Somewhere along the way, editors got it into their head that Rick Moody was good at writing about music. Maybe he has a talent for a certain kind of description that resonates with people in power; perhaps he’s pleasant enough in person for party-sourced acquaintances to be encouraged to give him a shot; his tastes might be the “right” kind of tastes among certain literary types, reinforcing norms of What Is Real And Good while venturing just far enough into recent-release territory to make people feel that he was still Up On Things.
I have always found Moody’s prose overworked and his opinions in need of a contrapuntal eye-roll or two, and when he wrote about Taylor Swift in The Rumpus other people on the Internet were happy to send their eyeballs into overdrive. Because really, what he wrote was ridiculous, failing my test for writing about female musicians by comparing Swift to Natalie Imbruglia and Alanis Morissette (whose lyrics are apparently now the equivalent of “post-menopausal antiques,” which I think refers to bronzed Diva Cups, because there is no other reading of that line that makes sense, even if you bring Swift’s penchant for checking out old lamps into the picture), saying that she’s a pawn of her songwriters and PR types, accusing her of wanting to marry up, and comparing her music to both a flattened squirrel synthetic products that cause gastric distress. (Although he only writes about “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”—and he gets the song title wrong—so perhaps his deadline came before the rest of Red could make its way to his desk.) Oh, and he also got in the fact that She’s No Lena Dunham, because Lena Dunham is the one woman under 30 who is depicting her generation correctly, which is to say with aspirations toward Importance that should be torpedoed by her self-loathing more often than they actually are.
One great thing about the social-media-stuffed age, though, is that writers like Moody, who even 10 years ago would have had their say and been safe on their pulpits as they cashed their checks, now can hear the cries of “BULLSHIT” coming from those people who might not have the connections or social position he enjoys. The response to that piece was pretty, er, swift after its publication, with people seizing on the sexism dripping from every line, the condescension that was somehow commingled with a persecution complex (“Hey, it’s not my fault the rest of the world Lacks My Impeccable Taste, and that includes you, Kelefa Sanneh and Robert Christgau”), and all-around uninformed splenetic nature. It was a bit more fun than making hay of a dumb thing said by, say, Nick Hornby, when all was said and done.
Well. Rick Moody, important American novelist, is not pleased with the fact that the feedback loop in 2013 is so close to his ears. So he did what any wounded writer would: He took to Salon. (What is with Salon and hit pieces on Taylor Swift by middle-aged men? Grab for hits or something more sinister?) It’s a pretty unpleasant read, and any potential to bad for him for violating the internet’s first (and only) rule (“Don’t read the comments, just don’t“) is tempered by the fact that he comes off like a petulant brat who can’t believe that his opinions might not be seen as gospel by those who consider themselves intelligent. His piece starts off with a “usually I write about music I like” whinge and goes on from there, incorporating shock that people who read the “pretty intellectual and bookish” site where his Swift screed appeared would even care about a genre as lowbrow as pop-country, saying that his critics wanted him to die, and proclaims himself the arbiter of… well, let me just cut and paste the kicker:
Taylor Swift likes to collect names of musicians she admires (e.g., The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac), and to drop these into the public conversation. (And she mentions Pablo Neruda on “Red,” as if mere mention will make her bulletproof.) But that doesn’t mean she has what it takes to make the kind of art she admires. And the critical community, if it doesn’t call her out, gives her a pass simply because she moves units. Or so it seems to me. Which not only does us a disservice, it does her a disservice. Because how is she supposed to get better? By playing Joni Mitchell in the biopic?
You can kill the messenger, and I am happy to have as many poison darts await me, but the critical message in this case has merit, regardless of messenger, because the message is about not what works musically now, for a certain demographic, for a short while, but about what might work for everyone for all time.
Yes, that’s right, Rick Moody can see the future, and he knows what will last in the hearts of every person, man and woman, American and… whatever else, white and not. He knows things! He is in a Dante study group! And he deflects any accusations of sexism with a protest that, hey, he wrote about some female musicians in that columnalthough why he doesn’t consider this cri de coeur his own version of “collecting names of musicians he admires and dropping them into the public conversation” in order to make his dislike of her “bulletproof” I’m not sure.
But this is all part of a nastier trend in writing about music, one that resembles the dying yawp of a certain type of white dude who still believes in Real Rock And Roll and who is genuinely unnerved by the idea of women fashioning pop culture in their own image. It was also glaringly apparent in Bob Lefsetz’s horrifying post-Super Bowl horndog screed about Beyoncé, which, even while complimenting Adele mocked what he saw as her lack of a workout regime, and it’s in countless dumb pieces that lump together all women involved with pop music—including fans of non-“serious” acts like Justin Bieber and One Direction—as a monolithic unit, instead of as individual people. Which isn’t to say “Don’t criticize pop music, it’s off limits”—ask me sometime about my feelings on the Lumineers, or much of Rihanna’s recent output (musical and extramusical), or the numbing lack of wit in EDM’s particular brand of hedonism. But at least have reason for doing so that goes beyond “ew, girls are stupid and have cooties and wait they can’t run the world, can they.”
The subhead of Moody’s rebuttal asks, “Why do serious critics swoon for [Swift's] narcissistic, hackneyed pap?” Which is funny, because both of his Swift pieces had me wondering the same thing—only about those people who might smugly concur with Moody’s deeply purple prose and stuck-in-the-mud ideals of what music “should” be.