Music: The Critical Condition - Awop bop aloo bop and so on

The thing about pop music is it's everywhere. It's part of the day to day fabric of the world we live in, whether we like it or not. Which spells trouble for the high-minded. In the penultimate piece in our series, Andy Gill considers what it means to be a rock critic
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The Independent Culture
Pop is the most immediate of media. Not in the sense of immediate gratification offered by television, but in the immediacy of its response to change. Compared to the years of production meetings, market research and logistical analysis that go into the average TV programme before the first lens-cap gets removed, pop's reaction-time is virtually instant, a tireless cultural barometer shifting to the subtlest of currents.

Yet behind pop's malleable, accommodating surface lurks that mesmerising, obsessional quality Noel Coward recognised in his observation about the potency of cheap music. A beloved tune may become patinated with a lifetime of memories and associations, but in your imagination it never ages, never sounds less than Cellophane-fresh. It's the opposite of what happens in most other media, where the initial attraction is impossible to relive. And though television deals in much the same kind of instant fix as pop, being a visual medium it recedes more swiftly into the past: a documentary about punk invariably looks more dated than punk music sounds.

It'll sound that way for ever, too; no other art form is as skilfully designed for repetition as pop, with the possible exception of computer games. And even the allure of Lara Croft's pounding thighs diminishes with time, while "God Only Knows" goes on for ever. So: immediate response, instant appeal, unlimited repetition, deepening attachment - such are the considerations rock critics have to grapple with when stalking the many-headed beast of pop. Not that you need to hunt far to find it: no other art form is quite as democratically available, or as omnipresent.

Pop was the medium the baby-boom generation chose to carry it into adulthood. For millions of people, it's simply second nature, the language in which their lives have been defined. Accordingly, rock critics work with the knowledge that they will be read and understood by a broad swath of casual readers, as well as the charmed circle of professional insiders. Read, understood, and judged, too: a provincial reader may only be able to fantasise about seeing that new ENO presentation, and will probably have forgotten the review by the time s/he eventually gets to attend the opera; but that same reader could, within the hour, be grumbling about how a reviewer has misled them into dashing out and buying that Manic Street Preachers album from the petrol station on the corner.

Rock criticism as we know it began in the mid-Sixties with the rise of Bob Dylan, when the tools of explication first became necessary. Before that, most pop was a matter of mooning and juning, with songs knocked together from a small portfolio of romantic cliches; but when Dylan ported the baggage of poetry and protest into pop, there was a need for commentary to reflect the puzzling new depth the form had taken on. The underground press rushed in to fill the vacuum, particularly in America, where magazines like Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone gave writers such as Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs the room to investigate their subject more deeply and, in Bangs's case, more bizarrely. Marcus's ground-breaking Seventies collection of essays, Mystery Train, remains a high-water mark of pop criticism, notable for the way its essays on The Band, Sly Stone and Elvis Presley revealed the form's allegorical lucidity.

The entire field of rock criticism, though, has since been choked by the inordinate influence of Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe - both good writers, but both more journalist than critic (the reader who let Thompson influence his choice of music would find himself listening to the cocktail cowboy Jimmy Buffet; heaven alone knows what horrors comprise Wolfe's record collection). Thompson's "gonzo" style has been responsible for countless egotistical incursions into their own features by rock journalists desperate to present themselves as at the very centre of whatever scene is happening. Wolfe's New Journalism approach, meanwhile, remains a useful option for writers who need to make dull musicians - and yes, they are mostly dull - "sound" better in print through lurid, onomatopoeic descriptions of rock-star lifestyles. But however lurid the lifestyle, no amount of New Journalism can take a bad song and make it better. And there are so many bad songs - and, worse, songs that are neither amazingly good nor amusingly bad, but simply indifferent. Mediocrity is, in a sense, the condition to which all pop aspires; this commercial art form tries to insinuate its way into the affections of as many punters as possible. After all, the average is always more assured of widespread popularity than the exceptional, which can fail just as exceptionally as it succeeds.

So, while in other media the avant garde is supported and encouraged through the luxury of patronage and subsidy, in pop it's left to fend for itself alongside Robbie Williams and The Spice Girls, a sort of self- generating, self-funding R&D department. That it thrives quite as much as it does is almost entirely due to the efforts of rock critics who lavish love and attention on neglected musical species until, like those strange desert plants that bloom only once every quarter-century, they eventually burst into wider recognition.

Yet those same rock journalists find themselves, almost as a matter of course, loathed by the music industry, and particularly its pampered stars, for occasionally daring to voice an opinion at odds with the company line. It's indicative of the selfish, ungrateful side of the business that a critic's poorly remunerated devotion to others' work should be repaid with such contempt by those who are made rich and famous through that devotion. How many times have you heard a pop star whine about the media, in all available media?

Over the last couple of decades, as its techniques of persuasion - copy approval, access to stars, etc - have grown more powerful, the industry has come to view the rock critic as little more than a glorified cheerleader. Sadly, many critics seem to acquiesce in this assessment, which has led to the creeping debasement of rock journalism as a critical mode. Stunted by an infantile preoccupation with sexual matters, showbiz discourse is routinely conducted in a lather of hyperbole - with everything being the best ever, the greatest, the sexiest, the most this or that - yet with a blithe disregard of the basic background knowledge which other critical disciplines assume as a prerequisite.

By its very nature, the weekly pop press is heavily dependent on the rapid turnover of stars and scenes. One of the basic truths of music-paper publishing is that sales soar when there is a definable "scene" - punk, new romantics, baggy, Britpop, whatever - for readers to latch on to. Accordingly, much of the effort of writers on the weeklies is expended in trying to develop such a scene. Unfortunately, less and less time is spent on the basic matter of facts: only the other week, the once- authoritative NME carried a reference to "The Moody Blues' vestal virgin turning cartwheels across the floor", presumably written by someone whose music history handbook didn't stretch as far as Procol Harum.

The alternative to the weeklies is the monthly music press that developed as the original baby-boomer wave rolled its relentless way through the Eighties and Nineties. Critics writing for magazines such as Mojo and Uncut pride themselves on their attention to historical detail - they wouldn't just know about Procol Harum's big hit, they'd give you the running-order of every album and the set-list from their last gig, too. Whether you wanted it or not. Derided as "dad's mags" by the weeklies, they're sometimes slow to manoeuvre, but still provide a more reliable account than most.

Their archival, fact-based approach is certainly preferable to academic pop criticism, a vapid form involving either long, sterile essays on such riveting subjects as pop and politics, women "in" pop and rock against racism, or the drab enumeration of strands of subcultural phenomena in which the poor beast pop (or its poor offspring, youth culture) is strapped to the dissection table and agonisingly deprived of any life it may once have embodied. For such critics, pop is just another subject, albeit more phenomenal than most. Ask them what they feel about the music, whether they love it madly, and they wouldn't know what you're talking about.

This is, perhaps, the crux of the matter. People become rock critics for all manner of reasons - as a stepping-stone to other forms of journalism or media work; because they wanted to meet pop stars; because they couldn't make it as a pop star themselves - but the best are those for whom the interest goes beyond dedication, into the realm of deep emotional attachment. Because ultimately, the worth of any rock criticism is always in proportion to the critic's love of music. Any music. All music. Except Phil Collins, of course.

Edward Seckerson on classical music criticism, page 14