Why John Lennon Matters

The case for professional pop-music critics in an amateur age
July 15, 2009

A John Lennon song floated over our rental-car radio as my father and I wound our way past silos and dairy farms in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Lennon’s voice made me nostalgic for the late 1960s, which was odd, because it was the late 1980s and I was a teenager who had only known pop charts ruled by the likes of Rick Astley, Tiffany, and Belinda Carlisle. “Why doesn’t my generation have any real artists like Lennon?” I asked bitterly.

My dad shot back that he never understood why The Beatles were considered great artists. “You’re always listening to lyrics,” he said, slipping the knife in. “What made John Lennon so important?”

What a stunningly stupid and provocative question, I thought.

My father should have known better. He had protested the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and had written a dissertation on how children are politicized. The really irritating part, though, was that I knew saying, “Because John Lennon was John Fucking Lennon,” was no kind of answer. And if I couldn’t explain why John Lennon mattered, how could I justify my obsession with R.E.M., Talking Heads, and the Clash? Or why I, a white kid from California, knew most of the rhymes from N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, and could (and did) rap the profane lyrics of “8 Ball” while waiting for my 99-cent Whopper at the Burger King drive-through? The music was mind invasion. A pop song could take me into a world I had never seen, a separate sensibility, and four minutes later I would emerge changed. Of course, I didn’t quite have that formulation at my fingertips. So I accused my father of trying to suck the pleasure from what mattered to me.

The reason Lennon mattered, and the reason I still listen to music that often amounts to bad teen poetry and dance beats, has to do with the quality that unifies the ever more fractious pop-music universe and distinguishes it from classical and jazz: anyone can make it. Pop music is not unprofessional. It is anti-professional. This is not to suggest that the pop canon is devoid of trained musicians, composers, and producers, or that all pop music is artistically equal. Rather, it is to say that the notion that anyone can write a pop song—be they hip-hoppers or cowboys, metal heads or folkies, post-punk feminists or members of Banana Blender Surprise—has made pop music one of the brightest signals of popular sentiment and cultural transformation of the last forty years.

This proximity to the culture is also what has made pop-music writing arguably the most urgent and politically tinged form of criticism of the same period. Whether it’s Joan Didion reflecting on the determined innocence of youth culture as she wandered through Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in the mid-1960s, or Chuck Klosterman writing in the early part of this decade about the meaning of glam metal in the Midwest, music writers have made the case that to write about pop music is to illuminate the zeitgeist.

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During those same four decades, pop-music criticism evolved from a fugitive journalistic impulse (as the critic Eric Weisbard has called it) into a fixture of the media firmament. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The New Republic employ pop critics, as do regional papers ranging from the Detroit Free Press to The Oregonian to The Sacramento Bee.

Yet, at a moment when the nature of American culture and political identity is in flux, critical writing about pop music has grown steadily more irrelevant. This is in part a consequence of the pressure the Internet has exerted on journalism at large: the venues are shrinking, along with the fees and the audience. But these problems have been especially acute for music writers, because the Internet has simultaneously undermined their utilitarian function as consumer guides by making music free. As Ann Powers, the chief pop-music critic at the Los Angeles Times, put it to me: What value is there in writing that the latest Metallica album is good, when readers can log onto the band’s MySpace page, listen for free, and decide for themselves? It’s not as though one needs to be an ethnomusicologist to determine that “Enter Sandman” rocks.

But pinning the entire rap on the Internet allows music critics to dodge some painful but necessary questions. How should journalists illuminate the zeitgeist at a moment when the dominant cultural narrative is that there is no dominant cultural narrative? Do critics have any special license to serve as pop music’s cultural interlocutors when anyone with an Internet connection can attempt to do the same thing? In other words: if anyone can make pop music, and anyone can be a pop-music critic, do we really need professional critics to tell us what it all means?

These questions hung over the conclave of prominent music writers that Powers gathered at the University of Southern California in September 2008. She had called the forum “The Death of the Critic,” and the title, though morose, was apt. As the panelists tried to diagnose their ailing profession, the usual suspects were trotted out: the leveling effect of the blogosphere, the Web’s fracturing of the cultural narrative. But perhaps critics should consider the possibility that the animating argument for pop-music criticism—that the music is important because it is a projection of popular experience—is exactly what has made it difficult for journalists to gain traction in the current era. We are living in an age when the audience is happy to express its opinions without any assistance from the press. Which is to say: pop-music critics are the casualties of a culture war that they helped to wage and win.

To understand how pop-music critics were soldiers in a war that rendered them irrelevant is to understand Robert Christgau’s critical sensibility. Christgau is best known for his consumer guide and album-rating system. But his more important legacy is the Village Voice music page, where as editor between 1974 and 1985, and then chief music critic until 2006, he helped to define a populist argument for why the music mattered. At the same time, he built a section that bridged two generations of critics, with Greil Marcus, Gary Giddins, Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Janet Maslin, and James Wolcott in the first wave, and Ann Powers, Eric Weisbard, R J Smith, Greg Tate, and Sasha Frere-Jones among the second.

By the time Christgau arrived at the Voice, Jann Wenner had already made the journalistic case that pop music was the language of the counterculture, the place where its utopian social vision met its politics. The Rolling Stone founder developed this connection not through rigorous argument, but by placing music in the context of political reporting. This had two effects. Wenner’s focus on the biggest names in pop music made the left-leaning political journalism seem part of a broad cultural insurgency. And the political journalism made the pop music seem as though it possessed a cohesive political message (even when it didn’t, which was often).

Christgau, who considered himself to the left of Wenner politically, nonetheless rejected the programmatic assumption that pop music produced predictable political ends. In his calculus, pop music was important precisely because it had no obligation to prefabricated ideology. In other words, while any one musician or song might have a political aim, what really mattered was the collective pressure exerted by disparate voices on the governing cultural narrative.

To a certain degree, Christgau’s critical method was self-referential. He had no aesthetic or political litmus test to determine that Cat Stevens’s Buddha and the Chocolate Box was terrible and that Van Morrison’s Moondance was great (although he was allergic to nostalgia and the creeping pretension of the rock-and-roll auteur). Instead, he figured out why he liked a given recording, put that process into words, and then hashed it out with his readers and fellow writers.

Yet this personal approach by no means excluded broader social and political ideas. In fact, listening and reacting often became an exercise in social criticism for Christgau, because he conceived of pop as engaged with mainstream culture. “Rock-and-roll was a medium that insisted on individual freedom, on pleasure, and, at the same time, created social connections among disparate people,” he told me recently. He went on to say: “Carried to its emotional conclusion, [the music] put pressures on capitalism. I looked for writers who could elucidate the details of these tendencies and their contradictions.”

Christgau and his contemporaries were not New Journalists, slyly challenging the strictures of objectivity by writing in the first person. They were participant observers in the musical insurgency they were covering, and their aim was to translate, amplify, and argue its messages. From a journalistic perspective, this meant that to write pop-music criticism was to break cultural news. The audience, and the artists, paid attention. Billy Joel, who Christgau once called “a force of nature and bad taste” (note the backhanded compliment), tore up his detractor’s reviews onstage. And Sonic Youth, who he dubbed a band of “impotent bohos,” upped the ante with a song called “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fuckin’ Dick.”

Almost from the outset, however, there was a problem with Christgau’s view of pop music as a transformative force in the democratic equation. The pop-music industry was not only hugely profitable but also crassly commercial. And as the 1970s wore on, it ever more transparently capitalized on the mythology that pop music was authentically anti-authoritarian.

Punk helped to solve this problem. Political, angry, unromantic, and funny, it was an astringent for the countercultural conceit that it was possible to be both radical and broadly popular. More significant to the critical enterprise, it was flagrantly anti-commercial. And this awakened a new type of pop-music critic who, though grounded in the gospel of Christgau, had lost interest in transforming the mainstream.

In 1980, Ann Powers cut out the lyrics of “Waiting for the Clampdown,” the Clash’s screed against betraying youthful idealism, and hung them inside her Seattle high-school locker. She didn’t consider herself part of the counterculture. Rather, Powers imagined herself inhabiting a compartmentalized pocket on the edge of the mainstream. Here was an anticipation of the identity politics that would shape cultural criticism over the next decade or so. “We thought,” she told me recently, “that we were making a world that was a world within the world.”

Powers and her husband, eric Weisbard, landed at the Voice in the early 1990s. The paper’s music section, which Christgau envisioned as a public square for writers to declare pop’s significance in all of its varied guises, was the perfect home for her. “We assumed,” Powers told me, “that our identities were our politics”—an assumption she put into practice at the Voice, along with such kindred spirits as Erik Davis, Greg Tate, and Lisa Jones. Pop music, to her, was political theater, and writing about it was political advocacy. While Powers didn’t limit herself to covering women, at the Voice her feminist politics were transparent in her coverage of the Riot Grrrl movement, P J Harvey, and Tori Amos.

It wasn’t only at the Voice that the emerging subgenres of pop were considered proxies for the social and political sensibilities of various subcultures. This ethos was common to the prominent national music magazines of the 1990s. Spin was the home of the indie rock and hip-hop generation. Sassy was aimed at feminist girls. Vibe targeted blacks, and The Source was for hardcore hip-hoppers. The writers for these magazines socialized together, and the Voice continued to be a place where they aired their ideas in print. This is not to suggest that every piece of writing—or even most of them—viewed the music as a political cudgel to forge and defend subcultures. But many of these writers seemed to put the melting-pot philosophy firmly behind them. As they saw it, pop music didn’t dissolve the boundaries between listeners; it reminded them of exactly who they were.

Now, thirteen years after Powers left the Voice, this equivalence of personal identity, pop culture, and politics seems both overheated and out of line with how Americans listen to music. For one thing, identity politics have fallen out of intellectual vogue. For another, the idea that one must relate to Eminem’s fantasy of killing his wife in order to enjoy the song “97 Bonnie and Clyde” never made complete intuitive sense. Still, the more elusive question is why the critical establishment failed to find a new argument for the importance of pop music (let alone its own role as interlocutor). And that discussion must begin with the alternative press and its ubiquitous successor, the Internet.

The sensibility of pop-music criticism has always found its fullest voice in the alternative press. The reason for this is that the most memorable music critics have been self-styled members of an insurgency. In this way they, like the pop musicians they covered, have struck an anti-professional pose. Never mind that many of them were and are literary stylists, products of the Ivy League and its equivalent, with a fair amount of theoretical expertise. They presented themselves as members of the audience, who, by virtue of their position in the press, were able to intervene in the national conversation, and to make room for voices and ideas that might not otherwise find their way into print, or even television and film. When Jon Landau argued for the importance of Bruce Springsteen, or when Greg Tate did similar honors on behalf of Public Enemy, they were both convening an audience and declaring the cultural and political significance of its tastes.

By giving everyone the ability to publish, the Internet represented a victory for this populist sensibility. But it also took the critical prerogative out at the knee. Add to that the fact that during the Web’s rapid maturation, many music writers were preoccupied with un-popular pop music (there’s an oxymoron for you), and it becomes harder and harder to make the case that a professional critic’s opinion should be taken more seriously than that of the Internet Everyman: the blogger.

The Internet did not make the music irrelevant. Indeed, a case can be made that this is a particularly fascinating moment in pop-music history. Hip-hop, which has succeeded rock-and-roll as the dominant genre, is arguably the most direct line to urban black America ever invented. Indie bands like The Shins, the Magnetic Fields, and the Fiery Furnaces have won national audiences without the benefit of mass radio or television exposure. And American Idol is perhaps the presiding cultural metaphor for American meritocracy and the currency of celebrity. Nor did the Internet truly balkanize the broader culture, which has always been a fluid and multifaceted beast. Rather, it revealed the volatility of the cultural moment—and reminded us of just how complicated it can be to get a critical grip on even a song-length fragment of it.

However, before critics could develop a new case for the contemporary significance of pop music, they had a more basic task in front of them: they needed to revive their own interest in what was truly popular. This was the gist of Kelefa Sanneh’s 2004 New York Times piece, “The Rap Against Rockism,” in which he blasted the critical preoccupation with rock (including such subgenres as grunge and punk) to the exclusion of commercial pop. Since the latter was dominated by brown-skinned musicians, Sanneh argued, this favoritism was essentially racist:

Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher. Over the past decades, these tendencies have congealed into an ugly sort of common sense. Rock bands record classic albums, while pop stars create “guilty pleasure” singles. It’s supposed to be self-evident: U2’s entire oeuvre deserves respectful consideration, while a spookily seductive song by an r&b singer named Tweet can only be, in the smug words of a recent vh1 special, “awesomely bad.”

The rockism argument had been circulating among critics since the 1980s. But Sanneh was the first to so acidly and systematically unravel four decades of critical contortions designed to distinguish legitimate pop from bubblegum.

His manifesto was followed by a widely discussed piece in Slate, which raised the banner for what Jody Rosen called “poptimisim.” Rosen denounced any effort to distinguish high from low in pop music. If a writer thinks that Rihanna’s dancehall single “Pon de Replay” is better than the second side of Abbey Road, then he or she should give it critical love. Pavement is noise pollution? Say it. In this way, poptimism restored Christgau’s idea that pop music (and implicitly, pop-music criticism) is an exercise in democracy, precisely because it does not conform to top-down notions of what the culture should look or sound like.

At the same time, poptimism illuminated the degree to which the politics of pop criticism is at loose ends. Writers have historically treated the music as a stand-in for liberation politics, be they sexual (Lou Reed), racial (Chuck Berry), working-class (Bruce Springsteen), or feminist (Ani DiFranco). Poptimism torpedoed such efforts to distinguish politically good music from bad. It also roped in performers whose manipulation of violence, gender, and race don’t fit the standard liberation narrative: Eminem (modern-day Bob Dylan or homophobic misogynist?), Beyoncé (feminist or debased sex toy?), the whole genre of gangster rap (black male empowerment or hyper-capitalist-racial dystopia?). This expansion of the critical canvas, not so coincidentally, put the fun back in pop criticism. What it could not do was define a function for professional critics now that so much of their political ballast had been thrown overboard.

One solution is to focus more intently on musicality. Sasha Frere-Jones in particular has brought a musician’s expertise to his writing at The New Yorker. His 2007 essay on Mariah Carey’s vocal range is an impressive example of this kind of explanatory journalism. But most critics—even those with a grounding in musical theory—are not musicians. For them, limiting the conversation to the technical facility of a pop star is, as Powers pointed out, a little like thinking about a painting as blue.

No, pop music is about the zeitgeist, and pop-music criticism was invented to reveal and critique it. So what can Powers make of the fifteen-year-old girl and the girl’s mother she observed at the Los Angeles Forum, singing along to Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger’s lascivious lyrics? Just a few years ago, a band like Nickelback would most likely have been dismissed as too commercial, artistically banal, and politically repugnant to warrant critical attention. Now Powers was determined to crack the cultural code of the band, the genre (which she dubbed Flyover Rock), the girl, the fans, and the middle-class world they inhabited.

Her solution was deep reporting. She interviewed the band, the producers, marketers, fellow critics, and social historians—not to mention the girl’s mother. The argument she staked out was that Flyover Rock creates a fantasy space out of time and political context, in which fans suspend their awareness of real-world tensions. In such an environment, she suggested, an otherwise discerning middle-aged mother can enjoy sexually explicit music with her teenage daughter, without attaching any political or even social meaning to it.

The veracity of Powers’s argument is almost secondary to the case her method makes for the authority of professional criticism. The depth of her reporting distinguishes it from the opinion-driven environment of the blogosphere, where her initial, flawed assumptions about the band and its politics would have found a natural home. And she breaks newspaper convention—which typically makes clear distinctions between news and social criticism—by delivering an authoritative appraisal of how the culture is working. What she didn’t do, as she might have done at the Voice in the early 1990s, was zero in on the band’s troubling gender politics.

Many writers who share Powers’s ambition to use mass culture to develop social arguments have taken refuge in the universities, where they may find it easier to examine the political implications of their research. Josh Kun, for instance, is a professor of journalism and American studies and the director of The Popular Music Project at the University of Southern California. In his book, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, he contends that pop music remains a powerful medium of political and cultural opposition in Mexican immigrant communities.

Kun begins his book with a scene of Los Tigres del Norte singing their Mexican-American liberation anthem, “Mis Dos Patrias” (“My Two Homelands”), in the courtroom after their naturalization ceremony. He then proceeds to place the song in the context of California’s immigration debate, which came to a head with the 1994 passage of Proposition 187, which denied health and education benefits to undocumented workers. Kun’s argument: thanks to current immigration policy, Latinos are formulating a political identity in which they see themselves as in, but not of, America.

Like his journalistic colleagues, Kun is still experimenting with the use of pop music as a tool for contemporary cultural analysis. In many cases, he starts with a specific song, then excavates the historical, cultural, political, and human arguments around it. At the moment, though, it’s easy for such individual efforts to get lost in the media sprawl.

Here is where the lessons of Rolling Stone and The Village Voice are most instructive. One reason these publications fired the public imagination, and why they are still cited and debated, is because they possessed an identifiable theory of the significance of pop music. In each instance, their politics drove their critical appraisals. Perhaps the first task in reestablishing the value of the critical perspective is to reverse that equation—to announce the authority of the critical method first, and then grapple with the political implications of the work. That would be an insurgency to reckon with. Would the pretensions of such an enterprise put it at odds with the populist instinct that first sparked pop-music criticism? Perhaps. Can writers be trusted not to be blinkered by its conceits? Probably not. Then again, all the fun of writing and reading about a figure as resonant and infinitely malleable as John Lennon lies in the distinct possibility of being wrong.

Jacob Levenson is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS and Black America.