On a Thursday night in November, Craig MacInnis sits in a dark corner of the Horseshoe Tavern, a downtown Toronto rock club, smoking a Winston and sipping a Coke. He watches impassively as Go Four 3, a promising young quartet that has recently moved east from Vancouver, crashes into its opening song. MacInnis, who writes about rock for The Toronto Star and attends some 150 concerts and club dates annually, is considering writing a feature about the group in “What’s On,” the paper’s weekly entertainment supplement. Based on what he describes as a “gut-level appreciation for music,” MacInnis is impressed by what he sees and hears-an energetic, thrashy-but melodic pop group. MacInnis enjoys visiting the city’s small clubs because he considers it an opportunity to discover new artists before they’re consumed by the urgent commercial pressures of big-time recording contracts. “When I go to a club gig, I can just sit in a corner and respond to the music,” MacInnis says. “This is where it all” starts anyway. MacInnis is typical of the reporters on major dailies across the country who provide Canadians with most of their rock music news and reviews. He doesn’t think of himself as a “critic,” but rather as a reporter whose beat happens to be music. Nonetheless, he is expected to go beyond the beat reporter’s carefully balanced stories to provide opinion and analysis; MacInnis’s reviews help Star readers decide which records to buy and which concerts to attend. Since most big city dailies cover local talent, rock writers are in a position to influence the fortunes of struggling young artists. They walk a thin line between reporter and kingmaker, between criticism and boosterism.
Rock criticism is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was in the late sixties, around the time that sociologists began earnestly studying “pop culture,” that rock was first treated as a serious art form by critics such as John Rockwell (The New York Times), Robert Christgau (The Village Voice) and Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus (Rolling Stone). They analyzed, traced historical parallels, then tried to fit their theories into a “big picture” that not only identified different genres of rock but also placed ~ the music in the context of North American culture.
Rock journalism in Canada at this time suffered from an inferiority complex. Homegrown acts were often derisively (and inappropriately) compared to foreign stars. In 1974, for example, 1M Vancouver Sun’s Don Stanley noted that Burton Cummings was “not equal to the Killer [Jerry Lee Lewis] on the piano, not yet at least,” which is a little like taking issue with Tommy Hunter for not being more like Hank Williams. But at about the same time, a new generation of young reporters-notably the Star’s Peter Goddard, Paul McGrath at The Globe an Mail and, later, Tom Harrison at 1M Vancouver Province-was writing in the enlightened style of their American counterparts.
Changes in the music industry in the late seventies redefined rock journalism. After more than a decade of record growth, sales steadily declined and eventually collapsed in the early eighties. The era of “dinosaur groups,” when a handful of megastar bands such as Fleetwood Mac, Boston and Yes dominated the market with mega budget albums and money-losing concert tours, was over. The arrival of punk at about the same time further shattered the tradition of “bigger-is-better.” Hundreds of new artists with small but loyal followings emerged, and the rise of music videos became a cost-effective way of promoting them. The industry giants realized that it was profitable to promote many smaller artists, each generating moderate sales. Local independent record companies, acting as a kind of unofficial farm system, groomed new artists until they were ready for the major leagues. Today there is a plurality in which many acts carve out small niches in the market and enjoy modest success.
Rock coverage in dailies from Halifax to Vancouver now includes a great deal of information on up-and-coming artists within the local music scene. The Star’s weekly “What’s On” section, for example, devotes one cover story a month to new acts, many of whom have little more than a cult following. Richard Flohil, editor of The Canadian Composer magazine and a veteran music promoter and publicist, points out that 10 years ago “to see acts like Melwood Cutlery or The Phantoms, neither of whom even have records, allover the front cover of ‘What’s On’ would’ve been unheard of.” The Province’s Tom Harrison adds: “It’s possible to write about what’s going on in town, support it and yet at the same time not have to make apologies for it.”
In part that reflects a change in attitude among editors at the country’s dailies. Where rock was once dismissed as a teenage obsession, today it’s taken seriously by a baby-boom generation. “The kids who listened to Chuck Berry are 40 or 45 now,” says MacInnis. “It’s their art form.” Rock has a greater news value now, because the people who run newspapers, along with everyone who reads them, grew up with it.
That makes for more readable and informed rock journalism because MacInnis and his colleagues are writing for a knowledgeable audience that understands the language and history of rock. Or as MacInnis puts it: “I don’t have to explain what ‘hardcore’ is to Mr. and Mrs. Mississauga.” But that’s not to say that some rock writing isn’t as dissonant as an out-of-tune guitar. In a review of a concert by Christian rock singer Amy Grant last summer, The Vancouver Sun’s Chris Wong wrote: “Lyrically, all roads led to the same point, albeit on 11. circuitous, less-than-obvious route. And that’s surely part of the appeal to many: not that there’s an ambiguity to the subject matter, but there’s a successful attempt at usurping the methods of secular rockers while maintaining a spiritual bent.” Translation: Grant sounds like a rocker but sings about God.
Contrast Wong’s vagueness with Harrison’s vivid response to British pop singer Robyn Hitchcock: “The Jacques Cousteau of stream-of-consciousness lyric writing (he’s obsessed by shellfish, sea life and fins), Hitchcock has been delighting the few fans who discovered England’s Soft Boys 12 years ago with mad, surrealistic stories of self-administered brain surgery, yodelling vacuum cleaners, sacred crabs and other self-possessed crustaceans.”
But just because more column inches are devoted to rock, and those who write about it are better informed, does not necessarily mean that readers are well-served. Do those who write on rock at Canadian dailies demonstrate the hallmarks of good criticism: sound aesthetic judgements and informed analysis?
In many cases, no. There is a blurry line between fair and enthusiastic coverage of local talent and boosterism. Harrison at The Province is legendary for his strong support of the Vancouver music scene. He concedes that although he often writes about international superstars because they are newsworthy, “I can’t just write about the Bruce Springsteens knowing there’s a talented local band out there that isn’t going to get anywhere unless it gets some exposure.
MacInnis feels the same way: “It’s a lot easier to pan an album by George Michael than it is to pan an album by a Toronto band that has struggled for two years. There’s a different set of standards.” MacInnis explains that once a local band is affiliated with a major label it becomes fair game, because it would have all the commercial weaponry behind it of any international act. While he writes critically of international stars, he is often dangerously soft on local artists. In his 1,500-word feature on Go Four 3 which appeared last December in “What’s On,” MacInnis was carefully neutral. Even a gentle poke at the group’s potential marketability was expressed through an anonymous record company rep, who described them as “a bundle of teenage angst.”
Although his intent seems laudable -to lend encouragement and exposure to struggling local acts-MacInnis may also be undermining his credibility. It’s true that standards are rarely inflexible. Paul McGrath, one of the country’s most vigorous critics when he wrote for the Globe and now the music reporter on CBC’s The Journal, advocates judging any artist-local or international, classical or rock-by the same critical standards, although even he admits that he would “back off about three percent” when writing about an unsigned local act in an early stage of development.
So is MacInnis copping out when he says he concentrates on the “informational aspect” of rock writing? It’s certainly consistent with his image of him self as a beat reporter. But all good arts writing must contain analysis and opinion. Not every local band is destined to be the next Beatles or Led Zeppelin and readers know it. While MacInnis can sidestep this issue by being very selective when choosing the artists he writes about, at some point readers begin to wonder whether all local musicians can be equally talented.
The process is made all the more difficult by what MacInnis calls the “industry-driven side” of rock coverage. The music business regards rock critics as no more than publicity tools, and hard-driving publicists hired by record companies favor those who are onside. (Liz Braun, The Toronto Sun’s music critic in 1986 and 1987, actually worked in the promotion and marketing departments of CBS Records Canada Ltd. and Concert Productions International, Canada’s largest concert promoter.) Although this is true of all arts criticism, the music business shares with the film industry corporate barrelfuls of cash at stake with each new release and hordes of grinning sycophants throughout the media from which real critics must distance themselves. It doesn’t help that life on the entertainment pages of the dailies includes overloaded schedules, space restrictions and crippling deadlines that sometimes force reviewers to leave concerts shortly after the headliner steps onstage.
Even artists themselves get into the act. MacInnis recalls a time when he mentioned in his “Pop Notes” column that “I’m Still Searching,” a single by Canadian rockers Glass Tiger, had dropped a few notches on the Billboard top-100 chart. Although MacInnis could hardly be accused of making a critical judgment of the band, Glass Tiger refused a request for an interview.
“Their position was ‘Greg Quill [a fellow Star rock critic at the time] likes us, so we’ll talk to him instead,’ ” MacInnis says. To his credit, he declined to review Glass Tiger’s concert because the incident had prejudiced him against the band.
One way of dealing with these kinds of pressures and the buddyism they promote is to remain ahove it all. MacInnis prefers attending concerts unrecognized and scrupulously avoids making friends in the music business who might one day call in a favor. “I never want to reach the point where I have to make a personal apology to a record label rep for trashing one of his bands,” he says. That MacInnis, as a professional rock journalist, even considers having to make a personal apology for anything he writes clearly demonstrates the power of the rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut.
Certainly rock journalism in Canada’s dailies has improved since the bad old days of the sixties and seventies. The kind of ingratiating cotton candy that used to be written about the international superstars is largely absent, and there is greater coverage of both Canadian stars and local acts on the rise. Does that mean all is well in rock criticism? It is possible for committed critics to become so obsessed with all things local, or with intellectual snobbery, that they forget about their readers. Former Star rock critic Peter Goddard points out that it’s sometimes necessary to write about a mediocre popular album rather than a better but more obscure one simply because readers have heard of it. A critic “has to have some kind of involvement and dialogue with his audience,” Goddard says, “otherwise he’s whistling in the dark.”
While newspaper editors are prepared to give more space to rock coverage, there is no evidence that they encourage-let alone demand-the kind of analytical, scholarly writing readers deserve. More disturbing is that many of those who write on rock don’t exploit the opportunities available to them by taking their job seriously enough to become knowledgeable critics. Those who are committed, such as MacInnis and Harrison, should be admired. They stand apart from the industry’s attempts to co-opt them and they can find fault, especially with international stars. Furthermore, they focus attention on struggling local performers. Ultimately, however, it is this noble cause that threatens to defeat them. While treating a burgeoning local music scene with the respect it deserves is admirable, to sing only of good things is more the realm of The Carpenters than of constructive critics.