In October, New Yorker pop-music critic Sasha Frere-Jones found himself face-to-face with a firestorm of criticism over his essay "A Whiter Shade of Pale." In it, he posited that contemporary indie rock suffers, innately, from a general lack of African-American musical influence.
The backlash, in the blogosphere and in his mailbox, was considerable.
"Some of the criticisms were just bonkers, like that I'm a racist or that it's too essentialist," says Frere-Jones, a former Slate columnist who joined The New Yorker in 2004.
But mostly, he says by phone from New York, he remains satisfied with the column. "It's a piece that's very specific about music. If you go back, you will not find any generalizations about people in it.
"There was a way to write that piece that nobody would've been bothered by, but it would've been weaker, and it's not such a bad thing that so many people got angry," he continues. "I don't mind that they got angry at me. It foregrounded the issue, and that's cool.
"The problem with the piece," he says, is that "the ending was rushed for logistical reasons."
It's a theme that comes up with Frere-Jones again and again -- the importance of putting a great deal of time and thought into his work.
"It takes me a long time to figure out what I think," he explains. "One of my favorite columns I've done lately was the Mariah Carey piece [featured in DaCapo's Best Music Writing 2007], which came out close to a year after the album came out. And I think there should be more of that in criticism in general."
Frere-Jones, who speaks Tue., April 29, at Carnegie Mellon University, suggests that a more relaxed approach to the timeliness of music reviews might prevent problems like last month's debacle at Maxim. The magazine was called out for publishing a review of the new Black Crowes album by a critic who hadn't even listened to the whole thing -- the record hadn't been released, even for media preview.
"If you're being paid very little and you're being pushed to do little hundred-word blurb reviews, you've got a lot of people who are probably listening to five songs and then writing the review," says Frere-Jones, himself formerly a member of the funk-influenced post-rock band Ui. "And how much do those little blurby reviews matter to people? I never really liked them and I don't read them and I never did, though I did end up writing them for a while."
Despite his aversion to short-form criticism, Frere-Jones is a noted blogger; he keeps a music blog for The New Yorker and a more eclectic one on his personal site (www.sashafrerejones.com). While some critics excoriate the music blogosphere as an out-of-control hype machine that's damaging the larger world of criticism, Frere-Jones isn't so quick to condemn.
"It's like Bob Christgau said: If you read too many blogs, you're going to get annoyed, but there's a really simple cure -- just don't read them," he says. "The rules haven't changed. Good writing is good writing and there isn't going to be a lot of it. Really terrible blogs don't last."
He admits, though, that some sites take things a little too far, and end up publishing with quantity instead of quality in mind.
"One thing that hype does is that it's sort of like Hamburger Helper -- it sort of extends the conversation," he says. "You're just sort of filling up space because you have a blog. I have nothing against the places that post 97 times a day, but they made the decision to post 97 times a day, and they're going to sort of be simulating newsiness."
Sasha-Frere Jones 8 p.m. Tue., April 29. McConomy Auditorium, CMU campus, Oakland. Free. 412-268-2105
- Photo courtesy of Piera Gelardi.
- "The rules haven't changed": Sasha Frere-Jones.