Artists Of The Year

From escapist entertainment to aesthetic ecstasy: Twenty-nine writers script valentines to twelve months of culture

Last year Wilson published her first collection of essays, called A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations, which is loosely focused on America's obsession with fame. In it she mercilessly dissects such phenomena as the Oscars, Hollywood social climbing, cock-rock kings, and, of course, Celine Dion and "the insane plucking and starving and discipline-greedy self-abnegation she represents." The book, while snazzier than the musings of any other pop-culture critic today, nevertheless tends to underplay what I value most in her writing.

Her best work heaves with breathless, manic love for the very act of writing. One imagines her composing her Salon column between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., chain-smoking and restless, not quite believing anyone else will ever read it. Thus she is freed to fly over this land, smart-bombing the sellouts and phonies, a nocturnal crime fighter defending Truth, Justice, and the Rock.

In her homage to the Sex Pistols, she could be describing herself, and everything that makes her precious at this lousy moment in American journalism: "We live in a time when the real stuff hardly ever gets to the starting line anymore. Everyone is too afraid of punishment, of alienating people, of lawyers and lawsuits and controversy and losing money, to ever do anything truly original and daring. Well, fuck 'em, I say. Fuck 'em all right in the ear. You have to get a little bit of somebody else's blood on your teeth if you're ever going to say anything but 'Yes, sir,' and if all you ever say is 'Yes, sir,' you've wasted your whole goddamned life."

Kate Sullivan is an L.A.-based freelancer who has written forSpin, theLos Angeles Times, and theNew York Times Magazine, and is a frequent contributor toCity Pages.

 

LESTER BANGS
by Peter S. Scholtes

 

The way some of us go on, you'd think Lester Bangs was a rock 'n' roll Orwell--that phony superstars were his Stalin, punk his Lincoln Brigade. Yet to love the Great Dead White Male of rock criticism is to know he was also very much full of shit. You don't read an essay like "James Taylor Marked for Death" for nuance any more than you listen to a band like the Troggs--ostensible subjects of that screed--for jazzy overtones. When I first showered in Bangs's torrent of spiel as a teenager--six years after his death in 1982--I got the feeling that he liked the idea of liking the Troggs even more than he actually liked the Troggs. He was contrary, like Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music---four sides of noise that even noise fans can't stand, dubbed by Bangs "the greatest album ever made in the history of the human eardrum."

No doubt Bangs was a force for good. But he was a force first of all--to be reckoned with and absorbed rather than framed and hung. Certainly Let It Blurt, this year's reverse beatification by Jim DeRogatis, seemed a good enough excuse to hang out with Bangs a little longer (and just when his old buddies Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer were dumping a pile of new criticism on the shelves). The book paints him as a grenade tucked inside a teddy bear. Lester to his girlfriend's parents: "Gosh, your daughter sure is beautiful... Got any cognac?" But you miss the prose--the writing Anthony DeCurtis insists is responsible for the public's "perception of rock critics as obsessed, overgrown geeks with more opinions than ideas, always searching for a free drink and a captive audience."

Bangs had a lot of ideas--the way he attached them to his subjects was part of his charm--and one was the never-quaint notion that you can smash the barrier between artist and audience. "Ultimately, you are mourning for yourselves," he wrote after John Lennon's death, insisting Yoko's lover was just "a guy." In this regard, accusing Bangs of "self-indulgence" is like calling Woodward and Bernstein nosy: His rank self was his main subject. Which is why Bangs would have heaved all over Almost Famous, a movie that immortalized him as the counsel of reportorial distance (!) but had nothing to say about evaluating music on it own messy terms. (The cherubic young writer he advises isn't even an Orwell in his curiosity; he's Access Hollywood.) For Bangs, to be loudly subjective had something, maybe everything, to do with freedom--which is why a lot of people other than rock critics mourn themselves remembering him.

Peter S. Scholtes is a staff writer atCity Pages.

 

LE TIGRE
by Jon Dolan

 

"Who took the BOMP!?" Bikini Killer Kathleen Hannah asks at the beginning of her new band Le Tigre's late-1999 debut. Goddamn good question, if you still believe in the rock 'n' roll dream. Takers? Well, look to your right: A bottom-line-humping oligarchy of record conglomerates rules the mainstream, squashing alt-era transgression like it was a butterfly under Britney's boot. Now look to the left: Rock's boutique minority, sickened by the debauchery in the pop-tart pleasuredome, clings to its obscurantism as to driftwood in a flood. Just as Ralph Nader wouldn't incorporate pleasure into his anti-corporatism (or funk into his rallies), Thom Yorke got to play postrock's little prince by acting like "bomp" never happened. Godspeed you wack emperor!

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