Monday, March 9, 2009

Those Who Can't Do, Critique...



"He flunked junior high band he couldn't march in time.
He tried to write a song once, he couldn't make it rhyme.
He went two or three chords on a pawn shop guitar,
He just never quite had what it took to be a star, so he's a critic."
- The Critic, Toby Keith

I was in the doctor's office the other day, getting new glasses, and picked up the latest edition of Time. Then I knew I needed to get my eyes checked again, because the music critic for the magazine had penned a devastating review of the new U2 CD - a CD that I had already managed to fall in love with.

The band was confused and lost, he said, "Stuck in a moment they couldn't get out of" to borrow a phrase from one of their recent hits. And, most melodramatically, he declared that their new CD (titled "No Line on the Horizon") might mark the moment where U2 sees the sun setting on their own horizon, their inevitable descent after a decade long zenith, and an almost 30 year history of majestic music.

As I read on, I found much to ponder in this critic's writing. Some of his points were so obtuse, I wondered if we were listening to the same CD; and while Rolling Stone gave the CD five stars, and Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-, I still felt a slight sting when I finished reading this two page bitch-slap from Time.

I doubt Bono's losing sleep, so why should I? I saw the same thing a few weeks before with my other larger-than-life musical hero. Bruce Springsteen's new CD, a pop opus that embraces the joy of lofty melodies and soaring arrangements over his recent spate of political and spiritual musings, was criticized by some for not being a retread of "Born to Run", as if a 59 year old artist has the same concerns as the 25 year old who wrote "Thunder Road".

I've always thought that artists that aren't moving forward with their work, who aren't restlessly experimenting with their palette, music, camera, or pen were playing it safe. It's why I haven't bought a new Elton John CD in 15 years. It's why, if you have one Norman Rockwell reprint, you're pretty much covered his oeuvre. There's nothing wrong with predictability, if that gives you comfort. But, if your spirit is restless, you likely want your favorite artists to be on a similar quest.

Some people want art to fit in a portable box, others want it to be as elusive as a shooting star. I guess I fall into the latter category, and that comes with some risks. It means believing Robert Plant and Allison Krauss when they say they were meant to sing together, or Johnny Cash when he covers a Nine Inch Nails song; it means trusting the Coen Brothers when they take a pendulum swing from a broad comedy to a bleak Cormac McCarthy masterpiece. It means going along for the ride when Sonny Rollins says he can perform an entire jazz concert alone: just himself and his saxophone.

The risk is high, and when it is, the rewards can be glorious. The fall, also, can be brutal. Think of the worst 'concept' album you ever listened to. Remember that three-hour indulgent experimental play you sat through with the acting troupe in black spandex and bare feet. Consider that Styx thought "Mr. Roboto" was an important piece of musical theater.

Heck, what do you make of this factoid: There is a huge audience out there who just howls at the sight of Tyler Perry in a dress. I don't get it. But someone does. And good for them. There's room on the planet for the Three Stooges and the Three Tenors, for Lewis Grizzard and Lewis Carroll. For you...and U2.

But, for the critic, there's only room on the sidelines.

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