Praise, then crucify: 25 anti-music-journalist songs
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1. M.I.A., “I’m A Singer (Haters)”
Celebrity can be a bitch, and whoever gets the bad review can be an even bigger one. Musicians and music critics have long been at odds, exploiting one another through similarly self-serving means in a codependent love/hate relationship. This past May, when The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy cover story on Maya Arulpragasam—better known as British-born rapper M.I.A.—it cast her in what can kindly be called an unflattering light. Writer Lynn Hirschberg (who also famously pissed off Courtney Love many years back with a scathing Vanity Fair exposé) framed M.I.A. as a paranoid, naïve pop star whose political views sharply contrasted with her luxe lifestyle. Her eccentricity seemed little more than a gimmick, and her beliefs based mostly on contradictions and fabricated struggles. Hirschberg backed it all up with quotes from M.I.A.’s handlers and friends, and even through interviews and interactions with M.I.A. herself. The natural course of action for the jilted rapper was to post Hirschberg’s phone number on Twitter, then follow up with the retaliatory track “I’m A Singer (Haters).” “The story’s always fucked by the time it hits,” M.I.A. sing-speaks. “Why the hell would journalists be thick as shit? / ’Cause lies equals power equals politics.” She continues in the chorus: “I didn’t lie to you / You’re thinking of somebody else.” It proves that just because artists can sell a million records (and live sheltered, privileged lives doing so) doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings—angry, malicious, vengeful feelings that rhyme and can be set to a beat.
2. Sonic Youth, “Kill Yr Idols”
“I don’t know why you wanna impress Christgau,” screams Thurston Moore on Sonic Youth’s 1983 album, Confusion Is Sex. “Let that shit die and find out the new goal.” Arguably, the object of Moore’s ire isn’t the self-proclaimed dean of American rock critics, longtime Village Voice writer Robert Christgau, as much as it is young bands trying to curry favor with the rock-crit establishment. But given that the band released a live version of the song under the title “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick,” there’s at least a little bad blood coursing through its veins.
3. The Negro Problem, “Birdcage”
On The Negro Problem’s 1997 debut album, Post-Minstrel Syndrome, the formerly L.A.-based singer Stew lays his decision to leave squarely on the Los Angeles Times’ doorstep. (A fuller account of his parting can be found in the stage musical Passing Strange.) Sardonically skewering the Times company-town bias and its longtime music editor, Stew quips, “It’s nice to know that Goldie Hawn has a tortured soul / but what does Robert Hilburn know about rock ’n’ roll?” With a wordless chorus mimicking the babble of celeb-struck reporters, the song is positively gleeful in its criticism; the Times isn’t worth reading, according to this source, but as the title indicates, it still has its uses.
4. The Go-Go’s, “Robert Hilburn”
In an officially unreleased song from The Go-Go’s early punk days (available on the Live At The Whiskey bootleg), the band took a more direct tack against Hilburn than The Negro Problem: “Betcha think you’re really smart / We know better, you’re a boring fart,” sings Belinda Carlisle. “New-wave music makes good copy / Tell us, Bob, can punk be art?” Given that the punk ’zine Flipside singled out Hilburn for his diligent coverage of the city’s punk scene, it’s hard to know what Carlisle was shouting about, but perhaps she was just trying to shore up her underground cred. Although the song concludes by proclaiming “it’s burning time for the Times,” The Go-Go’s underwent a thoroughly press-friendly makeover in the years that followed. Punk may be art, but it doesn’t sell like pop.
5. Morrissey, “Journalists Who Lie”
The British press is notorious for making pop stars overnight and tearing them down just as quickly, a practice that drew Morrissey’s fire on the B-side of 1991’s “Our Frank.” “The truth is, it happens,” he sings. “Praise, then crucify, just follow this pattern.” After nearly a decade in the public eye, Morrissey had been round the circle enough times to diagnose its sick insularity: “They’re only trying to make their names by spreading biz-myth lies / about the ones who made their names / so stick in the knife.” With its rambling melody, the song is hardly one of his best, but relegating the song to a B-side might also have been a way to blow off steam without prompting further fabrications from ticked-off reporters.
6. The Fall, “Mere Pseud Mag. Ed.”
Lyrical transparency isn’t in the wheelhouse of Fall singer Mark E. Smith, but it isn’t difficult to suss out the target of this pointillist broadside from the band’s 1982 album, Hex Enduction Hour. To the accompaniment of a lurching guitar riff, Smith rails against the outdated credentials of a would-be hipster with a “fancied wit that’s imitation of Rumpole of Bailey”—or, on the shambling live version, “D. Bowie In Man Who Fell To Earth.” Compressing his complaints into truncated shards, Smith lands a succession of shallow blows that equal a single gaping wound. The intervening years haven’t dulled Smith’s wrath; “Bury Parts 1 + 3,” from the new Your Future, Our Clutter, lays into an Uncut scribe for an interview that led to Smith being investigated for squirrelicide.
7. Melting Hopefuls, “What She’s Wearing”
The forgotten pop-punk band Melting Hopefuls left behind a handful of nifty songs, including this pointed polemic from the 1994 album Space Flyer. Taking aim not only at a specific writer but a specific article, from which she semi-audibly quotes during a feedback-laden breakdown, singer Renee LoBue lambastes rock critics for their habit of characterizing female musicians through their wardrobe. LoBue, who once hit the road with a copy of Susan Faludi’s Backlash, expands to a critique of the male-dominated atmosphere of rock clubs, where women are better seen than heard: “The girls, we’re the quiet ones / You take the stage, you sing.” Vowing, finally, to “kick them and run,” LoBue plants a seed that lingers, sprouting anew in listeners’ minds each time a lazy reviewer lingers on a woman’s outfit.
8. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, “Scum”
In the hate-rant “Scum,” Nick Cave takes great pains to wrap the targets of his disdain in grotesque, greasy poetry. But in the middle of the bile-soaked Bad Seeds track—in which Cave howls a few choice diatribes at folks he loathes, from “a miserable shit-wringing turd” to a “cocksuckstress […] mean and vicious”—he takes dead aim against some unnamed music journalist who apparently didn’t like the Cave’s admittedly challenging music. He sings, “Thrust and twist, twist and screw / You gave me a bad review / And maybe you think that it’s all just water under the bridge / Well, my unfriend, I’m the type that holds a grudge.” But the hate doesn’t end there. Practically frothing at the mouth, Cave adds a promise of injury to his insult: “You Judas, Brutus, Vitus, scum! / Hey, four-eyes, come / That’s right, it’s a gun.” Thankfully, the song alone seems to have satisfied Cave’s thirst for revenge—that is, unless the corpse of some poor music writer is rotting under his floorboards somewhere.
9. The Chariot, “Die Interviewer (I Am Only Speaking In German)”
Like many Christian hardcore bands, The Chariot has been ignored, dismissed, or even openly mocked by journalists who notice a wee bit of hypocrisy in the whole idea of violent, über-angry music used to extol Jesus. That’s a fair argument, but volatile Chariot frontman Josh Scogin isn’t one to take that kind of abuse without a fight. Or at least a scream. On the song “Die Interviewer (I Am Only Speaking In German),” Scogin clearly has it in for some poor schmuck who perhaps cornered the singer in an interview: “This world is a stage and everyone seems to have their opinion / Stick around, stay a while,” Scogin rages, while the band does its best impersonation of a building imploding around him. “I am choking on someone else’s blood and the fingerprints of God / So stick around and let me tell you about it, because far too many don’t say.” Just to be cheeky, he titles the song so that “die” is supposed to be read as the German word for “the.” Not that he’s fooling anyone—or even wants to.
10. Adam And The Ants, “Press Darlings”
Nick Kent and Garry Bushell were two of the top tastemakers in the British music press during the post-punk era. Many bands of the time surely griped about them and their fellow journalists behind closed doors, but few musicians had the stones to call them out by name on record. Adam Ant was already known for his fearlessness when he released 1980’s Kings Of The Wild Frontier, his first stab at real stardom after his former manager, Malcolm McLaren, stole The Ants’ whole lineup to form Bow Wow Wow. Ant’s bizarre new mix of Burundi drumming and punky guitar didn’t really give him a stable pedestal from which to blast gatekeepers like Kent and Bushell, but he went ahead and did it anyway on the Kings song “Press Darlings.” Never a favorite of the British press back then, Ant snidely sings, “If passion ends in fashion / Nick Kent is the best-dressed man in town.” Also, “We’re on the outside, but we’re not looking in / We are the Vaseline gang, don’t play your little games.” Ant had the last laugh, of course, when he hit it big on both sides of the Atlantic soon after.
11. Stereophonics, “Mr. Writer”
The press has been kind to Stereophonics since the recent death of the band’s original drummer, Stuart Cable. But that hasn’t always been the case. In 2001, the Welsh rock band released the single “Mr. Writer,” a stinging slap at an indeterminate music journalist whose critical words concerning the group seemed to have ruffled singer-guitarist Kelly Jones. “Are you so lonely? / Don’t even know me / But you’d like to stone me,” sings Jones, sounding more hurt than angry, as the band stumbles along in a half-assed approximation of Oasis. Ultimately, though, Jones can’t articulate his rage any better than a kid in a playground fight: “Mr. Writer, why don’t you tell it like it is? / Before you go on home / And then you go home / With you on your own / What do you even know?”
12. Half Man Half Biscuit, “Bad Review”
Surely a band that calls itself Half Man Half Biscuit doesn’t care too much what other people think of it. It’s a good thing the group’s 1997 song “Bad Review” is as tongue-in-cheek as anything else it’s ever done. The jangly, jokey indie outfit—best known for its contribution to NME’s legendary C86 compilation in 1986—uses “Bad Review” almost as a parody of anti-journalist songs. Shambling and gleefully out of tune, frontman Nigel Blackwell lethargically tears into a journalist: “It’s a bad review, wotta we gonna do?”, he deadpans, without a trace of urgency. “Oh Lord, I can’t walk down the street ’cause other groups I might meet, and they’ll smirk… and my girlfriend’s fuming / You hacks don’t know where it’s at / You can’t appreciate the master of the Strat.”
13. Chain And The Gang, “Interview With The Chain Gang”
When bands knock music journalists, they usually do so head-on. But singer Ian Svenonius has always had a bit of prankish postmodernism to his M.O., and the former Nation Of Ulysses/The Make-Up frontman takes that approach on “Interview With The Chain Gang,” a track by his current outfit, Chain And The Gang. More of a deconstruction of interviews as a whole than a critique of any one critic, the song starts with thumping beat, the ring of a phone, and the commencement of a dry, dull interview—totally staged, of course—with a hypothetical journalist who gets nothing but elliptical answers from the hilariously elusive Svenonius: “How did we get our name? / It just came to me,” he squeals over a garage-funk groove. “How do we describe our sound? / Something we just found / Yeah, we dug it up, underground.” If nothing else, Svenonius preemptively scares away at least half the journalists who surely would have pissed him off with their routine, inane questions.
14. The Cure, “Desperate Journalist”
Robert Smith eventually became known for his music’s mopey majesty, but in 1979, he was a young, lean bandleader with nervous energy to burn. And burn it he did on the song “Desperate Journalist.” Recorded for a John Peel Session, the song is a rawer, faster, angrier version of “Grinding Halt,” a track from the band’s debut album, Three Imaginary Boys, which had just been released. The album was ravaged in NME by journalist Paul Morley (later a musician himself in Art Of Noise), who wrapped up his view of the band by saying, “The Cure, really, are trying to sell us something. And their product is more artificial than most. This is perhaps part of their master plan, but it seems more like their naivety.” Smith responds by reciting huge chunks of the review right back at Morley as spoken-word sections of the song—and indeed, when read aloud, the review sounds grossly self-serving and pretentious, pretty much the same accusation Morley had leveled at The Cure. Smith also throws in a dig at Ian Penman—he calls him out by name; Morley remains unmentioned—another NME writer who gave Smith and company a negative review. Smith seems to be addressing both Morley and Penman when he jokes about their use of “long words like ‘semiotics’ and ‘semolina.’”
15. Jay-Z, “99 Problems”
Let’s face it: That is a lot of problems. And Jigga’s only got three verses to tell us about them. Still, it should tell you something about the low esteem in which he holds music critics that they’re second on his list of grievances, right after people who are actually trying to murder him. Over Rick Rubin’s crushing beat, Jay-Z complains about cops who hassle him, punks who try to fight him, radio stations that won’t play his songs, and magazines that try to exploit him. But all of that comes after this no-punches-pulled assessment: “Fuck critics,” he says. “You can kiss my whole asshole.” He has 99 problems, but expressing his feelings ain’t one.
16. Toby Keith, “The Critic”
Toby Keith has ample reason to be angry at critics: He’s an angry guy. Hell, one of his signatures songs is called “Courtesy Of The Red, White & Blue (The Angry American).” But on “The Critic,” the controversial country singer zings critics in a manner more bemused and borderline-affectionate than vicious or vitriolic, sharing the wry tale of a broke, powerless critic whose glowing reviews for obscure bluegrass outfits get ignored, while his vicious pan of a popular mainstream artist (not unlike, um, Mr. Toby Keith) wins him the validation and attention he desperately craves. Keith seems to pity the titular sad-sack more than he hates him, and the song’s jazzy, “King Of The Road”-like shuffle and overall amiability take much of the sting out of Keith’s casual put-down of folks who regularly put him down.
17. Bob Dylan, “Ballad Of A Thin Man”
Unless he’s writing about something obvious and specific (see “Hurricane,” “The Death Of Emmett Till,” or “George Jackson”), Dylan seldom comes right out and says his more allusive songs are about anybody or anything in particular. That goes especially for his famously rich and densely verbal mid-’60s work, including this scathing takedown of a pseudo-hipster (“You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?”) that, by many Dylanologists’ lights, was aimed at a reporter from Time magazine.
18. Public Enemy, “Bring The Noise”
Critics’ darlings spit at critics as much as anyone. Take this blistering track, originally on the Less Than Zero soundtrack, which Chuck D said in the January 1988 issue of Spin was written “half… for black radio and the other half is for critics… Fuck [Robert] Christgau, [John] Leland, and the goddamn fuckin’ bullshit-assed newspapers they write for. F-U-C-K T-H-E-M, exclamation point.” The newspaper in question was The Village Voice, where Leland panned PE’s first album, Yo! Bum Rush The Show in 1987. When Leland interviewed Chuck for the September 1988 Spin, he asked the rapper directly: “Your last single, ‘Bring The Noise,’ was basically about what other people are saying about you…” Chuck’s reply: “Oh yeah, that was about you. I was talking right about you.” Later, for good measure, Chuck D referred to Greg Tate as the Voice’s “porch nigger.” (He later apologized to Tate during a Voice interview.)
19. Of Montreal, “There Is Nothing Wrong With Hating Rock Critics”
Giving people permission to hate on rock critics is like granting clemency to those who make fun of mimes. Nevertheless, Of Montreal’s “There Is Nothing Wrong With Hating Rock Critics” does a fine job of creating an anonymous music-writer straw-man and promptly ripping him into little Lester Bangs-worshipping pieces. In the first line, Kevin Barnes labels the heartless record reviewer in his crosshairs a “pig,” and it only gets more rant-tastic from there. In Barnes’ view, rock critics are “absurd” and “cynical” “maggots” who also happen to be “adolescent,” “corrupt,” and—here’s the kicker—”un-insightful.” (Wait until you hear his thoughts on grammar critics.) “There Is Nothing Wrong With Hating Rock Critics” is also a bit, ahem, un-insightful, playing more like an overly emotional message-board comment than a song. Still, it contains enough kernels of truth—smug scribes of the dismissive review take note—to justify its existence as a feisty parting shot from the critiqued to the critics.
20. Pete Townshend “Jools And Jim”
The hopeful single “Let My Love Open The Door” aside, Pete Townshend’s 1980 solo album Empty Glass was an admitted survey of Townshend’s personal wreckage. By this point, he’d lived half his life in the eye of the eternally tactless British music press, and a couple of NME writers had essentially said good riddance to not-long-dead Who drummer and all-around madman Keith Moon. Townshend responded incredulously with “Jools And Jim” (“They don’t give a shit Keith Moon is dead / is that exactly what I thought I read?”), then went on to swipe at the whole profession: “Typewriter tappers / you’re all just crappers / you listen to love with your intellect.” Unlike other songwriters who’ve called out critics, Townshend also dug into his own flaws in a sweetly crooned bridge: “But I know for sure that if we met up eye-to-eye / a little wine would bring us closer, you and I / ’cause you’re right, hypocrisy will be the death of me…” From this turn in the song, it’s as if Townshend isn’t just pissed at the critics, but spiritually shaken enough that he also wants to try and be the bigger man.
21. Jaylib, “The Mission”
As a producer, hip-hop icon J-Dilla was the subject of rapt adoration from fans and critics alike, but he never got much respect for his blunt, forceful rhymes. On “The Mission,” a standout track from his album-length collaboration with rapper-producer Madlib, he returns fire at journalists that doubt his lyrical abilities: “Let me speak on these journalists / Only the ones that need to learn and listen / Before they criticize verses that burns kitchens.” J-Dilla doesn’t exactly help his case with his clumsy wordplay, but he got the last laugh by rising to the level of musical martyr; following his death at 32, Dilla remains a critic’s darling.
22. Guns N’ Roses, “Get In The Ring”
When Guns N’ Roses took on music critics in its 1991 song “Get In The Ring” from Use Your Illusion II, the group didn’t leave anything open to interpretation, or let anything get lost in lyrical subtlety. Songwriters Axl Rose, Duff McKagan, and Slash got specific in their complaints about writers who gave the band negative press for their work and offstage antics. The fourth, spoken-word verse of the song sounds more like a spur-of-the-moment rant than actual lyrics: “And that goes for all you punks in the press that want to start shit by printin’ lies instead of the things we said—that means you, Andy Secher at Hit Parader, Circus magazine, Mick Wall at Kerrang!, Bob Guccione Jr. at Spin—What, you pissed off ’cause your dad gets more pussy than you? Fuck you! Suck my fuckin’ dick.” Allegedly, at least one critic name-checked in the song responded to the challenge, as an article in the Washington Post reported that Guccione wrote a letter to Rose, accepting his offer to get in said ring, but the tussle never occurred.
23. LCD Soundsystem, “Pow Pow”
When “Pow Pow” leaked online ahead of the release 2010’s This Is Happening, some took a throwaway lyric dissing Village Voice columnist Michael Musto—”Eat it, Michael Musto, you’re no Bruce Vilanch”—at face value. Even Musto himself took time to respond, chiding Murphy for mispronouncing his name before telling him (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) to “suck it.” Alas, the reactionary media types didn’t take Murphy’s self-aware music-geek persona into account; as he explained in a recent A.V. Club interview, the Musto crack was an inside joke stemming from a drunken night spent at something called The Nightlife Awards. That said, Musto really is no Bruce Vilanch.
24. Eminem, “On Fire”
Hip-hop is full of hotheaded rhymers who take offense at even the smallest slights from the press, and Eminem is no exception. Strangely, though, “On Fire” (from this year’s Recovery) starts off by calmly wondering why journalists never ask Marshall how his day is going, as if that simple pleasantry would assuage any anger toward criticism. The rest of the track doesn’t specifically call out journalists for talking trash, but rather tries to make them empathize with what a day in the life of Shady might be like: It includes wrapping a lizard in gauze and beating you in the jaws with it.
25. Jimmy Webb, “Music For An Unmade Movie: Dorothy Chandler Blues”
As the man behind “Wichita Lineman,” “MacArthur Park,” and other hits, Jimmy Webb was already well established as a songwriter when he made his official recording debut with 1970’s Words And Music. Success didn’t prevent him from picking some bones about the business of writing and selling songs. The middle section of a three-part suite, “Music For An Unmade Movie: Dorothy Chandler Blues” lashes out at someone Webb calls only “Mr. Critic,” a guy who wears a bowtie, gets kind of cross-eyed, and—and this is apparently a grave offense—goes to shows all by himself. “How many songs of love have you written in your life, sir? How many have you destroyed?”, Webb sings accusingly. Webb himself expresses the desire to be a “rock ’n’ roll Christian”—presumably someone who goes to show with friends, wears a regular tie, keeps his or her eyes straight, and never has anything unkind to say about love songs, even if they suck.