A Restless Critic Moves On

Ben Kim notes with pleasure the development over the last few years of both zines and the on-line world; they’re democratic alternatives to the cultural hegemony of media like the two dailies and even the Reader. His contribution to the phenomenon, and personal twist, was to simply declare himself a rock critic. He did it in 1991 by entering–as a private citizen, so to speak–the de facto establishment of the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll; he continued by peppering the Reader with letters, some directed at yours truly. Like a good critic, his opinions were challenging and original, and prompted a continuing dialogue with other letter writers. Later he actually got published as a critic. He wrote freelance pieces and then took over as Raw Material columnist for New City, the alternative weekly he leaves this week. “As the zine explosion proved,” he says, “there’s not a lot of barriers to entry to being a rock critic. You can just appoint yourself a member of the club, if you have the aesthetic and the writing style to put it across.”

Given Kim’s background, his personal reinvention cum media critique shouldn’t be underestimated. A product of suburban Des Plaines, he had pursued a much different life plan, one that included a BA from the University of Virginia, an MBA from Indiana University, and a corporate position at Walgreens national HQ in Deerfield. He left all that behind with his evolution into journalism. Raw Material showed off his easy familiarity with rock-crit theory, leavening it with a sense of mischief (his deliberate, if unsuccessful, attempts to “buzz” Brown Betty and Apollo 9) and the unapologetic enthusiasm of a fan. One of my favorites of his columns was his essay on the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, an intelligent discussion of how it was transformed for him by its surprising chart debut–how what one hears changes when an album becomes a pop event.

Candidly, Kim cops to a regret or two, most notably for leading the Liz Phair backlash before the release of her first album. (“I almost wish someone had helped me curb it back a little,” he says now.) Last year his column won a Lisagor, a not insignificant honor given by the local professional journalists’ organization.

Kim’s leaving New City, he says, more than a bit vaguely, “to refocus my priorities.” Though he plans to continue freelancing, he’s taken a full-time job with Chicago’s Asian-American Institute. Apart from rock, Kim’s other interest is in all things Asian. With Seam’s Sooyoung Park and William Shin, he released a compilation of music by Asian-American rock bands, Ear of the Dragon, this year, and he’s also a contributor to Asian-American magazines like A and Yolk. At the institute, he’ll oversee the Asian American Film Festival. He’ll try to increase the profile of that event in particular and of Asian culture in Chicago generally. “There is a sort of parochialism on the coasts,” he says, on the part of the arbiters of Asian-American culture. “Chicago, and everything between the coasts, really, is seen as somewhat secondary.”

Kim says he’ll miss the column. “Writing a pop-music column is a fantastic gig. Without getting too mushy, it’s been a real privilege to watch during such an exciting time.”


Rounder Records’ takeover of longtime Chicago folk label Flying Fish after the death of founder Bruce Kaplan was supposed to keep the operation happy and intact at its north-side home. So why are the operation’s employees looking for jobs? Rounder founder Ken Irwin carefully says that what will happen to the label hasn’t been decided….When Green Day, one of the biggest bands in the world, comes through town this month, its show, at the UIC Pavilion, will be promoted not by Jam Productions but by Houston-based Pace. This is less of a challenge to Jam’s local domination than it might appear. Pace booker Brad Roosa, it turns out, met the band originally in his college days in Lawrence, Kansas. When putting together their fall tour, the Berkeley punks “threw some markets out for me,” Roosa reports. “It’s not like, oh, I’m going to Chicago and fucking with Jam.”… The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness debuted at number one last week on the Billboard charts, with an impressive 250,000 sold, 75,000 more than, by contrast, Green Day’s Insomniac mustered on its debut three weeks ago. The debut is the highest ever for a Chicago artist. The record’s length–120 minutes, or somewhere between a three- and four-record set in vinyl terms–makes it one of the longest albums of original studio material ever by a mainstream rock artist. The Clash’s epic Sandinista!, at 150 or so minutes, was the only record Hitsville could find that topped it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Armando Villa.