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RANDOM NOTES REFLECTIONS OF A POP CRITIC

LET'S GET SOMETHING STRAIGHT RIGHT FROM THE START. A LOT OF PEOPLE THINK THAT ALL POP CRITICS are frustrated musicians, living vicariously through the careers of others. It's a nice theory, but it's wrong. Fact is, people who become pop stars do so because they want the fame, adoration and wealth that stardom brings.

Whereas people who become pop critics do so because it's a good way to get free records.

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Trust me on this. I've been a pop critic for 14 years now, writing for The Sun as well as a host of music magazines, Rolling Stone, Musician and Request among them. I've talked blues with Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. I've chatted with Madonna in her dressing room and Edward Van Halen in his living room, been in a rowboat with Sting, and on a tour bus with the Cure. But mostly, I've listened to records -- over 17,000 in the last decade alone.

It's quite a pace, let me tell you. Barely a day goes by that doesn't bring at least a couple of albums in the mail. Last week's haul was some 78 CDs and cassettes (nobody sends out vinyl anymore), which is about average for this time of year. And more are expected Monday.

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This alone is enough to leave most music fans wondering, "Where do we sign up?" There's more, though. There are concerts. There are interviews. Best of all, there's the thrill of seeing your opinions in print.

All told, it seems like a pop fan's dream job. And, I suppose, in a lot of ways it is.

But there's a catch.

In fact, there are several, but let's start with the most obvious: the writing. Nice as it would be simply to sit back and enjoy the music set before me, as a critic I'm expected to write reviews. That's not just a matter of thumbs up/thumbs down, either. Critics should offer more than mere cheers and jeers; we should have something educational, enlightening or even entertaining to say.

We also must say it at a pace that far outstrips the average fan's listening practices. Unlike the typical consumer, who purchases an average of a dozen or fewer recordings a year, I review more than 400 albums annually. (Furthermore, for every one LP I write up, there are another three I listen to and file for future reference.)

Then there's the matter of choice. You know all those concerts you wouldn't go to if somebody paid you? Well, somebody does pay me -- so I go. It's my job. Whether it's the Judds or Judas Priest, Madonna or Barry Manilow, if an editor deems it worth covering, I'm there, taking notes.

Finally, there's the fairness factor, perhaps the prickliest point of contention between critics and fans. Naturally, a reviewer should always be fair, but that's easier said than done. After all, if a singer you don't like gives a good performance of songs you despise, do you pan the show, or praise it? (Praise it, but with reservations.) What if the audience loves a performance you loathe -- do you mention their applause? (By all means, even if you're being sarcastic.) And should you really sneak out for popcorn during the drum solo? (Only if you're really hungry.)

All of which makes the pop music critic's job a little more complicated than simply deciding whether the new Whitney Houston album is worth owning. Not that I'm complaining; it still strikes me as being a dream job. But perhaps I should explain a bit about living this particular dream.

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MUSIC IS PERHAPS THE MOST difficult of the arts to write about. Unlike movies and novels, there is no plot to recount, no narrative to follow. It's more abstract than any painting, yet completely familiar to almost any reader. And virtually everyone has an opinion on it.

So where do you start? Some pop critics describe the music in terms of the artist's personality; others stick to analyzing fads and trends. Quite a few take the English major approach and quote from the lyric sheet; this, I suspect, is often because they don't know how to describe the music itself, and therefore avoid it. But to my mind, the music should always be the starting point. Elliott Galkin, the late dean of the Peabody music criticism program, used to say that a music critic must be both a writer and a musician, and he was absolutely right. It takes a musician's knowledge to hear how music works, how it conveys its emotional content and dramatic power. But it requires a writer's skill to capture that in print.

Though I may not be a particularly accomplished musician, I do meet both sides of Galkin's equation. I read music, and play a number of instruments -- guitar, double bass, piano, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, tuba. I've played in bands, written arrangements, even cut a single. And though I'm always happy to have an instrument at hand, I seldom regret having traded playing music for writing about it.

That background does give me a certain empathy with musicians, but not always. For instance, players tend to be especially fond of instrumental prowess, whereas pointless virtuosity leaves me cold. If the 100-bar dash ever becomes an Olympic event, being the fastest guitar in the West might be something to cheer about. Until then, dazzle me with your music, not your technique.

As you might imagine, there's a difference between reviewing records and covering concerts. With the former, you're evaluating a new work, and have to take that into account along with the quality of the performance. Concerts, by contrast, rarely offer any new material; in that arena, performance and presentation is all.

Some critics will insist that it's only through live performance that the listener gets any sense of the music's real heart and soul, but frankly, that's hooey. These days, the average pop band is rehearsed to within an inch of its life, with the result that the most you get are subtle differences in the music. Live or Memorex, it makes no difference.

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Part of the reason for this is that albums and singles have become the true metier of modern pop. Unlike the old days, when a recording would simply capture a performance, today's music is usually constructed with the home stereo in mind. This, naturally, puts the emphasis on album reviewing as the means to understanding an artist's work.

As such, my stereo never sleeps. Every record review I write is the result of two or more listenings, with some albums taking a dozen or more plays before yielding their secrets. Yet the reviews themselves generally fall into the 50-words-or-less category. Is that fair treatment? I think so. After all, if you can't condense your opinion into a sentence or two, it's too unfocused to be a good argument in the first place. And anyone who thinks it's easy to say a lot in a little space obviously has never tried it.

Concert reviewing is a different matter entirely. What I watch for depends in part on whom I'm seeing. With an artist like Phil Collins or Midnight Oil, my attention will be to old values like honest emotion and enthusiastic playing. That's not the case with pop stars whose sound is built around drum machines and sequencers. Take Janet Jackson. Her shows were note-perfect, but largely because each note had been programmed into computer and played back by synthesizers. Yet I couldn't say she cheated by relying on technology, because much of the music on her albums is pre-programmed. So I took the technology as a given, and focused on how that fit with the rest of her stage show. (The answer: uneasily.)

All of this hair-splitting has to be done quickly, though. In order to make the next morning's paper, I am expected to file my story by 11 p.m. Unfortunately, an awful lot of concerts don't end until 11:30 p.m. or later, meaning I must write the review as the show goes on, peering up between paragraphs and hoping to God nobody falls off the stage while I'm on the phone to the copy desk.

ACCORDING TO MY PARENTS, I WAS A music critic even while in the womb, kicking excitedly when classical music came on the radio but reacting with stony indifference to the pop stations.

Yeah, I know -- that doesn't seem like the reaction of a nascent rock fan. But even though Elvis had firmly established himself by the time I entered the world, there was relatively little rock and roll in our house. My folks preferred Broadway, the big bands and the light classics. Herb Alpert was as rockin' as they ever got.

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Growing up, I developed an insatiable hunger for music, and always had my ears open for something new. Most kids, when they go in to buy their first album, pick something they're familiar with -- an album they already know, or the latest from their favorite singer. I went in the opposite direction, making Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Rip Rig and Panic" my first album purchase precisely because I'd never heard any of his music, and wondered what it sounded like. As a result, most of adolescence was spent in a state of musical exploration, with only passing attention given to whatever happened to be popular.

Ironically, this proved quite an advantage. Unlike my classmates, who bounced from the Beatles to Creedence to Elton John along with the rest of teen America, I followed my own course. Admittedly, this left me with some blind spots -- I'm probably the only rock fan my age who went through college without once listening to Joni Mitchell's "Blue" -- but it saved me from others.

According to radio marketing research, the music a person listens to between the ages of 18 and 24 is the music he or she is likely to prefer for the rest of his or her life. That's why so many aging rock fans find themselves alienated from emerging trends like gangsta rap, acid house, thrash-funk and the like; it sounds as little like the rock they grew up with as the Stones sounded like the big band sound that was their elders' music. Or, as a friend once put it, "I knew the day would come that there'd be music I'd hate as much as my parents hated rock and roll. I just didn't think it would be so soon."

Fortunately, I've managed to avoid that trap. Having never identified with the sound of "my generation," I react to music as I always have, savoring its immediacy, its vibrancy, its emotional power. It doesn't matter what kind of music it is, because to me a good rap record is as exciting as a good country or heavy metal record. Nor do I see one style as being inherently superior to another; to my mind, a good dance record is just as worthy as a Puccini opera, because what matters most isn't the skill of the players or the complexity of the composition, but the effect the music has on the listener. I don't particularly care if it's in complex time or straight 4/4, if the guitarist is picking perfect 32nd notes or is playing out of tune, if the singer is spouting poetry or rapping in Japanese -- if the music moves me, that's all that counts.

As a result, I can't ever imagine getting too old for this job.

CONTRARY TO POPULAR BElief, being a pop critic is no guarantee of getting a good seat at a concert. Over the years, I've been placed beside the stage, behind the stage, and so far away I could barely see the stage. A few years back, Eric Clapton was on tour with fellow guitar whiz Mark Knopfler, and I found myself seated behind the drum kit, with a view so bad that the only way I could tell which guitarist played what solo was by seeing whose arm was farther down the neck. (Still, that was better than the time someone forgot to phone in the reviewer list, and there were no tickets waiting for me or any other critic.)

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In fact, the one time I was given a front-row seat I honestly wished I was sitting somewhere else. I had been working late that day, and went straight to the concert hall without changing out of my work clothes. Normally, that wouldn't have been a problem, but a short-haired, 30-ish man in a suit and tie looks just a bit out of place at a heavy-metal show packed with T-shirted teens -- particularly when he's been seated front row, center, and is taking notes. You don't suppose the singer noticed, do you?

Being noticed, by the way, is the last thing a critic wants. It's not that we're shy, really, just that we could do without the kind of attention we're likely to receive.

Most musicians don't bother complaining from the stage, but there are exceptions. My first experience of this sort came at a Charlie Daniels concert, at which the bad ol' boy gave me hell for writing nasty things about his fiddle playing. (Was it my fault he can't play in tune?) I've also been given grief by Robert Fripp and R.E.O. Speedwagon.

But the King of the Complainers has to be Billy Joel, a performer given to such legendary pique that he reportedly seats critics where he can keep an eye on them during the show; one night, he even ordered some poor reviewer out of the building. Luckily, I wasn't in the audience the night he dressed me down for having the temerity to suggest, in an album review, that it was in bad taste to trot out your Ray Charles impression when actually singing with Ray Charles. Otherwise, I might have been writing my review from the parking lot.

Some pop stars have an annoying habit of remembering unfavorable reviews, and holding them forever against the critic, as if we had insulted the artist's mother or questioned his parentage. As a result, few words strike terror into a critic's heart like the phrase, "I saw your review. . . . "

Several years ago, I was supposed to interview Phil Collins. As we were introduced, he seemed to be trying to remember something. "Considine," he said questioningly. "Don't you write for Rolling Stone?" Flattered at the recognition, I answered yes. "You write record reviews, right?" By now, his publicist was beginning to look uneasy. Wondering where this was leading -- Jeez, I don't remember panning his record -- I answered yes a second time.

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"Didn't you write the 'Asia' review?" he asked.

Suddenly, the whole room stopped breathing. Yes, I had reviewed the "Asia" album -- and given it one star. It was a total shellacking. Bracing myself for his reaction, I said yes a third time.

"Well, we all thought it was a great review," beamed Collins, to the enormous relief of all. "It was quite fair the way you complimented them as musicians, but said the music stank. That was really good."

It's not often a critic gets a review like that.


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