Partly it’s because pop-music journalism arose out of the intersection of early rock-and-roll magazines like , when they still had an alternative-press aura, and the New Journalism, with its promiscuous use of the first person, and that gave it a confessional tone and a voice that suggested that we’re all on the same side in the struggle, whatever struggle it is.
But rock criticism does appear to be fixated on what has been lost. It seems that in the pop-music business the shelf life of authenticity is tragically short.
He has a couple of ideas about how this might work. His other idea is that the key to the real-world effectiveness of poems and songs is “form.” The invocation of form is awkward, for the same reason that advanced-pop criticism itself is inherently awkward, which is that most popular music, and especially popular music categorized as rock, is magnificently and unambiguously hostile to everything associated with the word “school.” And form is a very academic concept.
One is that the very excess of the aesthetic experience, the fact that it evaporates so fast upon contact with daily life, is a reminder of how impoverished daily life is. When capitalism is dead, Robbins suggests, we might not need poetry anymore. It’s the shell in the game teachers play to hide content.
If you’re going to write about Skip James, it doesn’t make sense to strive for a judicious appraisal. By now, a lot of writers have done this sort of thing with Skip James and other old bluesmen, a sacred category for serious pop critics ever since those musicians were “discovered” by rock-and-roll (that is, white) audiences, in the nineteen-sixties, but Robbins can do it with seventeenth-century lyrics as well.
You also need to concede that the experience cools fairly quickly, and Robbins is alert to that, too. Robbins is more interested in the inarticulable or barely articulable sting than he is in reconstructing social relations in the Mediterranean gift economy.“ has ever changed his life because of a poem or song,” he says in a chapter on metal, with reference to Blake, Milton, Rilke, William Empson, Peter Sloterdijk, Ozzy Osbourne, and Kant. (I think you can do both, in fact, and that putting the “then” together with the “now” is the point of doing criticism.)A writer with a playlist of culture heroes must also have a list of the undeserving, the fake, and the fallen, and Robbins does not disappoint us.“Changing your life is for Simone Weil or the Buddha. He writes of the poet James Wright, “It is easy to feel that, if fetal alcohol syndrome could write poetry, it would write this poetry.” He suggests that Robert Hass “has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery.” Of Charles Simic: “If the worst are full of passionate intensity, Simic would seem to be in the clear.”He calls Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” “wimpy crap.” He says that Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” is “highly acclaimed despite her apparent belief that serious writing is principally a matter of avoiding contractions.” His reaction to Neil Young’s memoir is “It’s depressing to learn that one of your heroes writes like a composition student aiming for the earnest tone of a public service announcement.”The Jedi master of this mode of criticism—its presiding spirit, really—is Pauline Kael, the subject of an admiring chapter in “Equipment for Living.” Robbins calls her “the first tastemaker I trusted implicitly.” A lot of Kael’s criticism, like Robbins’s, is buildups and takedowns, but that kind of criticism can get interesting when the writer has to figure out why something that should be good is not, or why something that has no right to be good actually might be.Springsteen and Dylan speak to our current condition, and so do Boethius and Sappho. The responsible scholarly impulse is to historicize: those words were never intended for you, they signified something completely different in 600 B. “Every song you loved when you were young turns into ‘Tintern Abbey,’ ” as he puts it.“I cannot paint / What then I was,” Wordsworth wrote in that poem, about revisiting the banks of the Wye as a grownup (only five years later, actually, but it’s a poem).Robbins expresses the sentiment this way: “As I listen to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ ’ today, once again, in the arena of my soul, how high the highest Bic lights the dark.” You can’t go back to being fifteen, but you can remember with respect and longing that time of life, a time when, as Georg Lukács once put it, “the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars.” Oh, no! “Listening to most rock and roll now involves remembering what it used to do for me that it can’t anymore,” Robbins says.And, in fact, a surprising amount of pop-music criticism is bottled nostalgia, owls that fly at dusk.In preparation for writing about “Equipment for Living,” I got a copy of “Shake It Up” (Library of America), an anthology of fifty years of pop-music criticism, “from Elvis to Jay Z,” edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar.I figured I would dip into its pages and refresh my recollection of the field of play.Many hours later, I had to force myself to put the thing down.The book is a collection of mostly previously published pieces, some on poetry, some on pop music, some on both, written, as the names suggest, in a critical style that could be called advanced pop.Advanced-pop criticism would be criticism premised on the belief that you can talk about cultural goods loved uncritically by millions in terms originally developed to talk about cultural goods known mainly to an overeducated few.