Variety and Vitality in Pop Criticism

In a review of Ian Penman’s excellent essay collection It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, I talk about the chaotic, bossless froth of pop-music criticism. I conclude that the practice is healthy. In support, I offer this bowl of noodles, an undisciplined syllabus designed to index the variety and vitality of critical writing tethered to pop. I didn’t look for anything—they came to mind, unbidden. First, some pieces that have been on my counter for a year or so, and, after that, older essays that still guide me.

November 9, 2018: Jaime Altozano’s video review of Rosalía’s El Mal Querer

Critics are, almost to a person, averse to discussing the music in music. Jaime Altozano is one of the exceptions. Just check out his long and deeply musical analysis of El Mal Querer on YouTube, which is as much pop criticism as anything. Typing words is not the only way forward. All forty minutes of it are worth your time.

Soon after, Rosalía responded to Altozano with thirty minutes of her own video, posted to Instagram stories and preserved here on YouTube (where you can select English captions). Imagine that—instead of hopping onto the shitslide with your fans and ramming into a critic’s back, you take a close reading of your music seriously. It’s almost as if the difference between Lana Del Rey’s dusty vacation slides and Rosalía’s reflective black-ink portraiture is indicative of larger attitudes towards life and work. Maybe!

October 23, 2019: Ashon Crawley’s “Forgotten: The Things We Lost In Kanye’s Gospel Year,” for NPR Music

Here, Crawley examines “the practice of dissidence found in black religiosity,” using Kanye’s gospel-flavored merch as the antipode. He starts with a Zora Neale Hurston essay, “The Sanctified Church,” and writes that “we can understand that the black church has always been a place of class antagonism.” Looking at West’s denatured gospel, Crawley teases out “how political and economic critique have been separated out from performance, leaving the mere style, the mere method.” Crawley discusses how performance in the black church functions as “a disruption to practices of harm and exploitation and violence.” Crawley knows how music works, why it comes to be made, and what it can signify beyond music. His take on the discipline of improvising music is one of the best working definitions I’ve heard: “Improvisation is a practice based in deep study, not a forgetting but a dense form and mode and enunciation of remembering.”

October 8, 2019: Doreen St. Félix on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, for Pitchfork (Scroll down: It’s all the way at the bottom)

Pitchfork was right to pick Blonde as the top album of the decade, if such a thing can be done at all, and they were right to ask Doreen St. Félix to write about it. She senses the spiritual and psychological elasticity at the heart of an album that blossoms anew with each play, a species-slipping bioform. “The slight touches of distortion on Blonde call attention to impermanence, the trap of artifice, and, distantly, death. But Ocean is never sanctimonious; the whole point of existence is that a dark musing on morality can—and should—be interrupted by soft flesh, a sticky plant, a designer shirt. Live a little. Live too much.” We need Frank because Frank is nowhere near finished, and we hope the same for ourselves. “Frank Ocean is the hinge artist of our time, the true voice of a generation because he takes long silences.” When I say that the next Ian Penman will not be named Ian Penman, I am thinking of a writer like St. Félix, who is nothing like Penman. But I look forward to their pieces with the same kind of goofy anticipation, and hop up a little when their byline hoves into view.

December 7, 2018: Vinson Cunningham’s “‘Amazing Grace’ Gives Us Aretha Franklin at the Spellbinding Height of Her Powers,” for the New Yorker

Amazing Grace is a weird story—the album made from the performances, recorded and released in 1972, is still the biggest-selling gospel album of all time. The film, originally directed by Sydney Pollack, wasn’t commercially released until 2018, for reasons to do with sound sync and Franklin repeatedly suing people. Cunningham’s analysis of the film is close and swift, as is his perception of Franklin’s comically unlimited vocal power. “At one point, near the end, she drops into a melisma so dense it’s impossible to describe. The run is like a syllabus of black scalar material: a pentatonic plunge here, a gospel tremble there, some sweet soul swoops holding the whole thing together.” Cunningham sees the movie as Franklin, the “monastically disinterested professional,” saw it. “I can’t recall ever seeing an equally undistracted artist on film.”

April 5, 2019: Emily Lordi on the same film, also for the New Yorker

Lordi contextualizes Franklin’s work as part of the gospel continuum and sees the film through the interaction of people who were familiar, loving, and hard-working. “It is less about coming home than about making a home—not a physical place or a heavenly afterlife but a feeling of easeful power born of belonging to and with other people.”

April 24, 2019: Joshua Clover’s “The High Rise and the Hollow,” for Commune

A piece on country and hip-hop and Lil Nas X and recent black cinema and the “regular treatment of ‘pop’ as genre rather than marker of popularity.” I don’t want to spoil the accretion of Clover’s argument, which is as much about class as it is about race. “We have now more or less arrived at the fantasy life of American genre, wherein the two great indigenous forms signify an entire arrangement of the nation in which black urban and white rural life are set against each other.” Clover calls the song “witty and catchy and remarkably slight,” but I think it’s more than that; the sense of loss bridging Trent Reznor’s chords and Lil Nas X’s voice it feel like this all comes to us from long before 2019. I’ve heard people in need and people who need a nap singing the chorus. “I’m gonna take my horse to Old Town Road, I’m gonna ride till I can’t no more” is as American as it gets. The words are hopeful, selfish, deranged, dumb, and perfect. Whether the road is sex or suicide, it makes sense that Trent and Montero did this together. The magnets beneath the skin of the song are just as Clover describes them. In this essay, he touches on a good chunk of the last thirty years and how pop has spiralled away from itself, because it can never fully be itself any more than America can. It is probably very right and very American that “Old Town Road” holds the record for longest-running Number One song. Maybe it’s gospel!

October 21, 2019: Jeff Weiss’s “Why Young Thug is the 21st Century’s most influential rapper,” for BBC Music

Much like Clover’s piece, this summation allows Weiss to unpack a long and important segement of work. In this case, it’s twenty-first-century rap, much of which descends from Lil Wayne through Thug down to a decision tree of descendants. If you want to understand why today’s MCs are so fond of being fluid and pixellated, read this.

1967: Ellen Willis on Bob Dylan, for Cheetah

Here’s what I had to say about Willis and this essay in 2011 for the New Yorker.

Loving someone’s work and paying close, unforgiving attention to it are not mutually exclusive impulses—they are parts of one act. There are few paragraphs as turbocharged and merciless as this one: “Dylan is no apostle of the electronic age. Rather, he is a fifth-columnist from the past, shaped by personal and political nonconformity, by blues and modern poetry. He has imposed his commitment to individual freedom (and its obverse, isolation) on the hip passivity of pop culture, his literacy on an illiterate music. He has used the publicity machine to demonstrate his belief in privacy. His songs and public role are guides to survival in the world of the image, the cool, and the high. And in coming to terms with that world, he has forced it to come to terms with him.”

March 1, 1977: Roy Blount on Tammy, Loretta and Dolly, for Esquire

Among other things, Blount pits Loretta Lynn against Dylan and Loretta wins. This is a remarkable combination of profile writing and criticism. Blount displays some of the sexist bravado typical of much music writing by men at the time—there’s an extended discussion of Parton’s breasts—but he also takes these three artists completely seriously, long before most pop critics did. His affection and respect are still palpable.

April 15, 1971: Nick Tosches’s review of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, for Rolling Stone

Flops can be as helpful as hits. This review is curious trash that fails in two instructive ways. First, there is Tosches’s magickal wank fantasy, which you can find your own reason to hate. Then, Tosches hits an idea—“bubble-gum Satanism,” which is not a bad way to look at Sabbath’s lyrics. But then he chokes and decides not to consider Sabbath’s music—a second, bigger mistake. Only a couple of critics in the ’70s could hear Sabbath’s formal advances: the width of each note, the use of low end, and the truly expansive sense of swing. One guesses that Tosches looked at the cover of Paranoid, got lit, and riffed for a few minutes. Don’t try this at work, kids!

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in New York.