Don’t Be Like Rick Moody: An Appeal to Critics

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This morning, ten minutes into reading a bunch of articles that I hadn’t gotten around to over the weekend, a feeling of existential dread started rising in my gullet. It wasn’t just the ill-advised doubling up on nights out on Friday and Saturday, or the coffee. No, it was the creeping realization that I agreed with Rick Moody. Over the weekend, Moody got into an argument with Dean Wareham, of Galaxie 500/Luna/Dean & Britta fame, over the merits of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Their debate has been turned into a lengthy feature for Salon, but can be summarized as follows: Moody hates the album because it “has as much soul as an aspirin commercial.” Wareham thinks it’s a fun record that Moody is overthinking. Cue 8,000 words of earnest… well, discussion’s not the right word.

It’s easy to be obnoxiously opinionated about music, of course. That’s what 90 percent of critics do, and certainly something I’ve been guilty of in the past. When you’re passionate about something, you get fired up about it. This isn’t a problem in and of itself — it’s more that the tone that surrounds these discussions tends to be exclusionary and unproductive. Unless you’re going to judge it purely on its technical merits, music is ultimately subjective — as, indeed, is all culture. There are people out there who genuinely love Random Access Memories, just as there are people who really love Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and the prose in Harlequin books.

For what it’s worth, I think Moody is largely correct in his complaints about the album. As I wrote on its release, I found Random Access Memories to be largely dull and self-indulgent, and saw a weird strain of conservatism in its promise to “give life back to music” via the use of live instrumentation. But at the same time, Moody pretty much ticks every box as far as Obnoxious Oldish White Male Criticism goes: the superciliousness, the hyperbole (“[‘Get Lucky’ is] among the very worst, most cynical and utterly vapid records of the decade”), the references to Good Music (“I revere “Trout Mask Replica,” or the music of Ornette Coleman”) of decades past.

The problem with this sort of criticism is that it doesn’t achieve anything. It doesn’t convince anyone that their views on whatever you’re discussing are wrong — after all, imagine it was a dude sitting next to you in a bar saying things like, “I, too, like some disco… although if we are speaking of black music from the ’70s I would rather listen to funk almost any day” or “I can’t find the vocoder interesting here because I already know about the vocoder from Kraftwerk.” Two minutes of that, and you’d either be pretending to take a phone call or claiming that you need to go to the bathroom forever.

So it goes with Wareham, who to his credit refrains from going to the bathroom long enough to pen 4,000 words of articulate and interesting arguments in defense of Daft Punk. Moody seems to appreciate the futility of it all — in closing, he writes to Wareham, “I know that I have convinced you of nothing, cannot convince you of anything, and I have found your arguments articulate, fascinating, and just shy of irritated with me, and I assume you have some real inside knowledge of the album and its participants, or so it seems to me. This has made the conversation very interesting to me. You are a worthy antagonist, and I thank you for the discussion.”

The whole thing reminds me of the interminable arguments I’d hear at my parents’ dinner parties, which went around in endless circles and became exponentially more strident as the contents of multiple bottles of red wine were depleted. It’s ultimately about dick-waving — at proving yourself to be articulate, and fascinating, and a worthy antagonist. It’s not about communicating, or listening, or coming to any sort of consensus (or at least synthesis). It’s the same sort of “debating” that characterizes parliament, another institution that, coincidentally enough, is most often full of tiresome white male windbags.

As music critics, we’ve all written this way. Sometimes it takes reading something like Moody’s screed to think, dear god, do I sound like that sometimes? And if so, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and wonder about who you’re addressing, and why, and how, and what you want to achieve.