Music Critics and Winnie the Pooh
by Richard Goldstein
Autohype. I first heard that word from Robert Christgau (writer, critic, and as harmless as Winnie the Pooh). We were sitting within shouting distance of each other at Monterey, and I forgot who was burning whose guitar onstage, while magic brownies made the rounds. But anyway, to the left of us, there stood a gaggle of men in double-breasted ecstasy, California breeze whistling through their razor-cuts -- that scene. And these men (who spend their days back in the city copulating with culture) were staring profoundly at the crowd (the way only promo men can stare), and the crowd gazed back. A vast chorus of "groovy, groovy, oh-wow groovy" arose from that arena, and these men heard the word. They knew then, that a man may speak in signs, but dig his symbols, and you've mastered his soul.
Ergo, autohype. The most dangerous form of flattery. You can autohype a woman, a revolution, a work of art. All publicity (political, sexual, and aesthetic) is aimed at getting you to convince yourself that the client in question should be canonized. Promotion is, more than anything, an art of self-suggestion.
And I don't mean concentrated word of mouth. I mean the concerted effort to identify product with an ethos. ("Lend us your Heads") and thus to render it sacred -- above criticism. A good promo man is a mercantile shaman. Consider Saint Paul. He knew the value of a scene. He encouraged and supported the underground, because he knew its existence was a most powerful instrument of autohype.
A scene makes judging easy for the rest of us. It creates myth and market, aura and audience, product and prophecy. It accomplishes all this without ever stopping to think how little the dynamics of pushing have changed over the years. Old Paul never had to take his public out to lunch.
How do autohypnotists cultivate and manipulate the pop scene? First, they talk in tongues (fostering miracle, mystery, and authority, whenever possible). They offer group-warmth ("We're all so beautiful here in Max's Plastic Epiphany. We're young and special and this album turns us on this month"). Finally, they traffic in bogus payola, disguised as revelation ("Jimi Hendrix -- you dig -- is black").
The successful para-publicist can shield any work or dogma from the barbs of pragmatic criticism, which strives to consider each event in terms of its own expectations. One sign of autohype: after I told Mark Rudd that he couldn't expect journalists to offer his rebellion their tacit, unexamined support, he called me a honky. Another: today's rock audience is terribly eager to render a priori praise. If the underground did not exist, folks, the company freaks would have to invent it.
What is the function of the critic amid this aesthetic euphoria? For one thing, he no longer tells us what is good or bad. Publicity men seldom sweat their client's bad notices. They know it's the mention, not the verdict, that sells product. Besides, making judgments is parental and no critic can afford to be over 30 today. Instead of dissecting, they rap. Watch for this tendency to avoid confrontation; it is more pronounced among rock critics, not because we are a younger lot, but because we have been suckled by the brain police. There are many ways to avoid confrontation in a rock review. Talk about grass. Be cryptic. Mention the revolution. Quote Plato. Do your thing. All these cop-outs say something. They say the critic is afraid to evaluate.
I mean this column to be a survival manual for pop fans. Rock is an ecstatic business. It doesn't pay to expend energy on a shuck, unless you're into that. Two years ago, I remember writing here that rock needs a critic. Now I think it needs a shit-detector. Someone who can stand up to the grand inquisitor in his expense account mufti, and ask him why miracle, mystery, and authority are more important for a rock group than music...
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]