Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Sept. 19 — beautiful (dark twisted) criticism

Girl with "Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson)" / Institute of Contemporary Art

Gently onward, talking once more about great criticism and its role as a valid form of journalism. When it works, it’s a piece of art in and of itself — useful to the reader, filled with context and beautifully written. But try telling to that all those editors and publishers who, when faced with the first hint of the media upending that came rolling in, immediately cut jobs for critics. In the news business, we talk a whole lot about the damages done to investigative, fourth-estate journalism. I firmly believe the loss of critics has been just as devastating, but with so much newsroom suffering, who wants to hear it?

Our previous class on criticism (on Sept. 12) focused on film alone, mostly because the movies are still the broadest medium through which our culture tells its stories.

Actually, it’s television that’s the most vital, don’t you think? But God help me if I have to come up with one more thing to say about reviewing television. And movies still have all the cultural cachet, even after all those stories in Entertainment Weekly an elsewhere about how television trumped the movies in terms of social comment, quality and engagement. Put that in your Emmy night and smoke it.

This week, I wanted us to look at the other disciplines and see how a handful of working critics approach their beats and make other art forms accessible through sharp observations and good ideas. I also wanted us to calm down and pay attention to great sentences — so I decided we’d read these in class.

For inspiration, I started off reading aloud from a 2010 review of Kanye West’s album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” by Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards:

“For a man who demands every nanosecond of our collective attention, Kanye West probably had a pretty crummy day last Tuesday.

That’s when Apple announced that the Beatles catalogue was finally coming to iTunes, sending musty echoes of Beatlemania rippling across the planet.

West’s noisy Twitter feed fell silent. The most anticipated album of his career was due out in seven days, and the only pop deities – dead and/or alive – capable of changing the discussion had changed the discussion.

West’s music is strong enough to resuscitate a 40-year-old riddle: Will anyone ever eclipse the Beatles? It’s also brave enough to suggest a new one: Why compete with the past when you can own the future?

Fittingly, his new album comes pre-loaded with an answer to both: ‘I don’t believe in yesterday/What’s a black Beatle anyway?/A [expletive] roach?/I guess that’s why they got me sitting here in [expletive] coach.'”

After I’d read the whole piece (or most of it), we broke it down into component parts: The intro, the thesis, the review (is the album good?), choice excerpts or characteristics of the work. This review also brought readers up to speed — those who haven’t followed Kanye’s career as well as those who have. It’s a full report, but you don’t feel like you’re drudging through hip-hop homework because the writing also has a real energy throughout. Here’s the kicker:

And he doesn’t want our forgiveness, anyway. He wants us to get lost with him – lost in every dizzying drum pattern, every delirious disclosure that defines this world he’s so painstakingly created.

All you need is love?

According to West, all you need is him.

Keep that in mind whenever you write a review: It’s the job of the critic to be entertain-ING about entertain-MENT. Your review may well be the reader’s only experience of this work. As the surrogate and narrator, it’s up to you to put on a good show, as well as pass judgment.

Chris selected this review for us, because I’d emailed him and asked him for a “real rave.” When we did film last week, one of the students noticed that every review we read was a slam. (Which raises a whole other question: Are the only reviews that are fun to read — and write — the hatchet jobs?) I asked Chris, who has been a successful punk rocker and journalist, because he is always exuberant about his work and the music out there. In my mind, he is good at championing music he finds worthy. He sent the Kanye review and some further thoughts (edited by me):

“[This] is probably my most ravey. It’s not a happy-happy-joy-joy gusher, though. It’s more of a Let Us All Immediately Bow Before The Sheer Unfuckwithability Of This Album. And with more background and context than the usual review. … [Y]our question made me realize that despite being so crazy in love with my beat, I rarely write giddy, slobbery, ohmygodohmygod raves. Why? (Camera zooms out, reverb turns up: WHYYYYY????) …

[P]art of my value system about what makes new music The Best Music is its ability to confront you with something new, something foreign, something that challenges your ideas about what’s possible and what feels good. But new, unfamiliar music almost never sparks the same delirious pleasure that you get from the most-played songs in your iTunes. To make a crude analogy, it’s like sex. Someday you’re gonna love it, but the first time you encounter it, you’re not totally clear on what the hell is happening. That might explain why some critics (or maybe just this one) file more pans than raves. Regardless, for me, that’s the real joy of music and this gig: learning to feel pleasure in new ways and trying to explain it so other people can try to feel it, too.”

So that other people can try to feel it, too. Let’s write that in Sharpie real big and hang it in every arts & culture dept. cubicle in the land.

* * *

We then read to ourselves and discussed four other reviews. I picked an art review by the Boston Globe’s Sebastian Smee (part of his 2011 Pulitzer-winning entry for criticism), a mere 362-word assessment of “Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson)” by Cornelia West (see picture, top), an installation piece in Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, about which Smee wrote:

“Beauty from ugliness. Hope from defeat. Order from chaos: These are the things, when all is said and done, we yearn for, we’re on our knees for. And yet, stubbornly, they elude us.

If religions are good at promising us what we’ll never get, art performs the more modest task of reminding us what we don’t have. …”

I really admire that sentence, how it’s precise and yet completely open to interpretation. You could think about what he’s saying there — and talk about it — all day long.

* * *

Next, we looked at an unexpected sort of dance review by my friend Sarah Kaufman at The Washington Post, who won the criticism Pulitzer in 2010. She wrote about that couple who had their entire wedding party dance down the aisle to Chris Brown’s “Forever,” which gazillions of people then watched on YouTube. What a smart move by Sarah and her editors — to not just see this video as that week’s Internet sensation, but to intuit a meaning there, about the way dance affects us:

“They did with that performance what great dancers do. They pulled us into their story.”

And Sarah did what great fine-arts critics do. She saw something deeper in popular culture and fad, making arts criticism that much more accessible.

* * *

We then looked at a now-classic piece of fashion criticism by the one and only Robin Givhan, who won the Pulitzer for criticism in 2006 with a collection of fashion columns (some of which, I am not too humble to hush up about, I got to edit — but not this particular piece). We read her takedown of Dick Cheney’s unfortunate and frankly inexplicable decision in January 2005 to attend a high-profile Holocaust memorial event at Auschwitz while

“[D]ressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower.

… Some might argue that Cheney was the only attendee with the smarts to dress for the cold and snowy weather. But sometimes, out of respect for occasion, one must endure a little discomfort.”

No Cheney defenders piped up in this class (even after all these years) but this sort of criticism is journalistically thought-provoking. When is someone’s attire fair game? Do clothes really make the man (or the woman)? I wish there were more Robin Givhans out there, deriving meaning from fashion, whether it’s the latest runway designs or a bunch of people dressed for a “Star Wars” convention.

* * *

Cheney’s parka disaster (and its implied arrogance) seemed a nice segue to this concert review from the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff. I cut this out of the Times in January 1999 and saved it forever in my “keep” file. It’s a review of what sounds like a terrible Cat Power show at the Bowery Ballroom. Why did I save it? Probably because “Moon Pix” was one of my favorite albums from that era. But also because there are so, so many smart moves and sharp observations in a short amount of space here, written on deadline. Ratliff essentially nails the emerging, morose “wool-gathering” style of a branch of indie rock:

“It is Spartan folk-rock for downcast college students: mulish, painfully drawn-out, occasionally pretty stuff, dealing obliquely with anxieties and dreams, and it can swing slowly between two chords for many minutes with no embroidery. Its practitioners … are young, but they sound as if they’ve lived long, tortured lives.”

Ratliff’s descriptions of the show are worth studying. And what a tragic end:

“Ms. Marshall gave almost every song at least one false start, visibly exasperating her musicians, which she seemed both afraid of doing and consciously trying to do. At one point she asked the crowd, enigmatically, if anyone in the audience had ever felt as if he were walking through a door knowing that a machete was going to fall upon him on the other side. After a silence, she motioned to her band and added, in a trembling voice, ‘These guys hate me.’

She forgot lyrics, let the simplest strumming patterns crumble and fall apart, and by the end of her endless set arrived at abject contrition. ‘It’s not cool,’ she said, berating herself. ‘It’s not funny. I’m sorry.’ And then she walked off, leaving the crowd in disbelief. Her guitar player strolled to center stage. ‘Turn the lights on,’ he instructed. ‘Its over.'”

One takeaway from this piece should be obvious, but just in case you missed it: Don’t be afraid to write about a total letdown. Sometimes I notice writers coming back to the newsroom and announcing that something went so badly (poor attendance, cross-purposes, bad planning) that “there’s no story there.” Oh, often there is, but it’s not a pretty picture. Readers want that, too, even if they feel bad about the Schadenfreude of reading it.

Phew. That’s pretty much where we left it, although I felled just one more tree and sent the class off with but a few photocopied pages of The New York Times Arts & Culture Reader — an intro chapter written by none other than Don McLeese, a friend of mine who teaches journalism at the University of Iowa. Like I said, I could do an entire semester on criticism (though I’m not qualified to do that), and if I were to take on that task, this book would be a required text. If you’re reading this, you should get yourself a copy. Chapter 1 is an eloquent and concise breakdown of the purposes and characteristics of criticism — description, context, interpretation, evaluation. After that is a helpful line-by-line look at a Michiko Kakutani review of Lorrie Moore’s 2009 novel, A Gate at the Stairs.

Any more than that and I’d be violating Fair Use — so buy the book!

* * *

There’s a method to my madness here. (Oh yes there is so.) By working first on essays and reviews, I’m hoping to sharpen the skills necessary to write this semester’s two bigger assignments: a scene story and a longform narrative. To do those kinds of stories right, you need to be able to see like critics and think like essayists.

For class on Monday, Sept. 24, we’ll be looking at these three stories to begin talking about how to report and write good (and quick) on-the-scene feature stories about the way people’s lives intersect with popular culture. Please read:

• “From big mudding trucks to pole dancing, Redneck Yacht Club is down and dirty” by Michael Kruse of the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times. (June 12, 2009)

• “For one station in Iraq, all quiet on the Mideast front,” by Dan Zak of The Washington Post. (Sept. 24, 2011)

and also …

• “Harry’s here — and man, is this prince charming,” by Monica Hesse of The Washington Post. (May 8, 2012)

And don’t forget your George Trow! Our discussion of that book is coming up pretty quick — Monday, Oct. 1. I’m not trying to get myself into hot water or anything, but when it comes to reading Within the Context of No Context, you might want to smoke ’em if you got ’em. (Or at least have a nice glass of wine while reading it. Or get real weirded-out on caffeine before you start.) Just sayin’.


  1. Derba on September 27, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    I’m going to try to use the word “unfuckablilty” in a sentence today. And I hope those young whippersnappers know what a great reading list this is! Now I’m off to go feed my birds.

    • Hank Stuever on September 27, 2012 at 5:11 pm

      That’s UNFUCKWITHABILITY, Derba.

  2. Derba on September 27, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    For fucks sake. I’d screw up a one-car funeral.

Leave a Comment