1993 was an interesting year in Chicago. Albums by Urge Overkill, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Liz Phair brought unprecedented national attention to the city. In an end-of-the-year essay, published the first week of 1994, I tried to find some commonality among artists routinely described as representing irreconcilable camps in a fractured music scene. I noted that Phair, Urge, and the Pumpkins' Billy Corgan all rejected "the insularity that increasingly characterizes underground music and the fringes of alternative music in America. . . [its] harshness, contrariness and machismo"--this all based on my definitions of underground as "deliberately non-pop music" and alternative as "relatively personal music that doesn't necessarily exclude pop."
This analysis was not received well by the denizens of the local underground, and soon their most noted spokesperson, Steve Albini, responded. Albini is best known for fronting Big Black, Rapeman, and, most recently, Shellac, and for his production work for the Pixies, PJ Harvey, and Nirvana. More interesting to me is his writing. His contributions to fanzines like Forced Exposure and Matter display a remarkably clear expository style and a vituperative flair that I wish more mainstream writers possessed. Anyway, Albini's billet doux, titled by the Reader "Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music Press Stooge," set off one of the paper's all-time great letter wars. Here is the original column from January 7, 1994, followed by Albini's letter to the editors and a whole raft of reader responses. --BW
The line on Chicago's 1993 contributions to the national pop firmament--Liz
Phair, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Urge Overkill--is that they've
in effect agreed to disagree on musical approaches, making for
a fractured "scene" with little cohesion. This is true,
but their stylistic differences mask the philosophical ground
that unites them and seems likely to influence a second wave of
bands from Chicago in 1994: an explicit rejection of much of the
insularity that increasingly characterizes underground music and
the fringes of alternative music in America. Few would question
what I guess would be called the artistic integrity of any of
these acts: yet they've avoided (Phair), criticized (Pumpkins),
or loudly abandoned (Urge) the harshness, contrariness, and machismo
of the underground in favor of a professed desire to sell records.
Hence the reaction of certain fans, smaller record labels, college
radio DJs, and other scenesters: scathing attacks on Urge, gleeful,
sexist whispers about Phair, the contemptuous dismissal of the
Pumpkins' Billy Corgan. Of course, the players have to varying
degrees brought a lot of their problems on themselves, and at
any rate they're beginning to see the kind of bank balances that
tend to put such problems into perspective. Yet each artist had
to grapple with what's supposed to be a dichotomy between being
popular and being "alternative." Once it became apparent
that the fine line between the two was blurring, the rear guard
from the underground--which I would define as deliberately non-pop,
whereas I guess alternative would be relatively personal music
that doesn't necessarily exclude pop--tried not only to keep them
clear, but to make a big deal out of which side of the line you
were on. This, of course, is bullshit, and these artists took
a stand and the resulting heat to prove it.
Corgan, whose teen-friendly guitar rock seems a likely foundation for a Depeche Mode- or Cure-sized career, had the best of '93, finding the critical respect denied him in his hometown from the likes of the LA Times's Robert Hilburn and the New York Times's Jon Pareles (who named Siamese Dream their number-two and number-three albums of the year, respectively) and scoring an album headed for double-platinum status. Urge Overkill, a band made up of some very smart boys acting dumb, had a more ambivalent year, cursed, as they say, by the granting of all their wishes. The band had a good record company enthused about promoting a good record, and good wishes and support from all quarters: both alternative and mainstream radio, the press, MTV, Nirvana, you name it. Yet for some reason, while the group's very smart record sold respectably, it never really clicked with buyers. Nor did its even smarter videos turn on the MTV kids. On balance, the band was either too smart about being dumb or too dumb about being smart.
You decide; Hitsville's head is spinning.
Of the trio, Phair (whose album was number one on Pareles's list, number six on Hilburn's) had the toughest year as Guyville bit back. Growing up in public is no fun, and there's no good advice (just a lot of it) about how to navigate the infrequently traveled path she seems to be on. The snarkiness of the local music scene is irrelevant to most normal people, of course, but Phair, for better or worse, lives in the midst of it and has endured its extreme, almost pathological preoccupation for about 11 months now. It's difficult to overstate the sheer volume of noise about Phair around town, ranging from slurs about her personal life to endless discussions about when she actually first heard Exile on Main Street (the record she based Exile in Guyville on) to charges that her label (the acerbic Matador) wasn't indie enough. As an amateur Phairologist and free-lance moralist I deem far too much of it to be nasty to be healthy and the very fact of its existence much more interesting than its substance. Phair's certainly pushing somebody's buttons.
In other local news, Q101's heavily programmed alternative format rolled up ratings. It's a funny station: song for song, it probably plays better music than any other outlet around, and it's pretty aggressive about doing what radio stations should do, which is play new music from new groups. But it has three major problems: One, it almost never plays music by black people. Two, its playlist is far too small, sometimes approaching Top 40-style rotation. And three, it has a museum-quality selection of numskull disk jockeys. Everyone I know has their favorite embarrassing Q101 DJ moment; Hitsville will be happy to list his own and the favorites of any readers at some future date.
The Loop, one of the most famous and successful AOR stations in
the U.S., abandoned rock music altogether this year. (Disclosure:
Hitsville does a talk show on the Loop, but since none of the
other papers in town have written about this subject, I figure
it's worth mentioning.) The Loop always had a notoriously tight
playlist even by AOR standards; pinched by the heavy metal of
the Blaze on the right and 'XRT and Q101 on the left, and seeing
its own audience aging fast, the station took advantage of relaxed
FCC ownership controls to buy the Blaze, turned its AM to sports
talk, and gave up the ghost on AOR entirely in favor of all talk.
Who could have predicted, just a few years ago, such a major shift
in the configuration of rock radio stations in one of the largest
media markets in the U.S.? Could it be that--oh, nevermind
Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
Urge Overkill, Saturation
Dr. Dre, The Chronic
Nirvana, In Utero
P.M. Dawn, The Bliss Album...?
Bettie Serveert, Palomine
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Spinning Around the Sun
Stereolab, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements
Digable Planets, Reachin (A New Refutation of Time and Space)
The opening paragraph of your Year-in-rock recap [Hitsville, January 7] is one of the most brilliant bits of ass-forward thought I've seen in years. If I read your heavily parenthetical English correctly, you are making the case that Liz Phair, Urge Overkill and the Smashing Pumpkins are somehow unique in rock music because they are brazenly trying to sell records. Genius.
You also intimate that anyone having a gripe about these artists' calculated and overbearing hype barrage is being merely parochial or petty. You dismiss this sort of discussion as "bullshit." Since I like using words like "bullshit," and I am one of the people who sees nothing of value in any of these three artists, I will gladly adopt the term as shorthand for the position you argue against.
In your rush to pat these three pandering sluts on the heinie, you miss what has been obvious to the "bullshit" crowd all along: These are not "alternative" artists any more than their historical precursors. They are by, of and for the mainstream. Liz Phair is Rickie Lee Jones (more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking chore to listen to), Smashing Pumpkins are REO Speedwagon (stylistically appropriate for the current college party scene, but ultimately insignificant) and Urge Overkill are Oingo Boingo (Weiners in suits playing frat party rock, trying to tap a goofy trend that doesn't even exist). You only think they are noteworthy now because some paid publicist has told you they are, and you, fulfilling your obligation as part of the publicity engine that drives the music industry, spurt about them on cue.
You attempt to validate your lionizing these frauds by referring to other music critics, after owning up to the reality that these artists don't get much respect from anybody else. In their day, their precursors were considered (by tools like you and those you quote) to be the nuts. That nobody gives a shit about them now is evidence that their appeal was temporal, transitory and superficial, and further evidence that tools like you (and them) don't know shit from fat meat.
Watching the three artists you moo about prostrate themselves before the altar of publicity these last 12 months has been a source of unrivaled hilarity here in the "bullshit" camp, and seeing them sink into the obscurity they have earned by blowing their promo wads will be equally satisfying.
The "bullshit" characterization concluded your argument that the music scene is tiny, and the perspectives of other artists, independent record companies, fans and the like are too insignificant to warrant serious consideration. Look at the shoes you're standing in, big nuts. Music press stooges like you tend to believe and repeat what other music press stooges write, reinforcing each other's misconceptions as though the tiny little world you guys live in (imagine a world so small!) actually means something to us on the outside.
Out here in the world, we have to pay for our records, and we get taken advantage of by the music industry, using stooges like you to manipulate us. We harbor a notion of music as a thing of value, and methodology as an equal, if not supreme component of an artist's aesthetic. You don't "get" it because you're supported by an industry that gains nothing when artists exist happily outside it, or when people buy records they like rather than the ones they're told to.
Though you wave your boob flag proudly throughout the rest of the piece, you did make one reasoned and intelligent statement. You stated your disapproval of those who would snicker at Liz Phair's personal life in lieu of actually discussing her merits as an artist and her album as a work. Considering how easy a target Phair's music is, it is a shame that some of her critics have nullified the discussion by using the leering mode you refer to. In truth, she and her album are probably the least offensive of the three you focused on in your column, which may explain why you think she is any good.
Artists who survive on hype are often critic's pets. They don't, however, make timeless, classic music that survives trends and inspires generations of fans and other artists. There are artists in Chicago doing just that, but you don't write about them. You save your zeal instead for this year's promo fixtures. Shame on your lazy head. Clip your year-end column and put it away for ten years. See if you don't feel like an idiot when you reread it.
Re: "Laughing Steve" Albini's diatribe against Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins, and Urge Overkill in your January 28 edition. Hey Steve, did you use your money from the Nirvana album as a down payment on a condo or a town house in Evanston?
Thumbs up for "Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music-Press Stooge" [Letters, January 28]. Finally, Mr. Albini's typically vitriolic pontifications express a point that is well-targeted and long overdue. Obviously, these musicians know how to package themselves, possess considerable business acumen, and work very, very hard, but the same can be said of the Spin Doctors, Counting Crows, and other formulaic one-trick ponies. Criticism of this trio of artists is not a mean-spirited backlash but rather an expression of frustration for all the city's real talent that will be lucky to be heard on a seven-inch single and will remain unnoticed by sycophantic music critics.
No doubt Mr. Albini was pushing some personal buttons (as seems to be his raison d'etre), but there are plenty of music "outsiders" who heartily agree with him.
In response to Steve Albini's "Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music-Press Stooge" [Letters, January 28]:
For someone who whored himself on "The Wedding Present" aren't you presumptuous! By putting Mr. Wyman down in your usual crude and degrading fashion it only makes you appear TALLER! Not that we don't appreciate your forced expletive print posturing. Unfortunately your pimpled prick performance was just too easy this time. Perhaps this type of senseless bravado has some direct correlation to one's genitalia size?
Wishing I lived in Evanston
I wish you would enlighten us, your readers, with more information on the Harsh, Contrary, and Macho Chicago Underground Music Scene that you always talk about in your column. Who are these bands? They sound neato, except for their naughty propensity for always bitching about those artists more talented and popular than they are! I hear that the Harsh, Contrary, and Macho Chicago Underground Music Scene has weekly meetings where they burn copies of Spin magazine, prank call their enemies' record labels, and wring their hands while attempting to create new gossip about that cute little Lizgirl. Oh well. I mean, fuck, you pay all that money to go to all the Hip Clubs every night and don't even tell us about these bands--just the ones like Veruca Salt who are so obviously steeped in the Chemicals of Mainstream Success. My poor pal Cho Yun was mortally deafened by the sounds of ringing cash registers after listening to 30 seconds of the hennaed combo's Underground Demonstration Cassette.
With the advent of all this Coke is It!/Alternative Rock bullshit it is popular for mainstream rock critics to feign knowledge of the Harsh, Contrary, and Macho Underground Music Scenes in order to remain "credible and groovy." "Please Shit or get off the pot," I quip blithely.
With all due respect,
Card carrying indie rocker and smartass
P.S. Do I write for the Baffler yet?
This is in response to Mr. Steve Albini's letter printed in the January 28 issue of the Reader.
Steve, Steve, Steve, why all the bitterness? You blasted against three "mainstream" bands, but in light of your recent production work with the multiplatinum, critic-adored (like yourself), and "mainstream" Nirvana, all your erudite spleen purgings stink of hypocrisy.
It sounds to me like you are pissing and moaning about the meal you have been served after devouring every morsel off your plate. In your world, success and integrity do not mix. Watching you spit and growl to maintain your underground credentials over the last 12 months has been a source of unrivaled hilarity.
Your image as self-appointed standard bearer for the underground has grown a bit tiresome. To be more blunt, you are starting to sound like my weird uncle who comes over uninvited, drinks all of my best liquor and then gives me tomes of unsolicited advice about gardening, pet care, women, etc.
Crank, crank, crank. Drunk with self-righteousness.
Bill Wyman is not the propaganda arm of some recording industry conspiracy. He is a normal guy. This might come as a shock to you, Stevie, but as a normal guy, Wyman's entitled to his opinions. Just like you, Steve! See how it all works? So he doesn't write about the bands you want him to, that's his choice. You went to a prestigious journalism school and should know all about these things.
I am not defending what Wyman writes; I don't always agree with him, either. Unlike you, I don't give a rat's ass about it. Wyman has no responsibilities to me or you or anyone other than himself and his editors. If he did, that would be tantamount to him telling you how to operate within your profession.
So, Steve, take this all to heart, and at the first opportunity, say all kinds of scatological things about my band. Nothing would make me feel better. I would love to be the next target of your childish rage.
Dear Ed.: Regarding Steve Albini's open letter to Bill Wyman in your January 28 issue:
While over the past dozen years or so I have enjoyed Mr. Albini's colorful ranting in many an obscure and slanted rag, it was indeed a rare pleasure, while wading through the local mainstream, to open the Reader and find a contribution by thee Diminutive Caucasian himself. Unfortunately, somehow, I got drunk, puked on the page and it came out soaked with bile.
I believe I understand the gist of the letter (Wyman's a lackey for those driving the corporate steamroller, we're all gonna be flattened, and these bands suck anyway) as well as the dystopian ideals from which thee D.C. pretends to speak (pure art, in order to remain pure, must speak uniquely to each individual and therefore must remain obscure, and that the mutual crotch-twaddling by bands, media, suits, sluts, and promoters yields no benefit for the rest of us).
If it's one thing I can't stand, it's another great revelation. Personally, I spend 99 percent of my time trying to avoid this kind of drivel--if the hype is bad then the antihype is worse. Steve, it's not like anybody's stuffing sand up your crack--it doesn't exist--ignore it--relax!
Personally, I don't disagree with Mr. A's sentiments, the PhairSmashingOverkill bunch seem to derive their inspirations from something on the level of a cereal box. And Ms. Phair, the Brooke Shields of Indie-Pop, claims the biggest prize for playing the media like a Stradivarius months before her album actually came out. Give her the polyester bunnyrabbit.
Recent critical national attention to the local music scene is unprecedented. Never before has any local band had a chance at any real national attention. Mr. Albini deserves due credit for the contributions of Big Black in pioneering the "Chicago Sound." However, I would hate to see this goose cooked by politicization and fractionalization in the local media.
Instead of pandering to the pandering, Lil' Stevie, might you consider applying your estimable talents to more positive pursuits--like (as Mr. Wyman has) encouraging the efforts of some of your more creative proteges and colleagues such as Table or Tortoise or the ex-Shrimp Boatees, like promoting the synergies of pub, public and liquor of which I am personally so fond, or maybe even exhuming from the archives some of those precursors you speak of and releasing their music--like Terminal Beach, the "Oz" outtakes, the secret Naked Raygun tapes, or the ultrasecret Silver Abuse sessions?
David H. Purdie
PS: Steve, I just forked over 14 bucks for your shitty Zeni Geva collaboration cd. If artistic integrity is the soapbox on which you stand, you should gimme my money back--it sucks!
Dear Reader: This is a letter in reply to a letter from an asshole, namely, Steve Albini [January 28]. Look, I agree that music critics, or generally any kind of critics live in their own little worlds and I usually don't know anyone who agrees with them, but don't confuse your arguments here. Ripping on bands just because the critics like them is, as you love to say, bullshit, and you damn well know it. It's not their fault critics like them; it's not their fault anyone likes them! I think (and this is an opinion) that you're just maybe a little bit bitter because Slint didn't get this much attention. Just because people like a band or a person doesn't mean they've sold out or they suck, or they're (here's that word again) full of bullshit. I, along with many other people I know (none of whom are music critics) happen to like Liz Phair and the Smashing Pumpkins. I don't personally care very much for Urge Overkill, but I have many friends who do. And we find quite a lot of value in all of their music, and I especially value Billy Corgan's lyrics (try actually listening to them sometime), but I won't go into that. The point is, while you are entitled to your own opinion, as we all are, frankly, I'm getting sick of your whining and railing against "bullshit" you can't understand. Not understanding something is no reason to bash it into the ground. And also, just because people are into some of the bigger names doesn't mean they let the smaller ones escape them. Babette's Feast is a really awesome band, as well as the Spinanes, and Babes in Toyland, and Sun 60, and the Loved Ones, and Hip Deep Trilogy, and Big Hat. . . the list goes on and on forever. I listen to these people just like I listen to the Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair. My God, man, it's all music. You can snicker and laugh your ass off all you want at this letter; I don't really give a damn, because that means you at least read it, and some of this may sink through to you. You, personally, have made some damn good music in the past, but now it's their turn. You still continue to make good music, too, so you really have no reason to be as bitter as you seem to be. There's no way in hell their lyrics are any funnier than yours are/were. I personally admire your musical talent, but I still think you're a major asshole because you have an extremely close-minded attitude. And I hate to tell you this, dearie, but you're just as bad as those music critics you hate, because you jam your opinions down our throats like so much (here it is again) "bullshit," just like they do. They may be "music-press stooges" and "pandering sluts," but you are truly the King of All Whores if you were to be judged by your own standards. You wanna talk about media hype barrage, count the number of times your name has been in print since this time last year. All the Nirvana hype? And that big, national magazine naming you a "man of the year," or some such? You have appeared in mass media at least as much as Liz Phair has. You, too, are springboarding yourself off of the success of the Smashing Pumpkins, and Liz Phair, and Urge Overkill, and making your merry way into the spotlight to ram more garbage down our throats. Your little letter was highly entertaining, though, I must say. It's very hard for me to imagine someone as close-minded as you seem to be making it as far as you have. You must be a very, very talented man. But I suggest you close your mouth once in a while and just listen to something, because otherwise you might choke on all the shit (I'm sorry; that should be "bullshit") you spew forth into our laps.
Fuck you right back,
PS: In ten years, when some band you really love cites Liz, Urge, and/or the Pumpkins as major influences, you're gonna feel low, man. Really low. Just remember that.
I'm sure I speak for many readers when I say that I was absolutely delighted with Steve Albini's recent letter to Bill Wyman [January 28]. Steve articulated perfectly the frustration and disgust many of us have with Wyman and his propensity for promoting mediocre, completely unspectacular Chicago rock acts like Liz Phair, Shrimp Boat, Red Red Meat, and his most recent pet project, Veruca Salt. If one went solely on what Wyman writes in his column, one would think there are only about seven bands in the entire city.
Thanks Steve for exposing Wyman for what he really is: a not very knowledgeable shill for his Wicker Park cronies.
All this vitriol directed at Steve Albini is uncalled for. While I concede his conceit, it must be admitted that compromising one's principles for the sake of popularity is, at the very least, tacky. In his defense, I would like to share an incident that speaks to Mr. Albini's credentials as a true artist who refuses to sell out. One day my roommate was disturbed by our upstairs neighbors who were playing their stereo too loud. She asked me if I had any really obnoxious music, and I said sure; I considered the Butthole Surfers and the Dead Kennedys but settled for Mr. Albini's old band, Big Black. About five seconds of Songs About Fucking played at ten was all my roommate could take, but it was enough to ensure peace and quiet for the rest of the afternoon.
I've been most disappointed that in the aftermath of Steve Albini's January 28 diatribe Mr. Wyman hasn't responded. However, because Albini's writing style is extremely vindictive ("if you can't say something nice about someone say fuck you"), I can understand his reticence. Subsequently, readers have responded with personal attacks on Albini or outrage that he doesn't like their fave raves, while never reflecting on the valid message he was conveying.
Being a rock critic ranks somewhere on the popularity chart near baseball umpire or IRS man. Critics by nature are elitist, as their writings are based on the premise that "my opinion is more valid than yours." Their writings are generally treated with disdain for not conforming with popular taste.
However, critics can gain some degree of stature if they can go from mere opinion givers to actual tastemakers. And this status can be reached if the bands you praise happen to sell records. It helps even more if you focus your efforts on local talent, playing to chauvinistic Chicago pride.
I think this is what happened in 1993 in Chicago. In their rush to be on the "Next Big Thing/Seattle" bandwagon, Bill Wyman, Greg Kot, and Jim DeRogatis have dispensed with a large measure of objectivity, as apparently high chart positions cover up the flaws in any artist.
Instead of analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of their work, I read nothing but breathless prose in an effort to deify the new gods of the Chicago Scene. While I'm happy that local bands are finally getting more attention in the local press, the provincialism of this trio is embarrassing. Let's try to get some perspective. While major label attention may be more focused on this 'burg, the scene was just as exciting when Didjits, Jesus Lizard, and Naked Raygun/Pegboy were making great music and no one was paying much attention.
After their success in 1993, the tastemaking trio seek to elevate more bands. A disturbing insularity has set in. One guy writes about a band and the other two follow--and suddenly that all important buzz develops. We now have a mini-version of the British music press. It becomes a series of self-fulfilling prophecies, with the critics using each other to back up their own opinions, built on the solid foundation of their correctness in forecasting the "greatness" of Liz, Urge, and the Pumpkins.
For example, take Veruca Salt. I express no opinion on their music, having not seen one of their shows yet. Hopefully this neophyte combo will turn out to make many great records. What bothers me, based on the Critical Three's 1993 performance, is that even if Veruca Salt's debut turns out to be utter shit, none of them will be willing to say the emperor has no clothes and thus make their past writings look silly.
Remember, the music comes first. Otherwise, interviews and reviews
are just press releases in disguise.
Michael C. Bennett
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