Minnesota Nice was killing music criticism even back in 1933

"L'apres Midi D'un Faune" was perhaps the 1933 equivalent of Beach House's "Zebra."
"L'apres Midi D'un Faune" was perhaps the 1933 equivalent of Beach House's "Zebra."
Photo by Erik Hess

Everyone's a critic -- except in Minnesota, of course. Well, we're just as judgmental if not worse in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but you'd hardly detect it from any publicly circulated opinion on the matter with a byline. Actually, I take that back. Those charged with writing criticism often get shunned from the glow of "Minnesota Nice."

"There has never been a better time to be a mediocre new local band," ex-City Pages music scribe Jim Meyer wrote in 2010 in a scab-inducing takedown of our best new bands popularity poll, aka the "ghoulish toddler pageant" Picked to Click. Unlike most among us, he was brave enough to type out this acrid contention -- in part that "one glad-hand washes the other" when it comes to music coverage -- which mostly makes the rounds more anonymously in local coffee shops, artist interviews in the U.K., and hilariously on message boards.

But did all this "niceness" sprout recently from blogs and hype and bath salts? If there are any septuagenarian readers of Gimme Noise, the estimable John K. Sherman should come immediately to mind. For all others, here's an introduction. In a piece penned in the Minneapolis Star dated December 2, 1933, he contends that opinions on music around here were already "danged monotonous." Whether you concede that it's a problem or not, it sure isn't a recent development.

Initially, it was tempting to attempt to pass off this opinion piece -- found during some research of the post-Prohibition era at the Minnesota Historical Society -- as a far-more-recent story, but that headline reeks worse than a crate of lutefisk! Almost certainly not written by the clever and slippery Sherman, "Too Tolerant and Amiable Attitude to Music Scored" lazily gleans two adjectives from the article's second sentence.

"Are we too good-natured, too amiably tolerant, too wishy-washily receptive to all the music that reaches our ears in concert halls?" Short answer: God-damn right! Proceed.

Minnesota Nice was killing music criticism even back in 1933

From what we've read so far, there's nothing about these passages that betrays a current contrarian's argument about Twin Cities music critiques. Also, who isn't feeling a bit perturbed (read: hungover) after a "gruelling week of music" around here? In general terms, it's the challenge of all critics today to avoid soaking their evaluations in "deadly good will." Sherman does not excuse his own paper, but also doesn't indict himself directly. 

Before we delve further, you're probably wondering who this opinionated fella was. According to local archives, John Kurtz Sherman was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1898. After a short stint at the University of Minnesota, Sherman worked at the Minneapolis Star as critic and books and arts editor from 1925 up until he died in 1969. He's credited with authoring  Music and Maestros: The Story of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Music and Theater in Minnesota History, and some other titles. There are no records of what brand of scotch he drank or the lengths of his sideburns, however.

Minnesota Nice was killing music criticism even back in 1933

Pardon the dated references here. What music can convey and, in turn, arouse in a listener is still a pressing concern. Referring to music fans in a "daze of aesthetic delight" was many decades too soon to be intended as a veiled reference to EDM drug culture by Sherman, so he must be seriously posing this question. So yeah, different music does trigger different emotions.    

Aside from the fun you might have swapping out classical artists for contemporary ones -- "Isn't Beach House's 'Zebra' occasionally as effective as a sleeping tablet?" -- the point here goes back to what Jim Meyer was talking about in our intro. The baby buzz band of 2013 was a "young and eager student" striding out to play Schumann on the piano 80 years ago. In either case, there's far less friction involved to just give them a pass even when these situations do make us "mad, or sad, or irritated, or..." -- well, let's just let Sherman continue.

Minnesota Nice was killing music criticism even back in 1933

Now this is interesting -- and there are plenty of Tumblr postings to back me up on it. Sherman accuses Minnesotans of being fearful of looking uncultured. Sound familiar? Plus, in the age of instant Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook reviews-as-we-go, we don't even have to wait until the intermission to have our lack of cultural prowess thrown into question. "I am seeing this thing right now, and you're a. a fool for not liking it and b. even more shameful if you're not here experiencing it." Where someone always answered "wonderful" in 1933, "awesome" is a wonderful 2013 replacement for the so-called gatekeeper hive mind instantly at work. 

Here, we reach a critical, aka very important, distinction in Sherman's argument. He isn't calling for more career-ending hatchet jobs -- even if grumblers can be quite entertaining -- but there's a level of nuance he pines for. (Perhaps something ranging wider than even a 10.0 scale.) Even 80 years ago, someone who said what they thought -- culture be hanged! -- was hard to come by in Minnesota.  

Minnesota Nice was killing music criticism even back in 1933

To close things out, Sherman makes a joke about using music as torture. Of course, it's far less humorous with today's knowledge that detainees at Guantanamo Bay reached their breaking point with repeated listens to the Sesame Street theme, Eminem, Metallica, among others. (Dvorak's "New World Symphony" seems comparably tame to these ears.) But it does indicate how far he believes a person should go in their assessments.

We see a hint of the listicles to come in the decades that followed as he solicits his readers' lists of their pet musical peeves, and to join him in an epic bit of grumbling. And it's the last sentence that we come closest to to the outright dismissal of the Minnesota Nice framework. All-embracing benevolence never resolves what to order at a restaurant, what to name a first-born child, or which book to check out from the library. The answer can never be "all of them," so why pretend that it's possible to like every concert attended equally?

"...criticism doesn't mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs," Dwight Garner wrote in the essential "A Critic's Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical" for The New York Times last year. "It doesn't necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It's at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human."

And what better place to do this than in a piece criticizing soft local critics? Certainly a better tack than Sherman risking offending any thin-skinned pals in the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, the biggest local band of his day.

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