When Robert Hilburn retired from the LA Times, it provided me with an opportunity to unload years of pent-up scorn at the venerable pop critic. I had just started this blog, here was something I knew about having read Hilburn since before I was a teenager, so I went at it, making fun of his clutzy and predictable writing style. And ever since, I’ve been feeling guilty and like maybe I made a mistake. After all — I read him. I was acquainted with his work because I had rarely skipped a piece of his. He was frustrating — but essential. I chalked it up to my only being a blogger for one month at the time I wrote it. I’ve sobered up a little. But the piece is still here, as are all the other ones I’m a little embarassed about.
So anyway. What brings me back here is Ann Powers, the critic who took Hilburn’s place. At first I hated her. She struck me as a serious over-writer, kind of like the critics I used to read in the LA Weekly (current team excepted but only because I hardly read the Weekly anymore). Reading her first Times pieces was like chewing frozen salt-water taffy. She wrote long paragraphs of post-modern contextualizing, which gave off the distinct sense that, like many music critics, she was writing to impress other critics. The opposite of Hilburn, who clearly wrote for a big, mainstream audience. Careful what you wish for, and all that.
But I said nothing here. And I’m glad I didn’t. She’s gotten a lot better. She must have been nervous at first, and maybe she was trying to convince people in the alternative-weekly world that taking the Times job wouldn’t change her. But she’s starting to settle in; and now it’s obvious her talent is enormous. From her review of a concert by the Killers, a hot band of the moment with a charismatic lead singer:
What the Killers do best is stance. That doesn’t just mean posing, although (Brandon) Flowers looked sharp — much-debated mustache and all — in gray sharkskin. It means understanding one’s place in history, and thinking in mythic terms. Flowers is trying to grasp these complexities by moving through various rock archetypes: first the androgynous glitz of the British Bowie lineage, and now its American counterpart, super-heroic earnestness. He’s sometimes off the mark, but the attempt counts.
In performance, Flowers’ heroism was not earnest; it was fun, a serious game. His fans understood; instead of the heady passion of a U2 or Springsteen crowd, this one projected lighthearted cheer. After all, the Killers’ fan base is the “compilation generation,” whose scattered tastes and preoccupations make it unlikely that rock, or any one musical form, can serve as a mass unifier.
What’s left to ambitious young stars such as Brandon Flowers is the job of sifting through, of seeing what works for his small slice of the pie and what feels irrelevant. If he’s smart, Flowers will assume another posture with the next album. There are plenty to try.
Tower’s demise may be inevitable given today’s schism between mainstream consolidation and the fragmenting of the underground. Stores aiming at both sides of this divide seem destined to fail. Deep catalog, though still available in rare spots like Amoeba Music, now feeds the “long tail” of the Web, where low overhead allows entrepreneurs to sell just one of many things and survive. The selection is better than ever on the Web’s myriad retail and subscription sites, not to mention MP3 blogs. And the virtual conversation among fans seems inexhaustible.
But I mourn the bodily encounters Tower offered — with those beautiful vinyl albums of my youth, but mostly with the people whose fingers tripped through them. Tower was where music nuts, not a socially adept breed, had to face each other in the flesh. It was good for us; it brought us into the light and gave us a place in the ordinary world.
Nice. Who knows how long she’ll stick around — her newspaper is apparently in some trouble, and she’s widely known among pop music fiends outside of LA, so she doesn’t have to suffer through the Times’ current throes if she doesn’t want to. But I hope she stays for awhile. She was a good choice of music geek to put in the “ordinary world” of Angelenos, and her influence on the LA based music industry can only be positive.
The heady days of rock-and-roll as mass movement that Hilburn chronicled are over, but there will always be something called pop. Nowadays, explaining pop music to a fragmented audience is far more difficult, but Powers seems to have a gift for conveying the experience of music in words. Hilburn didn’t, but he didn’t have to; he could assume that most of the music he wrote about was on the radio, so he could focus on other aspects of it. The beat is more challenging now, but in the right hands, much more interesting.
It would be smart for the Times to give Ann Powers a little promotional push. She might be good for circulation.
P.S. In preparing this post, I found out Powers has a blog. She only writes in it occasionally, but her last post was fairly recent, so it’s worth checking from time to time. Her tagline is funny and appropriately self-aware: “Rockcrit and a mama, Ann Powers thinks way too hard sometimes.”