What have we wrought, us guys and gals who write about pop music?
It’s an issue those of us in this game probably don’t think about that often. But every once in a while something pops up that makes you wonder about the purpose of this whole enterprise of rock criticism, now celebrating its 46th birthday (Crawdaddy magazine debuted in 1966, Rolling Stone a year later).
What just popped up is a New York Times feature that broaches the vexing question “Just how fast is Justin Bieber allowed to grow up?” The piece spends 1600 words examining a crisis that’s kept the windpipes of the world on lockdown far too long. Described as a pitiable “R&B aspirant trapped in a pop universe” who “has few options,” Bieber is diagnosed with a malady that demands the hard focus of the major reviewer at a daily paper (circulation 1.6 million). Why is that?
I guess what got me was the photo, the one on the article’s jump page: Bieber adorable and pompadoured, on one knee, gazing out from that teddy-bear/tiger space between innocence and manhood. The pose made it a kissing cousin to a glossy poster of Fabian that came with a 1960 greatest-hits LP. Across the poster, in the Fabe’s own hand, was the inscription “Fabulously grateful.”
In my day—at least in its earliest hours, now hurriedly receding from view—the notion of devoting any public space to the music of a pop star (I said “music,” not sociological impact, which probably qualifies as news fit to print), would have been considered ludicrous. Until Tom Wolfe ID’ed Phil Spector to the masses (1965), the larger world barely knew or cared about pop’s machinations. Sure, alerts like “Jack Nitzsche Will Helm Sonny & Cher LP” or “Mickey Most’s Playboys to Open for Gene Vincent in So. Africa” would have appeared in Billboard or NME. As for Sontag-ian exegeses on the texts of the Turtles or Showaddywaddy, forget it.
The advent of rock journalism was the first tub-thump on the tribal drum, relaying to ‘our’ community of interest news and information that barely rated a blip on mainstream radar. It necessarily legitimized music that had taken its knocks as unserious and insubstantial. But it’s fair to ask, I think: Has something gone astray in the four decades since everyone (rightly) acknowledged Dylan and (insert your own pop worthy here)? Now, precious print and virtual real estate is routinely given up not just to recounting the naughty exploits of stars (that’s been grandfathered into celebrity coverage since the Twenties) but to performing deep-tissue analysis on the music of every last act who charts.
My hunch is that it went wrong in the Sixties, around the time the first high-school teacher decided he had to hip up and, you know, “reach the kids.” So he brought in Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme for a little parsing and round-the-horn debate (“Diane, what is it you think they’re trying to convey in ‘The Dangling Conversation’?”). So now we have history-of-rock classes in high schools (not a bad thing, I guess), interdisciplinary majors in the study of pop-culture in college (well, OK) and prolonged chin-stroking and public cogitation on Justin Bieber’s artistic dilemma.
I’ll bet it won’t surprise you to learn, as the Times has, that his new track “Boyfriend” is “spooky and minimal” and fittingly serves as “Mr. Bieber’s formal coming-out party as an adult.” Can a co-production with the top dozen rap stars and remixers, not to mention an epithet-strewn, video-captured set-to outside a trendy boite, be far behind? Next: an album of brutally frank, borderline-explicit songs addressing the set-to and excoriating those who hate on him for telling all, and Mr. Bieber’s music will have fully matured.
Not to diss Bieber, but, beyond his many fans, who really cares if he “grows up” in his music? It may well matter mightily to them, but does such a concern fall under the need-to know interests of the general newspaper readership?
It’s a problem Fabian never faced. No wonder he was so grateful.