Pictured: Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs. Courtesy imdb.com
There are certain works of art that are so in tune with its fans that, not only does it give them pleasure to behold the art, but it reassures them of their perspective on life. Art like this, especially if it is somewhat popular, is also powerful enough for these devout fans to use it as a litmus test for potential friends.
Case in point, and the first of many extremely bold claims I'll make in this post, all of my friends like the movie Almost Famous. OK maybe that's not such a bold statement, seeing as it's hard to born in the late 80s and not like, if not love Cameron Crowe's nostalgic tribute to an exciting time of free love and good ole rock 'n' roll. Anyway this is my long-winded way of saying that, starting this post with a nod to Almost Famous is significant because of how much it is a part of me, as evidenced by how all of my friends enjoy it.
One of the my favorite characters in the movie is Lester Bangs, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Admittedly I didn't know Lester Bangs was an actual person until I recently read this Hidden Track post that quoted an interview with him.
The part of the interview that I found most enlightening was this exchange:
RD: What advice would you give to young writers in terms of choosing their content?
LB: You gotta find some band somewhere that’s maybe got two or three albums out and might even be halfway good, but the important thing is the more arcane the better, it’s gotta be something that absolutely nobody but you and maybe two other people (the group’s manager and one member’s mother) knows or cares about, and what you wanna do is TALK ABOUT THIS BUNCH OF OBSCURE NONENTITIES AND THEIR RECORD(S) LIKE THEY ARE THE HOTTEST THING IN THE HISTORY OF MUSIC.
I think Bangs correctly observes that we, as music critics, are both individually and collectively a small part of the music industry and community. Rather than present a snapshot of what is currently popular and dominating the shots (rather than giving our opinions about artists that people may already have opinions about), it is better for us to take leaps and enthusiastically talk up small, unknown bands. No room for face-saving, fence-sitting mediocrity. Writers have a unique opportunity to suggest new art to more than just their friends, and they should obliging take some risks.
We must make strong, sincere arguments for the bands we believe in and then leave it up to our readers whether they like what they hear (and read). We, both critics and adoring fans, should throw our weight behind that struggling band that we love, not the group that just hit the mainstream and everyone’s already raving about.
In taking these extreme positions, we are like gadflies of the music industry, forcing it to challenge the old norms and listen to some new, weird stuff. The theory here is that the more music one gets exposed to, the more one will like what they eventually end up listening to. And that should be the end goal of all this.
The implication of all this is to take some extreme stances. Stances that we critics might have to renig on later. Maybe even a week later. But as the great Henry Thoreau once challenged, “If I should contradict myself, what then?” That’s a luxury that a good rock critic must go without. However there is a silver lining. Free from the duty of continuity, we need only to remember the advice of William’s mother: “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid. Goethe said that.”
She means well.
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