Rock, Rot & Rule


Once I was like you. I used to read the reviews in this section and think, “How the hell did that guy get to be a rock critic? I know more about music than he does.” Then one morning in the summer of 1996 I decided it would be more fun to write something about a Buzzcocks show I’d seen than to work on my resumé; just for the hell of it I faxed a copy to the Reader. The music editor turned it down–but encouraged me to try again, and to my amazement I landed a piece in the paper, and then another, and then another. Now, three years later, people probably read my work and think, “How the hell did that guy get to be a rock critic? I know more about music than he does.”

They’re probably right: though I’d been a rabid fan for 20 years before I started writing criticism, the last three years have been a perpetual crash course in the past, present, and future of popular music. But the longer I pay my dues in this fraternity of insufferable know-it-alls, the more I realize that the job demands something no stack of books, pile of magazines, or shelf full of box sets can supply: the sheer electric thrill we all felt cranking up that first great rock ‘n’ roll record. Once you lose that–and in many ways the business of music journalism is designed to grind it out of you–you become just another copywriter, less in tune with your readers than with the PR flacks who crowd your voice mail. Harry Truman used to say that when he left the presidency he was promoted to being a citizen. On a more modest scale, a critic should aspire to be nothing less than a fan.

Earlier this year a wonderful comedy CD called Rock, Rot & Rule appeared out of nowhere, released on a tiny label and distributed by Matador. It’s a recording of a radio prank from November 1997, in which a bogus rock critic calling himself Ronald Thomas Clontle was interviewed by disc jockey Tom Scharpling on the Jersey City free-form station WFMU. Clontle had supposedly written a new book called Rock, Rot, or Rule, a music reference guide that purported to be “the ultimate argument settler” but included nothing more than the artists’ names and one-word critiques stating whether they rotted, rocked, or ruled. All of 98 pages (including the index), it was allegedly being published by Penguin and sold for $25, but the author’s only research had consisted of polling friends and acquaintances at his coffee shop in Lawrence, Kansas, and during a trip to visit his grandmother in Florida. Ill-informed but smugly superior, wanly dismissing irate phone calls from listeners, Clontle held the floor at ‘FMU for about 45 minutes before signing off.

Clontle was actually Jon Wurster, the drummer for Superchunk. When I tracked him down, he explained that the idea had come to him after he heard Oprah Winfrey, then embroiled in a lawsuit with the Texas cattle industry, say something to the effect of “Freedom not only rings–it rocks!” His amusement at the emptiness of her statement snowballed into a laugh-out-loud funny but also surprisingly layered spoof of rock criticism.

Rock critics are a rich topic for satire: the boneheaded simplicity of rock ‘n’ roll seldom lends itself to the overheated erudition we often bring to it. Clontle sets himself up as an anticritic–a mere “compiler of opinions.” “I agree with some of it, I disagree with some of it,” he cautions. But he quickly proves to be the lordliest, most arrogant critic of them all, and as the interview progresses the book’s democratic origins are crowded out of the frame by Clontle’s ego. “I think a lot of people are gonna be crushed by this book,” he predicts. “Would not be surprised if we saw some artists hang it up after this book is published.” When a caller suggests that Rock, Rot, or Rule should be considered a “bible of pop culture,” Clontle agrees: “This should be thought of as something from on high.” Another caller points out that the book is causing more arguments than it’s settling, and Clontle replies, “These people don’t really have as strong a grasp on popular music as the people that I’ve spoken with or as strong a grasp as I myself have.”

Some callers are baffled, some are amused, and some are angry, but they all share one sentiment: “How the hell did this guy get to be a rock critic? I know more about music than he does.” In this case every one of them is right–the punch line is Clontle’s stunning ignorance. Asked to rate Television or Magazine or Amon Duul, he replies, “Don’t know them.” He gives Neil Young a “rot” rating based on 80s duds like Trans and Landing on Water, but he admits he’s never heard After the Gold Rush or Rust Never Sleeps. Numerous callers take him to task for declaring that Madness invented ska; told that the genre dates back to the early 60s in Jamaica, he sniffs, “I don’t think so.”

Quizzed by Scharpling as well as the callers, Clontle ends up rating 90 different artists, and though his judgments often seem impossibly arbitrary and devoid of critical shading, they only take to a ridiculous extreme the blank, idiot-friendly stars and thumbs we routinely scan on our way to the multiplex or the Coconuts. Yet perversely, a viable aesthetic does begin to emerge: “A group that rules just has that extra oomph to push it into the category of ruling,” Clontle explains. The Who and the Stones rule, but the Beatles merely rock because “they had a lot of bad songs. Songs that gave them what they needed to qualify for the ‘rock’ column–‘Birthday,’ ‘Back in the U.S.S.R’–but they had a lot of songs that, in the opinion of the people, kept them from ruling. ‘Penny Lane.’ ‘Strawberry Fields.'” Conversely, “there are certain things that would keep someone from rocking, although they could rule. Like Bruce Hornsby rules, but he doesn’t rock because he doesn’t play the guitar.” David Bowie rots (“Too many changes”), and so does Frank Zappa (“Humor has no place in music”). These declarations may seem asinine, but no more so than Rolling Stone describing the Flaming Lips as a “one-hit wonder.”

Wurster draws Clontle as your average mall rat, heavily weighting his tastes toward midwestern AOR warhorses (Rush, Supertramp, Styx, Eddie Money) and MTV icons (Bush, Everclear, Madonna, Puff Daddy). But strangely enough, after copying down and collating Clontle’s pronouncements I discovered that I agreed with nearly half of them: Hanson, Hootie & the Blowfish, Jewel, Stereolab, and Ben Folds Five rot; Nirvana, Cheap Trick, Guided by Voices, the Dead Kennedys, Mott the Hoople, and Funkadelic rock; the Who, the Stones, the Ramones, the Dickies, Kiss, and Madness rule. Some of my colleagues, reading the previous sentence, probably thought, “You idiot–Stereolab rules.” Therein lies the genius of Rock, Rot & Rule: it reduces the most learned among us to bozos sitting around a coffee shop, arguing our personal tastes.

Or, one might argue, Clontle’s book reduces him and his pals to rock critics, asserting their opinions as inarguable fact. When Scharpling asks how they can be debating the contents of a book that’s the “ultimate argument settler,” Clontle replies, “That’s up to you. The ball’s in your court.” There is no debate–and too often that’s the case in real life. Since I started writing Critic’s Choices for the Reader, I’ve had the unnerving experience of attending a show and seeing the crowd respond in accordance with what I’ve written, cheering the same songs–sometimes even the same lines–cited in the preview. This might give me delusions of grandeur if it weren’t so obviously screwy. So make up your own mind about this record. But I say it rules.