Oct 30, 2004

Hilburn Follies

OK, OK, I know—this is ostensibly a theatre-related blog. But anyone who knows me slightly knows that I’m a musician of sorts. Those who know me very well know that among my idiosyncrasies is my regular ranting about Robert Hilburn, the LA Times pop music “critic.”

Ever since I’ve been reading his prose—starting nearly 20 years ago, I hate to admit—I have heard from those who’ve met him that he’s an extremely nice man; just last week, a Times acquaintance of mine confirmed that he’s probably “the nicest person” she knows in the whole company.

So I hate piling on, but this weekend’s Calendar has him weighing in—for the umpteenth time—on the prospects of this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees. Does anyone on this green earth care as much as Hilburn about who gets into and who’s excluded from this bogus organization? Do sports writers even care this much about the Baseball Hall of Fame?

My quarrels with Hilburn’s writing are many—my biggest being that he doesn’t write about music but about significance, heart, commitment, passion, anything but what the music is like as music. But nowhere does he reveal his irrelevance to the actual practice of music-making, and music-enjoying, more than in his making of lists, pantheons, percentages (he used to actually calculate the odds of various bands making it into the Hall of Fame), and other maddeningly tidy classification systems. I don’t often quarrel with his taste—I, too, have appropriate reverence and occasionallly even passion for Presley, Dylan, the Beatles, U2, Springsteen, Hendrix, and so on—but I do deplore the obtuse way he writes and thinks about the medium he’s covered since its heyday.

For example, in this weekend’s comically earnest article about ’80s acts who are now at last eligible (oh joy!) for Hall of Fame consideration, Hilburn adds another droplet to his deluge of meaningless praise for U2:

“With its distinctive guitar sound and inspirational themes, the Irish quartet is filled with such ability, ambition and competitive spirit that my belief is it would have battled the Beatles and the Stones on both the sales chart and the year-end critics' lists if it had gone head to head in the '60s. John Lennon and Bono would have adored each other. They might not have just written songs together but also teamed for social causes.”

Wow, a rock band “filled with ability”! That would have just torn up the charts in the ‘60s. And sure, John Lennon simply adored bands “with ability” and a social conscience; he was a veritable font of generosity to his peers throughout his public life. And I’m glad to know at last what the Beatles were all about: ability, ambition, and social causes.

Or how about this jaw-droppingly sexist double grouping, to cover the all-important female demo:

The Pretenders and Patti Smith — It's hard to separate these entries because the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, through her charisma and seductive voice, and Smith, with her poetic vision and strong will, both helped convince rock 'n' roll that it wasn't just a man's world.”

Chicks can rock, too! Forget for now that apart from their gender and their hair color, Smith and Hynde are about as similar musically as Lou Reed and Paul Weller. What’s important, in Hilburn’s checklist-driven critical thinking, is that both challenged the prevailing paradigm (still implicitly honored by Hilburn, who once reviewed a Liz Phair show in terms of how her pregnancy affected her indie cred) of rock ‘n’ roll as an endless male adolescent rebellion against authority and commercialism. No wonder Hilburn has never really given Prince, Bjork, Bowie, Sonic Youth, the Pixies, or Outkast—just off the top of my head—their full due. They just don’t register on his significance-meter.

For all their blind spots, writers lke the NY Times’ Jon Pareles and Kelefa Sennah kick Hilburn up and down the street, while my favorite writer on all kinds of music remains not only eminently readable but easily available. Indeed, in a piece last summer, the New Yorker's Alex Ross put into words better than I can what’s wrong with Hilburn’s approach:

“Pop-music scholars spend a lot of time describing the messages that become attached to songs, and this is a necessary part of the history of listening. Yet, when music passes from one generation to another, it leaves most of its social significance peeling off dorm-room walls, and its persistence is best explained with reference to beats, chords, and raw emotion. Which is why pop writers have to find a new way to describe musical events, and not just by offering dopey imitations of classical musicology. No one would give much credence to a style of art criticism that alluded to paintings without mentioning their shapes and colors, or an architecture criticism that refused to say whether buildings were made of stone or metal.”

And don’t even get me started on the critical void at the helm of another LA Times department.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good rant. I don't exactly disagree with anything you said, and it's true that nobody cares about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame like Hilburn (or maybe he's the only one) but I have to say that his obsessive focus on paradigm-challenging music (or what I would call authenticity) actually proved to be a pretty decent guide through the wilderness of bogusness that was much of the 80's and 90's in rock. Yes, he may have missed out on Prince; on the other hand, he certainly "got" Nirvana. Could have been a lot worse.