Tag Archives: Criticism

Best paragraph of the week: Chuck Klosterman on ‘Chinese Democracy’

From Chuck Klosterman’s great review of the new Axl Rose and Friends* album (I’m adding a paragraph break for easier reading):

But it’s actually better that Slash is not on this album. What’s cool about Chinese Democracy is that it truly does sound like a new enterprise, and I can’t imagine that being the case if Slash were dictating the sonic feel of every riff. The GNR members Rose misses more are Izzy Stradlin (who effortlessly wrote or co-wrote many of the band’s most memorable tunes) and Duff McKagan, the underappreciated bassist who made Appetite For Destruction so devastating.

Because McKagan worked in numerous Seattle-based bands before joining Guns N’ Roses, he became the de facto arranger for many of those pre-Appetite tracks, and his philosophy was always to take the path of least resistance. He pushed the songs in whatever direction felt most organic. But Rose is the complete opposite. He takes the path of most resistance. Sometimes it seems like Axl believes every single Guns N’ Roses song needs to employ every single thing that Guns N’ Roses has the capacity to do—there needs to be a soft part, a hard part, a falsetto stretch, some piano plinking, some R&B bullshit, a little Judas Priest, subhuman sound effects, a few Robert Plant yowls, dolphin squeaks, wind, overt sentimentality, and a caustic modernization of the blues. When he’s able to temporarily balance those qualities (which happens on the title track and on “I.R.S.,” the album’s two strongest rock cuts), it’s sprawling and entertaining and profoundly impressive.

Runner-up:

Throughout Chinese Democracy, the most compelling question is never, “What was Axl doing here?” but “What did Axl think he was doing here?” … On the aforementioned “Sorry,” Rose suddenly sings an otherwise innocuous line (“But I don’t want to do it”) in some bizarre, quasi-Transylvanian accent, and I cannot begin to speculate as to why. I mean, one has to assume Axl thought about all of these individual choices a minimum of a thousand times over the past 15 years. Somewhere in Los Angles, there’s gotta be 400 hours of DAT tape with nothing on it except multiple versions of the “Sorry” vocal. So why is this the one we finally hear? What finally made him decide, “You know, I’ve weighed all my options and all their potential consequences, and I’m going with the Mexican vampire accent. This is the vision I will embrace. But only on that one line! The rest of it will just be sung like a non-dead human.”

* Remember, Chinese Democrasy is NOT a Guns N’ Roses album.

Best paragraph of the day: T-Pain and superheroes

From Nathan Rabin’s latest My Year of Flops entry — a double feature on The Phantom and The Shadow:

We live in the age of superheroes. And T-Pain. If you were to remove superheroes and T-Pain from pop culture, the world as we know it would devolve into madness and anarchy. Society would crumble. Incidentally, I’m listening to/reviewing the new T-Pain CD as I write this, so I apologize if my various roles at The A.V. Club bleed together. That’s why I’d like to humbly propose a new superhero franchise about a musician who stumbles upon a voice distorter laced with gamma rays, which gives him the magical ability to bang drunken skanks at will, secure half-priced lap-dances, wear ridiculous hats without shame or self-consciousness, and telekinetically convince rappers and singers who really should know better that their songs are fatally incomplete without his signature brand of creepy digital harmonizing.

A terribly sad thing I never want to hear again

Infinite Jest has been on my bookshelf for about six years. I made it through the first 80 pages two or three times, but never mustered the willpower to plow through the whole thing. I read Broom of the System and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, also about six years ago, but don’t remember them well other than that some of the short stories in Brief Interviews were depressingly impressive.

So I can’t properly speak to the importance, quality, or influence of David Foster Wallace’s fiction. But, boy, his nonfiction was good.

Some of the essays and articles — okay, all of them — collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster are incredibly pretentious in parts. But Wallace still somehow managed to be one of the most interesting, thoughtful, observant, and absurdly smart writers I’ve ever read.

He took the cliche of cultural essay writing — the discovery of grand meaning in banal American minutia, or in a movie, or in an athlete, or in anything — and repeatedly made it true, through sheer force of intellect, imagination, and accumulated detail. I agree with John Seery: “Already it seems as if some special portal of human intelligence has been closed off.”

After Stephen King and Stephen Hunter, Wallace was probably the biggest influence on my own formative writing and thinking. (In college that influence expressed itself as blatant copycat pieces. I hope by now his influence is more a part of my thought process, and shows up in my writing primarily as purposeful homage, like using the word “tummies” in this post.) And I’m really, really sad that he’s dead.

I wish I could write more of a tribute, but I’d have to reread all his stuff to do it justice. You should just go read those two nonfiction collections (some of the essays in them are available online: a dispatch from the Maine Lobster Festival; an article on Roger Federer; a piece on David Lynch).

Anyway, writing about the suicide of creative-genius heroes sucks. So I’ll just end with the beginning of an appreciation of Elliott Smith I wrote in 2003. Replace the word “musician” with “writer” (and ignore the addiction part, I assume) and the sentiment still holds.

There’s a terrible irony to suicide. In too many cases when overwhelming loneliness and self-loathing ultimately end in death, it turns out that love and appreciation were there in abundance. They just couldn’t get through the barriers built of depression and addiction.

It’s even worse to think about musician suicides: They were unable to accept or process not only the affection of family and friends, but the joy, pleasure and awe they inspired in their many fans.

The truth is, I didn’t just want to be as good a writer as DFW — I wanted to be as smart as he was. But if this is the price of genius, I’m happy never to know what that’s like.

Blarg.

What the Newseum’s $450 million could buy now

Back in February, Jack Shafer wrote a column for Slate excoriating the new $450 million Newseum building next to the National Mall. He finished his anti-ode to the “monument to journalistic vanity” by gently (compared to the rest of the piece) pointing out that there are plenty of better uses for $450 million, given the troubles facing newspapers:

I want the Freedom Forum to sell off their monument valley installation and use the proceeds to actually support journalism. Like endowing a newspaper, for instance.

Just one newspaper? Those were the days. Nowadays — a mere five months later, that is — $450 million could get you 3 or 4 newspaper chains.

How can Metal Gear Solid be inscrutable, interminable — and great?

As someone who has more than a passing interest in the maturation of video games, I’ve found some reviews of the would-be blockbuster Metal Gear Solid 4 to be very interesting — and telling.

The reviews of the Playstation 3 game at Slate, Wired’s Game|Life blog, and The Onion A.V. Club (all sites I like and regularly read) are curiously and similarly schizophrenic, alternately criticizing a major part of the game (its story) while praising — well, it’s not exactly clear what’s so great about it. That such praise outweighs the ambivalence in each review shows just how far video games still have to go.

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The problem with tech reviews

I’m a pretty compulsive comparison-shopper (that is, a compulsive comparer — I don’t actually buy very much, as seen by my 4-year-old Creative Zen). I’m also a wannabe tech geek. So I read a fair number of reviews of TVs, digital cameras, MP3 players, printers, etc. And I’d say a good three-quarters of them are infuriating — because they barely discuss the one or two key aspects of a product that normal consumers care about.

Take two recent reviews from PC Magazine and PC World. PC Mag gave four stars (out of five) and an Editor’s Choice award to the Westinghouse TX-52F480S 52-inch LCD. I still have an old 32-inch CRT set, so I’m always on the lookout for good flat-panel tellies to file away for when we’re ready to upgrade. But despite the rating, this review was absolutely no help in my mental TV search.

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Journalism reality check II: The death and rebirth of criticism

Over at American Scene, Peter Suderman offers a good response to Patrick Goldstein’s LA Times lament about the loss of entertainment critics in print media. Suderman writes:

For the vast majority of people, a Friday night at the movies is just that — and nothing more. Most people really don’t care about and have no use for lengthy dissertations about the ways in which Steven Soderbergh borrows from Godard. They just want to know whether to see Ocean’s 12! Playing blame the audience doesn’t work for music studios trying to combat piracy, and it doesn’t work for cranky critics who remain convinced they deserve $2 a word for 1) their insights into obscure movies few people want to see or 2) their complaints about Big Dumb Movies that everyone’s going to see anyway.

I would add that a majority of criticism doesn’t even rise to this level of sophistication/pretension. When I led a session on criticism at the Poynter Institute’s High School Writers Workshop, I presented the difference between good and bad criticism as the difference between a term paper (an original thesis supported by examples from the text) and a book report (basic plot summary with maybe a cursory judgment). Many print reviews still tend toward the book report end of the criticism spectrum. (Plus more papers are experimenting with things like American Idol live-blogs and other “insta-criticism” that runs more toward summary/quick response but is totally appropriate for the subjects and form.)

Suderman makes an even more important point about the lack of perspective from those in the newspaper industry who mourn the loss of print critics. He writes:

Trenchant criticism hasn’t died; it’s just shifted venues. …

Meanwhile, I simply refuse to buy the argument that the loss of book pages and film-review jobs is a bad thing. Yes, it’s a bad thing for professional critics. Yes, it’s tougher for those lucky few thousand folks to make a living reading books and watching movies! On the other hand, the internet has actually created vastly more opportunity for aspiring critics to get their work read. The barriers to entry in top-end publications are still high, but those outlets are no longer the only options for critics on the make. So we’ll see fewer professional critics, sure, but we’ll also see far, far more criticism.

And yes, some of it will be bad. But on the whole, I’d guess that it will create a net gain in serious, thought-provoking criticism of just about every medium. Meanwhile, most of those truly elite outlets — the New Yorkers and the Washington Posts — are not going away.

Terrific points all. Jody Rosen is the best music critic in the country; he writes for Slate, not a newspaper. Newspapers that have a Jody Rosen should build an online brand and community around that critic and hope the critic doesn’t leave. If they don’t have a Jody Rosen, if their critics file one book-report review after another — and if newspapers increasingly need to think about what they can offer readers that no one else can — then they should treat every kind of critic as a luxury except for (maybe) local-music and (definitely) restaurant critics.

But there’s one crucial piece missing from Suderman’s analysis. Yes, there’s plenty of great criticism online. Yes, there’s going to be a net increase in great criticism thanks to that online crit-boom. But like so much of the online news-commentary-criticism boom, it is invisible to newspaper readers.

Suderman assumes that getting rid of critics won’t matter because newspaper readers will find the good stuff online. That would be true if you assume everyone has an RSS feed and reads Slate, Pitchfork, and House Next Door. Needless to say, not everyone does. If they did, that would further erode newspapers’ declining readership.

So if newspapers do get rid of in-house critics, they need to simultaneously start giving readers some of the material Suderman talks about. That goes for more than just criticism. Newspapers can no longer treat the online universe as invisible. They have to find a way to bring that great content to their readers, both via the Web and in print.