Behind the Scenes of Music and Inside the Minds of Critics
Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man, by Robert Christgau
This volume is sprawling, rambunctious, mesmerizing, sometimes tedious and dreary, often arrogant, yet nevertheless brimming with insight and more-than-simple pedantic reflections on life and love. It is everything we’ve come to expect from the famously cantankerous and brilliant Dean of American Rock Critics.
Christgau handily, and mostly affectionately, chronicles his childhood and youth in Flushing. He didn’t excel at sports but, because of his quickness, agility, and competitiveness, he was good enough not to be picked last in pick-up games. He also developed a life-long love of reading and music.
A peripatetic forager amongst the fields of art, Christgau stops along the way to feed deeply the trough of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – “he conveys the pain of poverty in physical detail and with psychological acuity” – and Truffaut’s film, Jules and Jim. The film “changed my life,” he writes. “It was in the even more fundamental project of finding my path as a writer that works of art would truly tell.”
Even more than the arts, Christgau’s romantic relationships – his long-term partnership with rock critic Ellen Willis and his four-decade marriage to writer Carola Dibbell – “constituted an emotional education more action-packed than my professional progress.”
In the late 1960s, Christgau rose to the top of a pack of rock critics that included Paul Williams and Richard Meltzer, and he declares, “like most young critics … I was pretty damn sure of myself. Having read Cash Box, rejected folk, absorbed jazz, theorized pop, and ramped up my prose, I didn’t feel like the king (or the dean), but I did feel like the best.” And the best he became, churning out conversation-starting pieces as senior editor and chief music critic at the Village Voice from 1969 to 2006, and producing his illuminating, often contentious, always canny Christgau’s Consumer Guides to albums of every decade, beginning with the ’70s.
The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, by John Seabrook
New Yorker writer John Seabrook takes on another side of the music industry as he asks, “What makes a hit song these days?” in The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (Norton). Traveling from Sweden and South Korea to Los Angeles and New York interviewing the writers, producers, and artists behind today’s hits, Seabrook tunefully delivers a soulful refrain on the multi-layered process of building hits songs today. He profiles Soo-Man Lee, founder of SM Entertainment and architect of K-pop, who produced a manual that provided details on the steps necessary to establish a winning artist within the system: what chord progressions to use, camera angles to be used in videos, and when to import foreign producers, choreographers, or producers.
Denniz Pop’s vision of making the hits involved using a factory of Swedish songwriters who would create hits for British and American acts, combining the beat-driven music people danced to in clubs with the pop music people listened to on the radio.
Seabrook also profiles Lou Pearlman, who engineered the Backstreet Boys and mismanaged their careers. He explores Britney Spears and Rihanna and the formulas for their pop successes. The factory production line of songs, coupled with changes in the delivery of the music – with more artists making money off of shows and less off of records and radio play – has established some singers, such as Rihanna, as stars on today’s music scene. In the end, Seabrook almost giddily contends, hit songs possess a hook where the “rhythm, sound, melody, and harmony converge to create a single ecstatic moment, felt more in the body than in the head.”
John Prine: In Spite of Himself, by Eddie Huffman
Speaking of memoirs, it would be nice to have one from John Prine. In 1970, the late Roger Ebert wrote of Prine’s performing style in the Chicago Sun-Times: “He appears on the stage with such modesty that he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. … He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
In the same way, music critic Eddie Huffman slowly backs into this fan’s notes and heartfelt appreciation of Prine and his music in John Prine: In Spite of Himself (University of Texas Press). Weaving well-known biographical details (Prine was a mail carrier in Chicago when he got his start) into meticulous sketches of the making of each album – and reviews of those albums – Huffman offers an admiring portrait of an often restless, though always canny and rivetingly insightful, songwriter.
Reflecting on Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut album, Huffman points out that “everything his fans would come to love about him – drama, humor, memorable characters, great stories, a badass outsider stance offset by a reverence for tradition – could be found, fully developed … the recordings showed ample room for Prine to grow as a musician … but the songs were built to last.”
Two years later, on Sweet Revenge, Prine “sounded fully integrated with backing musicians, and he once again rose to the challenge of writing a compelling batch of tunes.”
In the 1980s, Prine started his own record label, Oh Boy, and in 1991, he released The Missing Years, which Huffman calls Prine’s Born to Run or Damn the Torpedoes – a swaggering rock statement that fully realized his potential.” While Huffman’s book doesn’t reveal anything new about Prine, it does make us want to pick up Prine’s albums and listen to them once again or for the first time.