In 1967, a news and sports reporter emceed a local talent showcase in Chicago that quickly gained popularity and became a long-running television show. That reporter was Don Cornelius and, you guessed it, the show was Soul Train. In honor of the show’s 40th anniversary, celebrate this revolutionary program that put African-American culture on the main stage, highlighting the best music, dance moves, and fashions, at the premiere screening of the documentary Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America. The film takes you down memory lane with appearances by stars such as Aretha Franklin, Snoop Dogg, David Bowie, and Chaka Khan. The evening also includes a panel made up of ?uestlove, dancer-choreographer Tyrone Proctor, and music journalist Danyel Smith. I’ve often imagined the dance I’d do during the “Soul Train Line”—perhaps tonight I’ll get the chance to show off my moves!

Wed., Jan. 27, 6:30 p.m., 2010


Get Back, JoJo

I have now finally seen a copy of the “JoJo Dancer” Rock Critical List thing, which is less vicious than I’d expected— which isn’t to say that it isn’t vicious. I mean, what is this about people being fat, or bald? What difference does that make? I guess it could make a difference, if there’s a connection between a writer’s looks and his life, and his life and his writing style, and his writing style and his ideas. But JoJo makes none of those connections.

JoJo is obviously involved with most of those he savages, as a reader who once in some way felt committed to what these people were doing and then felt let down. The basic story, in critique after critique, is that So-and-So had talent but ended up throwing it in the toilet. And JoJo believes that these guys could have— perhaps still can— make a difference, and that writing can matter: “Even if we’re not better than this, we should at least be trying a damn sight harder.”

(I’m calling JoJo “he” because he writes like a he. Of course he may be a she, though in that case she should have called herself George.)

But the way I know, for instance, that I didn’t write the JoJo piece, say in a delirium, and then forget (my editor hired a handwriting expert to prove that this was not the case) is that JoJo does way too much “sucks” and not nearly enough “why.” There’s no institutional context and no mention of journalistic conventions, cultural practice. Rock critics may as well have all gotten into a room and for no reason said, “Enough of being nervy, let’s all piss away our talent and go write stupid things or go sulk in our tents.”

And the Critical List has too many clichés: “pop’s ephemeral pleasures”— since when is pop ephemeral? Plug some actual pop of the past into that phrase— “James Brown’s ephemeral pleasures,” “Fred Astaire’s ephemeral pleasures,” ” ‘Stairway to Heaven’s’ ephemeral pleasures.” Whether or not the pleasures persist, the music sure seems to.

JoJo’s complaint about Robert Christgau (“his total lack of feeling for today’s most important youth musics— hip hop and electronic dance”) is also a cliché— you don’t find JoJo or many others complaining about a writer’s “total lack of feeling for today’s most important southern-housewife music— country & western”; or a writer’s “total lack of feeling for today’s most important old people’s music— the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys and Barney and Rob Zombie.” (And why should Christgau or I, or anyone, have feeling for or give a shit about hip hop and electronic dance in the first place? Just because it’s important? Because someone else likes it?)

So what’s actually bugging me about JoJo isn’t just the lack of social analysis but his indifference to ideas. For instance, this, about Danyel Smith: “Once a stridently poetic, yet level-headed critic of hip hop and r&b, the editor of Big Willie Inc.’s periodical division has evolved into a remote, two-timing industry prickle-puss. With the introduction of glossy hip-hop stepchild Blaze, she’s now free to pursue her dream of transforming Vibe into a touchy-feely, art-directed celebration of faux-bourgeois splendor (free of rap-related grime). These days, if you read a cover feature by Smith, expect the following— powdery, boudoir boy-bonding, wine-sipping diva-lectical coos and whispers, lovingly extensive hairdo deconstructions, and absolutely, under no circumstances, any critical evaluation of the music, or how its sound might inform the artist.” This is good writing, and vivid. No opinion on whether it’s accurate, having never read the periodical in question; but it’s not clear to me what is wrong with powdery, boudoir boy-bonding, wine-sipping diva-lectical coos and whispers, lovingly extensive hairdo deconstructions, and the like. Hell, why shouldn’t Danyel talk about hairstyle, and boys? Since when shouldn’t one analyze style? If in the old days she had such great ideas about hip hop and r&b, what were they? JoJo should have talked about them. What exactly are we losing by her makeover?

I think JoJo has good, or at least interesting, instincts. But he barely forms them into ideas, let alone tries to follow through. He’s right about two things: (1) something’s wrong and it doesn’t have to be this way, and (2) writers can make a difference.

It does matter to me whether JoJo’s characterizations are accurate or not, though obviously, with the benefit of the pseudonym, he’s chosen a style of nasty hyperbole, and I would defend his decision to use both a pseudonym and such hyperbole. His overstatement brings his descriptions to life and delivers his sense of disgust. It has a brawling high-school quality that has a lot to do with the music that critics cover but rarely makes it into our prose. My main complaint is that JoJo gives himself the freedom of a pseudonym but doesn’t take it anywhere interesting. The constraints of civility and friendship, and his own name, could have taken JoJo to deeper truths, even if the route hadn’t been so direct.

I mean, I’ve often wanted to say about certain writers, “He’s just stupid,” or, “She’s always been a suburban airhead, what do you expect?” But there’s something to be said for the social constraint that makes me pretend to be interested in someone’s ideas while conversing with him, or pretend to be fair-minded while reviewing him, since this constraint does force me to take better stock of his ideas and to think through my response to those ideas, and in the process come up with better ideas myself and so learn something from him. Even if he is stupid.

My two cents on what’s wrong and what could be right: Music isn’t news and music criticism shouldn’t have to be reporting. Music is love and desire and flirting and fighting and wop-bop-a-lu-bop, and music criticism should be the same. Institutional context: publishers don’t get it. They probably think they’ve got economic justification for their current practice, but I don’t believe those justifications. I think these guys are bound by habit, that’s all. Music criticism’s being ensconced in “journalism” doesn’t mean that criticism need take news as its model, artist profiles and reviews of current product as the (usually) unvarying format, and journalistic dead style for its default prose. Which isn’t to say that good news reporting, artist profiles, and record reviews can’t contain the wop-bop-a-lu-bop.