Published Jun 01, 2004There was a time when I avoided going to libraries and bookstores, disheartened that I would never get to read all of history's great works, nor even come close. I carried that despondence for a couple of years, eventually shaking it off when I came to accept how much more tragic it would be if there were too few (rather than too many) books to choose from.
And so it goes with popular music, a realm made more manageable than literature by its relative youth. Just as the literary world has its canonised authors and texts, so too does pop music have its own pantheon, however loosely formulated. Because rock criticism came of age in the late 60s, the pop canon was first erected by baby boomers, rabid consumers of the canon's hallmark products: reissues and box sets. (If ever you've wondered why your favourite 90s-era indie rockers have never released a box, rest assured that the industry will grant that wish only when you're old enough to afford it.)
With my local classic rock station speciously touting itself as "playing the greatest rock'n'roll of all time," it seems appropriate to note the recent publication of Kill Your Idols (Barricade Books), a collection of 34 essays aimed at undermining such boomer favourites as Neil Young's Harvest and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. As the book's co-editor Jim Derogatis notes in the introduction, Kill Your Idols is "a defiant rejection of the hegemonic view of rock history espoused by the critics who preceded us." Put plainly, Derogatis is heralding himself as the leader of new-school critics looking to usurp old-guard writers like Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau. As such, the book seems motivated more by bitterness than by sincere aesthetic analysis.
In this regard, Derogatis and his cohorts resemble the school of resentment, a term coined by literary critic Harold Bloom to describe those many scholars (whether Marxist, feminist or multiculturalist) who challenge the literary canon on strictly ideological grounds. Sadly, such resentment stains most of the essays in the Derogatis collection, crippling the book's critical worth.
What the authors of Kill Your Idols seem to misunderstand is that canons are not formulated by critics, but by artists themselves. Revisionists can only measure an album's worth by gauging its influence on subsequent artists, and so long as musicians continue to emulate, say, Brian Wilson, no amount of issue-taking with Pet Sounds can lessen its centrality to the pop canon.
Rather than pettily challenging their predecessors, today's music critics should endeavour to shed light on those artists who have heretofore been overlooked by the critical establishment. In recent months, such laudable work has been taken up by David Toop and Sasha Frere-Jones, writers who have eulogized Arthur Russell in The Wire (January 2004) and The New Yorker (March 8, 2004).
Russell was an avant-garde cellist and disco producer who died at the age of 40 in 1992. Born in Iowa, Russell moved to New York City in the 70s and became an important figure in three of that city's cross-fertilising scenes: post-punk, avant-garde composition and disco. Quite amazingly, the cellist collaborated with such disparate figures as Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass and David Byrne before going on to produce such disco anthems as "Kiss Me Again" and "Is It All Over My Face?" Over his too-short career, Russell assembled a stunning oeuvre, much of which has been recently collected for reissue on The World of Arthur Russell (Soul Jazz), Calling Out of Context (Audika), and the forthcoming World of Echo (Audika).
As Frere-Jones notes in his assessment, "Russell's work was stranded between lands real and imagined: the street and the cornfield; the soft bohemian New York and the hard Studio 54 New York; the cheery bold strokes of pop and the liberating possibilities of abstract art." Occupying a plain of his own design, Russell made music that foreshadowed Radiohead and Aphex Twin, among others. To borrow a phrase from Bloom, his music succeeded on account of its "strangeness, a mode of originality that either could not be assimilated, or that so assimilated us that we have ceased to see it as strange." So it is for all works in the canon an institution immune to the arrows of resentment.