In this world of criticism, there are two
ways to go. You can either offer an objective take on the work you are
criticizing or you can conform to the wishes of your editor and offer up a
puff piece. Some critics will go for the puff piece. Lester Bangs never did.
And neither has Jim Derogatis,
Derogatis, music critic for the Chicago Sun Times and frequent contributor
to many music/entertainment related periodicals, is one of the most honest
and objective music writers out there today. And he's one of the most
entertaining as well as Milk It: Collected Musing On The Alternative Music
Explosion Of The 90s proves. The 410-page book, a collection of his pieces
from that era, positions Derogatis as the heir to Bangs throne.
Derogatis divides the book into 14 different sections. Each section is
devoted to a particular band (Nirvana, REM) or a particular topic (Britpop,
Women In Rock). The sections consist of various reviews, interviews and
other essays. In other words, it's a rummage sale of recycled material. But
as far as single author collections of works of criticism go, it's one of
the better ones out there.
As I said earlier, Derogatis doesn't hesitate to call it as he sees it.
There are two articles of Courtney Love quotes contained here. Unaltered
quotes that portray Ms. Love as interesting and rather psychotic. The
Smashing Pumpkins section cheers on the band for its success. But some of
the portrayals of Billy Corgan are none too flattering.
In the intro to his women in rock section, Derogatis criticizes the music
scene and industry observers for treating women in rock special, instead of
as they would treat all other (non-female) bands. He seems to feel that this
is demeaning in a way and he makes his point well for this being correct.
That's the good thing about this book, even in the case of artist he
admires, Derogatis never falls victim to hero-worship. In one of the
articles in the REM section, he questions the wisdom of their charging
excessively high ticket prices. Although guitarist Peter Buck acknowledges
that the $50 price tag was too high, bassist Mike Mills defends the high
One thing that Derogatis has in common with Bangs is the fact that he too
got fired from Rolling Stone. Bangs got the ax for writing negative comments
on James Taylor albums. Derogatis devotes a whole section to his experience
at the venerable RS, entitling the section "Hootiegate". The incident that
earned Derogatis the wrath of RS publisher Jann Wenner was the release of
Hootie And The Blowfish's second album. Derogatis wrote a very negative
review of the album and awarded it two stars on the 4 star RS scale. The
review interfered with Wenner's peace and love views of rock and roll and
journalism and so it was yanked from the magazine. When Derogatis went
public with the whole matter, Wenner sent him packing. The aforementioned
review is included.
One area of the book that I recommend for particular study by fellow
Epinioners is the section entitled "Unrepentant Hypes And Fabulous Frauds".
Here he rips on easy targets like Bush (the band) and Britney of course. But
he also goes after certain sacred cows. He offers up a negative review of
NWA's N!ggaz4life album on the grounds of the albumís miserable content of
misogyny. He questions Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello about his
former band's support of the Shining Path, a group of Peruvian Guerrillas
that have murdered innocent people. And there is a hilarious interview with
Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind. Jenkins did not like Derogatis review of
his band's concert and so he takes Derogatis to task. At the end of the
review, he tells Derogatis that the only thing ham-fisted is "your writing".
Of course, Jenkins has managed to make himself look like a fool in the
process. The skewering here is priceless.
So yes, Derogatis' work is a good example of how good music writing should
be done. The only real drawback is that some of his viewpoints are a little
overly simplistic. For instance, in one piece he simply dismisses the
Counting Crows as a bogus Van Morrison rip-off. While that topic is worthy
of debate, he doesn't really bring anything else to the issue. However, a
good many of his opinions are right on the money (especially his ripping of
Nickelback and Creed). His writing style is more straightforward and less
gonzo than Bangs.
Milk It is an excellent book for all music fans to read as well as all those
who are looking to write good music criticism. In this era of RS and Spin
puff pieces, we could stand a few more Jim Derogatises.