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2 November 2009

What happened to Robert Hilburn’s rock’n’roll heroes?


I have a soft spot in my heart for Los Angeles Times emeritus pop critic Robert Hilburn. Back when I spent more time writing about music than enabling its makers to make a career at it, Bob was kind enough to invite me to the newspaper’s dining hallĀ for a pep talk. He eventually commissioned me to write a handful of articles for the paper and provided some general life encouragement, but I was less thankful for his professional assistance than for his being. His sunny, angst-free demeanor and real enthusiasm for the soundtrack of his life was clear and real. He provided a ray of light at the end of the long tunnel that is freelancer life.

But what is Hilburn’s legacy as a critic? I have mixed feelings. His Wikipedia entry gives a good summary of his critical philosophy. (Unlike many pop critics he definitely had one.):

    If you took away as few as four dozen artists from that endless row of dominoes, rock would have collapsed as an art form. Imagine your record collection without Bob Dylan, the Beatles or U2. Because of that, he felt one of the main challenges of a critic was to focus on those musicians who contributed to expanding that art form.

This approach has its problems, however, which this summary also articulates.

    In search of those artists, [Hilburn] says he frequently ended up writing about false promises; artists who ran out of ideas, self-destructed or compromised their music in hopes of wider sales. But he was also fortunate enough to connect with the most important artists of the rock era.

Basically there was something about Bob’s warm, humanistic approach to music appreciation that caused him to vacillate between getting hoodwinked by hype and falling in love with his subjects.

Well, Bob — having accepted a buyout from the LA Times in 2005 — has spent the last few years writing a book, the just published Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life, and that’s led to some deeper analysis of how useful his critical approach is circa 2009.

Essentially Hilburn and the generation of critics to whom he belonged looked at pop musicians as more than just artists — rather they were viewed as culture heroes, agents of change. Primed by the massive social and cultural changes that were wrought on American society in the 1950s and 60s, this wasn’t a bad way of analyzing the pop music being made in the 20th century’s second half. Think of the dominant artists who arose on Hilburn’s watch: people like Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, Bono and Bruce Springsteen, and that’s only the Bs! It’s fair to say many of them are “major figures” not only in the domain of popular song, but in helping the world think through issues as disparate as civil rights and global poverty, religious faith and the USA’s disenfranchised working class.

In some cases, their music literally changed the world. Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground provided hope & inspiration to those behind the Iron Curtain. Michael Jackson and Bono were the first people to make some of us aware, really aware, of famine in Africa.

We Are the World” (1985)

Maybe Hilburn’s “hero” approach was the ideal way to look at pop music made between the birth of rock’n’roll and the year 2000, a time when the POP in the phrase “popular music” was more important than any sound, a time when massive crossover success was not only a possibility but the goal of most artists really playing the game.

Today, however, something has changed. Not as many artists are chasing the kind of wide audience that a previous generation’s artists thought of as a divine right. I’m not sure why. Is it because Napster and the collapse of the recorded music market has reduced the number of pop stars with obscene wealth and excess leisure time? Or is it merely that the niche audiences enabled by the internet privilege artists who speak to specific tastes rather than broad-based commonalities?

In “What About the Music Itself?,” a Wall Street Journal review of Hilburn’s book, Jim Fusilli pinpionts the limitations of the mental construct that dominated Hilburn’s writing:

    …in “Corn Flakes” Mr. Hilburn tells us, inadvertently, why it’s so difficult for music fans who grew up with his kind of journalism to connect with today’s rich rock scene. There is very little analysis or discussion of music in the book. Mr. Hilburn thinks of songs as words and messages first, and rarely does he attribute the power of a song to the arrangement, the harmonic structure, a deft modulation, a thrilling crescendo, a quiet interlude. I can’t recall a passage in “Corn Flakes” in which he describes a moving instrumental solo or details the interplay among musicians. The great instrumentalists of the era are hardly mentioned unless they happen to be gifted songwriters too. The one reference to Eric Clapton’s abilities is by Ahmet Ertegun. Jimi Hendrix is mentioned five times; his guitar playing, not at all.

    Mr. Hilburn’s model post-Presley rock star is a larger-than-life idealist who writes passionate songs about personal and social issues. This isn’t an uncommon perspective. Most rock journalists prefer musicians they can portray as socially significant, rather than as dedicated artists who grope and struggle to make memorable, meaningful music. Many veteran rock fans influences by such rock reporting look at musicians in much the same way. That’s probably why many boomers have a hard time connecting with today’s rock scene, skimming over great musicianship in a search for heroes.

Living in Southern California off and on between 2001 and 2003, I witnessed first hand Hilburn’s limitations as he contended with newer pop stars like the White Stripes’s Jack White and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, musicians who arguably connected with the iconic power and sonic keystones of an earlier era, but who had only a fraction of the cultural impact.

The trick was that their political engagement did not arise out of a clear societal need. Rather their politics were more of a pose, the expression of a desire to stick to rules established by their own idols. White — whose only real politic is an aesthetic one — knew a stripped down sound and look connected him to rock’n’roll’s blues legacy. Like Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin before them, the White Stripes aspired to be a hell hound on Robert Johnson’s trail. Oberst’s contribution to presidential politics during the Bush years may have been heartfelt, but it certainly looked like an echo of the past.

Conor Oberst on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno (May 2, 2005)

Bob Dylan at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington, D.C. (August 28, 1963)

Sadly, where major events in Bob Dylan’s and Martin Luther King’s careers were inexorably tied, Oberst’s connection to presidential politics was mediated by the jaded medium of late night television, say what you will about his performances on 2004’s Vote for Change tour.

Point being: Hilburn thought Gen X and Gen Y musicians could be central voices of our age; I, however, think it’s safe to say their young fans care more about their singing voices. It’s too early to tell if the increasingly abstract sound of indie rock today (i.e. Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Bon Iver) will be emblematic of 21st century music. But today’s artists are certainly tilting toward a less strident kind of politic — one that’s more about bohemian lifestyles than change-the-world hippie protests.

I’m writing now to praise Bob Hilburn not to bury him. He wasn’t a “fuck you” critic lambasting what he found unworthy of attention; he was a “you’re going to love this” friend, pointing us toward the work he admired. I believe it’s more difficult to praise art than it is to fling clever bon mots declaiming it, so I celebrate his method & his means. That said, I wonder if he represented the end of a certain line.

Is there room for heroes in an era of niches and endlessly Catholic tastes?

John Mayer’s music is too comfortable to represent the sound of young America, but like many of his generation he’s not planning to change the world, he’s just admiring its spin.

John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” (2006)

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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  1. On 2009-11-2 K-sky said:

    Aw, man. You were writing about the Notwist in 2003? I just heard them last year.

  2. On 2009-11-4 Matt Wright said:

    Interesting stuff in here. Thanks for posting!

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