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Q&A: Jim DeRogatis

The Chicago Sun-Times pop music critic talks about his new collection, Kill Your Idols, 34 essays that dare to ask, "What if the greatest albums of our time aren't actually that great?"

- July 13, 2004

"Great art stands on its own even if it's removed from the specific context of when and how it was made," declares Jim DeRogatis, the brash and influential resident rock critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, in the essay that kicks off Kill Your Idols, a new collection of rock criticism he edited with his wife, Carmel Carrillo, an assistant editor at the Chicago Tribune. For this book, the husband-and-wife team brought together a group of Generation X and Y rock critics and placed them in attack mode, instructing them to merrily defile the albums we've all been taught for years to cherish: everything from The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, to The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The problem with these albums, the critics argue, is that when they are removed from their context, be it the Summer of Love, the birth of punk, or the aftermath of September 11, they're revealed to be, well, not so great—maybe great artifice, some seem to say, but certainly not great art.

Like all criticism, of course, it's all a matter of opinion and no doubt one contributor's album albatross would make it onto five other's top ten lists. But that, says DeRogatis, is all in the spirit of the game: He sees rock criticism as a dialogue between writer and reader—not a dictum handed down by a cadre of elitist glossies. "Call it a spirited assault on a pantheon that has been foisted upon us, or a defiant rejection of the hegemonic view of rock history espoused by the critics who preceded us," he announces in the introduction to the book. DeRogatis recently spoke to mediabistro.com about the magazines he hates, the critics he loves, and the state of music criticism today.

Birthdate: September 2, 1964
Hometown: "I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, but I always say I moved up in the world to Hoboken as soon as possible."
First section of the Sunday Times: Arts & Leisure

Tell me a little bit about the evolution of Kill Your Idols. Where did the idea come from?
I've had this idea for some time. I'd always been a fan of Stranded, which is the book that Greil Marcus put together in the early '80s with some of my heroes of the first generation of rock critics—people like Nick Tosches and Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Ellen Willis. It's kind of a hoary idea—they all wrote about the one album they'd take to a desert island. At the time, '96 or '97, I was working at Rolling Stone, and Rolling Stone is obsessed with this idea of the rock-and-roll canon. It's a particular baby boomer thing. And as a snot-nosed Gen X-type person, I deeply resent this notion of there being one rock-and-roll canon.

Because while I definitely am a fan of rock history—and my first book was a history of psychedelic rock—I resent this notion that there's one history carved in stone. I love psychedelic rock, but I don't believe its heyday was 1967. I believe you can draw lines between Ken Kesey's acid test to raves today, from what The Thirteenth Floor Elevators were doing to psychedelic hip hop. I hear connections between the Beatles' Revolver and the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. I don't believe that rock history is set in any one point in time. I thought it was time to do the evil, flipside, carbon copy of that Stranded book, a collection that would say, "Here are these albums that we're forever told are masterpieces that we just don't buy into."

It took a long time to sell. I sent the proposal out for a while, and I got, invariably, "Nobody wants to read a book all of negative reviews." And I felt that was kind of a crock. Roger Ebert has always been one of my heroes, and one of my favorite books of his is I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. It's all of his worst pans, and it's very funny. And there's been collections of Dorothy Parker's worst pans.

Finally, Barricade said this is a great idea, which I always thought it was. I'd pitched this idea to my fellow writers for a long time, and invariably they were all like, "Fuck yeah! I've always wanted to write about fill-in-the-blank." And my idea of a great editor is you just choose a writer whom you respect a lot and you give him or her the room to run wild. I didn't pick any of the albums, I just picked the people, with Carmel, who is a really brilliant editor. We chose the essays that made the cut together and chose the people together, and just let the people run free. My wife is not a rock critic and that's why I was glad to have her eyes on it. She cast sort of a critical and scoffing and disdainful eye on the species known as rock critic. And that was really healthy, because I was really trying not to let in the rock critic cliché. I'm very proud—I don't believe the word "seminal" is used once in this book.

It's turning out to be great timing for the release. It's like "scathing review month," with the Times tearing into Bill Clinton, and the new Dale Peck anthology coming out. There almost seems to be a renewed psychotic glee in tearing people apart. Why do you think that is?
I think criticism has been subservient or nonexistent for about 10 or 15 years now. We've been living in a world of two thumbs up, smiley happy blurbs of 100 to 150 words. I'm sorry, but in 150 words you can't say anything but, "Buy this product." And that has become the norm. Entertainment Weekly, the Maxim-ization of every magazine on the newsstand, even freaking Rolling Stone. Literally, when I was an editor at Rolling Stone, there was a sign in the copy department that said, "Three stars means never having to say you're sorry." It was one thing when, in the late '70s, criticism shifted to become this quote unquote consumer guide. But it's not even that any more. It's really just a cataloging of new product.

There's been a real dearth of ideas, much less opinion in criticism for a long time now. I'm not a fan of the pointless, gleeful, jumping-up-and-down destruction of something, but I do like to see ideas. I think it would be wrong to classify this book as a bile-filled collection of 34 hateful screeds. There's a lot of humor. There's something masochistic in this endeavor. These 35 writers had to spend an enormous amount of time listening to albums they don't really like in order to say a lot of things that were really smart about them. They have to spend time living with these albums, much more than they would listening to music that they love. They were trying to get to the bottom of why they'd been sold this con for so long, why they've grown up being told that these works are really important.

With the Clinton book, you see a certain amount of settling of scores, there's a lot of bile spewing. My book is something a lot better—it's jilted lovers. Every one of my essayists should have loved these albums, and their position of dislike comes from the fact that they were really let down. I think good critics approach every piece of art wanting to really love that piece of art; when they don't, there's a certain betrayal and disappointment. You're trying to figure out why. What went wrong. It's like any romance: After the fact, you're trying to figure out what didn't work. Part of it is you. You're trying to figure out what did I learn about myself through this. There's a lot of self-realization in it.

Your selection of writers is interesting. To me, if you talk about Generation X and Y critics, that says Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone, or Kelefa Sanneh at the Times. Did you specifically avoid critics who work at these places?
Yes, I have a real problem with critics who are in the club. There is definitely a lunchroom clique of hip critics. Now, mind you, we are talking about a world of geeks to begin with. There is no such thing as a cool critic. But within the geek existence of critics, there is the cheerleader jock crowd. They are the snotty elitists, they are the hipsters. And I ain't one of them. I've never been one of them, and I wanted to unite the folks who are not one of them. None of us are the cool kids, but they are some of the best writers of my generation. Lorraine Ali works at Newsweek, and she's a brilliant, brilliant writer. Keith Moerer worked at Rolling Stone, and he's starting a new magazine which is going to be really exciting. Rob O'Conner is the record reviews editor at Harp, and he's simply one of the best writers I've ever worked with.

These are writers I think are great, except they're not considered hip. They're not the $2 or $3 a word folks, necessarily, and they're not the cool folks. They're scattered. The story today is that there's not one or two great rock publications in America that you can plug into. Much like music today, you have search far and wide; there's a website here, or one or two trusted columns there, or you can read the record review section in this magazine, or the front of the book in this mag is OK, or one out of three issues of this mag is all right, or this magazine sucks but, I don't know, I've still got to subscribe just to see what they're covering. There's no one great rock magazine anymore. You have to really work to find the writers here or there.

In the writers' bios, it seems that a lot of them write regularly for newspapers as opposed to magazines.
There's a really important reason for that. There is much more freedom today in America to voice your true opinion in the big, square daily newspaper than there is in the rock magazine. This is a pathetic state of affairs. In the daily newspaper, you have to have two-sentence paragraphs, and you cannot say "fuck." And you must have the parenthetical aside that explains that breakbeat is a form of electronic music. But, you know, Rolling Stone needs to make the agreement with Eminem to have him on the cover. He is going to choose the writer who interviews him, he's going to choose the photographer, he's going to dictate the coverage. He is not going to get a negative review, no matter what piece of shit he puts out. And that's the case at many publications.

If I ran my ideal magazine, you might have three writers reviewing the record. I'm not saying you have to publish only bad reviews, but let's see a diversity of opinion. There was a great fanzine from Chicago at the height of the indie '80s. They would have one lead reviewer on an album, but then they would have two or three others review a great record. So Steve Albini might review the new Husker Du record, and then Gerard Cosloy and myself and Liz Phillip, who ran the magazine, would all weigh in with three or four more sentences. And the picture you got of that album by the time you had all those voices—it was extraordinary. And you don't have anything like that today. What you've got, like I said earlier, is these 150-word blurbs. What do you get out of that?

At least in the daily newspaper, they have no stake. At the Chicago Sun-Times, I have to cover—whether it's Britney Spears or the new Califone record—I have to cover everything. But they don't care what I say about that Britney Spears record. You know, The Streets are not going to get a bad review in Spin, and R. Kelly—despite the fact that he was under indictment on 27 counts of child pornography—is not going to get bad press in Vibe. It's horrifying. American music mainstream magazines have abdicated not only their role in rock journalism but in rock criticism, and that's a sad state of affairs. There are exceptions. Spin, in particular, will do some good journalism, and I know that Sia Michel is a great editor and wishes she could do more. And magazines like Harp and Magnet I think try to do a lot more. I wish these magazines were selling half a million instead of the number they're at. Maybe Keith Moerer will do something—he wants to do something like The New Yorker of rock writing. But, I mean Tracks? Tracks is a piece of shit. They had two or three years and how many million dollars, and they've come up with a print version of VH1. It's an embarrassment.

Do you see yourself being a lifer at the Sun-Times—the Ebert of music criticism? Or if something like The New Yorker of music criticism came up, would you consider a move?
Oh, I'm never leaving the Sun-Times. I love being at a daily newspaper, I love having that kind of contact with the readership. Greg Kot and I go to a show, and there's 898 paying people and then the two of us. Eight-hundred and ninety-six of those people are going to stop us on the way in and tell us what they thought of that day's column. And that's great. We are part of the community in a way that that clique of elitist New York magazine types never are. That's the problem of that clique in New York. They don't have a clue who they're writing for. Neil Strauss, a couple of years ago, did a pie-chart piece in the Times of the guest-list breakdown at some New York shows. And it was like 80 percent of the house was industry and press. There were no real people at any of these shows. So how do you have any idea who's reading you? They don't. They're writing for each other. They're writing for other rock critics.

Doing the radio show with Greg Kot here, we invite people to call us up. We're forever talking to the people we're writing to—all of whom are convinced they can do my job better than me. And that's really good. I see rock criticism as an ongoing dialogue with people. And that's really healthy and it's really fun. This book is obviously an argument-starter. And I don't mean that in a negative way. It's fun to fight about rock and roll. If we don't care about this stuff enough to fight about it, why the hell have we devoted our lives to it?

Jill Singer is the deputy editor of mediabistro.com. You can buy Kill Your Idols at Amazon.com.



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