because his coverage runs the gamut, from blues to folk to hip-hop. "It's a perpetually fascinating field," he says. "And I love doing it.... That's the thing that makes it easy."
Pareles calls Harrington "one of the best." As for the lawsuit, he adds, "I hope I get called as an expert witness." He, like many other critics, finds little evidence of washed-up, way-too-old music writers hanging on to the beat.
Many say the problem of writers who tarry too long at the bandstand takes care of itself: Anyone who doesn't care and isn't into the music doesn't want to stick around. But others question the authenticity of some critics, particularly those who are older. Even critics who have passed the 50 mark and say their enthusiasm for the beat hasn't waned see out-of-touch older writers out there.
"It does get harder," says Dave Tianen, 53, pop music critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It becomes more of a stretch because you're more and more distant from that generation." The Milwaukee paper, where Tianen's been on the beat for 12 years, uses two general assignment reporters in their 30s to cover some of the more youthful acts.
"Sometimes when I see middle-age people just raving over, say, Nine Inch Nails," says Tianen, "there's part of me that arches an eyebrow and wonders how genuine that is."
Newsweek's Lorraine Ali, 35, can detect the generational gyrations of an older critic in pieces that show an aloofness. Age, she says, "either manifests itself in a., becoming bitter and discounting anything that came after [older critics'] time.... Or b., trying to be down with the kids and sounding really silly."
The most striking example? Older white critics covering hip-hop and electronic music, she says. They often don't understand it, she says, which is fine, "if they just cop to it."
"Hip-hop," says Christgau, "is the great generational divide." Pareles uses the exact same words with me. The comments affirm there are new categories of music that build up a wall between older and younger generations, stuff the parents just don't understand. And both critics say it's a line they've crossed.
Hip-hop is the wave of music that separates older--mostly white--critics who can't relate from those who can. Its roots date back to the '70s, with funk bands like Parliament Funkadelic, and even earlier to the likes of James Brown. Christgau admits it took him years in the late '70s to understand P-Funk. "I just played the fuckers and played them and eventually, I got it," he says. When hip-hop came along, he says, he was ready. "But a lot of critics didn't get it, or got it very late."
Certainly, it's hard to envision a white, 60-year-old newspaper guy grooving to rapper Eminem's album. But Hilburn recently interviewed the artist, whose often violent lyrics have spawned criticism, and gave his record three-and-a-half stars. He does see evidence of some older critics not "adjusting to [hip-hop] fast enough," he says. "They don't respect Eminem as much as they should."

T HE PEOPLE WHO CAN MOST respect and understand acts like Eminem are members of the young generation. Consequently, it's easy to assume that they're the ones who should write about the music, and that they're being hired at papers that want to increase coverage of youth-oriented subjects for youthful readers.
Well, no, they're not. In fact, with such a vital older generation of critics, there aren't many desirable spots at newspapers and established magazines for up-and-comers. "The profession is somewhat limited," says New York Times pop music critic Ann Powers, 36. The younger generation, the one below Powers, "must feel very daunted," she says. There are more magazines, fanzines, Web sites at which to write; however, "that just makes it harder to distinguish yourself."
Powers started writing music criticism when she was 17, and considers herself lucky to have landed at the Times. Other critics point to the fact that it's not easy to break onto the scene, particularly at newspapers, where you just don't find writers in their 20s with a desirable beat like music.
The young perspective, says Ali, is found mostly in fanzines or Webzines and is largely lacking in the mainstream press. "I don't think that voice is really out there enough...that younger voice," she says.
The absence has some critics concluding there are fewer aspiring critics and less interest in criticism. "I wish there were young critics I was afraid of.... There are damn few," says the Baltimore Sun's J.D. Considine, 43, who joined the paper as music critic in 1986, having first published a music piece in '77. "I've talked to magazine editors, and they've kind of said the same thing. It seems to be on a certain level, there aren't as many people who are interested in the criticism aspect of music." It's more about celebrity, he adds.
Jann S. Wenner, editor, publisher and founder of Rolling Stone, wouldn't say there's been a decline in interest in criticism from readers. The record review section, he says, remains one of the most popular sections of the 1.25 million-circulation magazine. And Levy says he's still deluged with clips from young writers.
Rolling Stone is 33 years old and still covering the artists who were around at its founding--as well as the new music of each successive generation. The challenge in staying fresh and youthful, Wenner says, isn't much of one. "Just keep your eyes and ears open," he says. "Stay young at heart."
Wenner, 54, certainly seems to have done just that. A scruffy start of a beard on his face, he talks glowingly of his creation and gives off a what-a-way-to-have-made-it smugness as he twists in his chair in an office that overlooks New York's Avenue of the Americas. Almost every critic interviewed for this article and many of the rest have written for Rolling Stone.
Criticism that Rolling Stone is sometimes out of touch with new waves of music doesn't make sense to Wenner, who says the magazine's average reader is 27. The audience is spread among young and old alike. The issue of whether older critics can still relate has only become an issue as rock has aged, he says. Back when Rolling Stone launched in '67, says Wenner, "the only reason it was being done by younger people then...was because the older people didn't know anything about it."
Now, the 40-and-over critics in the country, for the most part, do know what's going on and are encountering an extremely broad range of styles on as many of the 30,000 or so records released each year as they can listen to.
That historical perspective they have is sometimes lacking in younger critics, but most say you write from your own experience. "I think a lot of times younger critics feel they have to use the same reference points as their...forefathers," says Ali. It's not that they shouldn't know history, she adds, but "they have different reference points." And, she emphasizes, it's OK to use them.
Rolling Stone's Touré says there are times when youth is an advantage--such as in feature writing. "When I'm the same age or similar age as the artist, then it helps in terms of the language and the vibe you create with somebody...to establish trust."
Touré has given some thought to what will happen to that connection as the years pass. "What am I going to do when I'm 34, going to interview some 24-year-old kid about his hot record?" he asks.
While Ali wouldn't say 34 is getting up there in music criticism--she's 35--the recent Newsweek hire does say she'll reach a point where she'll outgrow it. She's "trying to build the bridges now into other areas of writing.... So when it gets to that point, I don't have to be sad...and bitter."
Many pop music critics have questioned whether the beat is respectable enough, grown-up enough, for an intelligent, creative person to pursue for an entire career. Those who are still around have decided, yes. DeCurtis says it's something with which he came to terms when he abandoned his career as an English professor to write about that silly little thing called rock. He recalls some friends from grade school initially getting a kick out of his writing for Rolling Stone. But one friend asked if he'd thought about working for a "real" magazine.
Powers talks enthusiastically in a Brooklyn coffee shop near her home about her beat and its significance, about why music is so important to our culture, politics, personal relationships. I barely have to ask a question in the interview. She's given the "is this good enough for a career" issue a lot of thought.
"I always fought against it," she says. "I didn't think it was legitimate." Powers thought she should be a poet. It took her some time to believe pop criticism "could be an art form"--a realization that came after reading Greil Marcus' "Mystery Train," a book on rock 'n' roll and its contribution to American culture. Unlike Ali and Touré, Powers is confident she's in it for the long haul. It's almost a mission.
It all comes back to a love of the music. That's the reason old dudes really can cover rock--and rap and techno--and add something to our cultural discussion. For critics like Christgau and Hilburn, it's unlikely they'll switch careers. And why should they? What would they know more about than music? But the perspective of youth shouldn't be left out. The one advantage, at least, is that a few more grown-ups are on its side.
"Pop music is at its most intergenerational," says Powers, glad her beat is something that touches our society so broadly and deeply. Music "is the public conversation we share," she says. "We speak to each other through music."