Front Page Reviews & AIR
Get in the Ring M*@#&R F@#$
“A critic, nay, a night watchman.”
The rock critic risks life and limb. In more ways than one. For starters, you frequently find yourself in the middle of spontaneously-formed mosh pits while covering shows, and very often a suburban-qua-urban kid with spiky black hair puts a Doc Martin print on your lower back before you can explain to him that you are merely an objective observer trying to put a star rating on a musical performance. Meanwhile some whirling non-Dervish type kid whirls a bit too close and whips you in the genitals with his chain wallet, folding you in two, before a casual knee-to-head by an overweight/over-white person takes you down for the count, where you may or may not be trampled amidst plastic beer cups and swag. If you are lucky, you wake up back stage surrounded by creepy people, and with the androgynous lead singer of the band fanning you gently with the set list. “Poor little guy,” you hear someone say with great ambiguity as you slowly regain consciousness and realize that you are completely naked, that no one else seems to care, and that you are very uncomfortable with synecdoche as a figure of speech at this particular moment. The lead singer may or may not, at this point, require that you partake in the band’s seanced drug binge—or other risky behavior—before granting you the interview. Either way, your wounds need tending and you get the feeling that there are infections in the air. This is a dangerous line of work. A world without OSHA—unsafe at any speed. No Nader.
But when I say that the rock critic risks life and limb, I am actually interested in a different threat, a threat that holds even for the critic who never goes to shows, the one who sits at home with a mighty record collection, a mild depression, and cigarette-burned manuscripts churned out on old typewriters. This critic too risks life and limb, I argue, and not just because the Nick Drake collection is stacked precariously close to a space heater and the ferret has rabies. This critic is in danger because of what s/he has written about an artist. S/he is in danger because the artist wants to hurt him/her, and insult him/her…often sexually.
Do you find this scenario far-fetched? Have you so quickly forgotten that Sonic Youth responded to Robert Christgau’s critique of their music with the lyrical refrain, “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick,” and “I don't know why / You wanna impress Christgau / Ah let that shit die?” With this uncouth response, Sonic Youth was only the latest in a long string of threats, often sexual in nature, interestingly, that Christgau and other rock critics have received from musicians. Lou Reed, for example, in his 1978 live album Take No Prisoners asked his listeners, “What does Robert Christgau do in bed? You know, is he a toe fucker? Man, anal retentive, A Consumer's Guide to Rock?!? What a moron...A study of me by Robert Christgau...Nice little box and a B+...Can you imagine working for a fucking year, and you get a B+ from an asshole in The Village Voice?” These are fighting words. But not as fighting as side one track 5 of Use Your Illusion II by Guns N’ Roses, namely “Get in the Ring.” Previously titled: “Get In The Ring Mother Fucker.” Perhaps its been a while since you conducted a close reading or literary analysis of the piquant lyrics thrown down by Axl Rose, Duff McKagen and Slash in this wonderful track. Well then, let’s refresh our memories.
I'd like to crush your head tight in my vice--Pain!!/
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 Parade/
Mick Wall at Kerrang/
Bob Guccione Jr. at Spin/
What you pissed off cuz your dad gets more/
pussy than you?/
Suck my fuckin' dick/
You be rippin' off the fuckin' kids/
While they be payin' their hard earned/
money to read about the bands/
They want to know about/
Printin' lies startin' controversy/
You wanta antagonize me/
Antagonize me motherfucker/
Get in the ring motherfucker/
And I'll kick your bitchy little ass/
I don't like you, I just hate you/
I gonna kick your ass, oh yeah! oh yeah!/
You may not like our integrity yeah/
We built a world out of anarchy oh yeah!/
And in this corner weighing in at 850 pounds/
Guns N' Roses/
Get in the ring/
I know what you are thinking. How pretentious of G N’ R to utilize Miltonic free verse while complexifying the rhyme scheme and including way too many allusions to the book of Genesis, Dante and T.S. Eliot. I agree, this album should be called Use Your Allusion. But try to look past the formal qualities and the intertextuality and discern the plain sense of the text. Axl Rose is threatening to crush the head, kick the ass, and be fellatioed (from the Latin fellare) by a couple of rock critics who wrote about the band in less than flattering terms. Axl calls them out by name (Andy Secher, Mich Wall, and Bob Guccione Jr.), ridicules them (often sexually) and tries to intimidate them with the weight of the band (850 lbs, presumably including amplifiers) and with the authoritative refrain, “O yeah!”
This is what I’m getting at when I say that even the homebound rock critic risks life and limb at the hands of the artist’s they critique. I know, I know. The G N’ R example is imperfect because one of the critics that Axl was taunting—namely, Bob Guccione Jr., editor at Spin (yes, a pornographer just like his father)—literally accepted the challenge to get in the ring. Axl wisely declined when he found out that Guccione had 10 years of martial arts training. So, Guccione was never in real danger. But maybe this is the exception that proves the rule. All rock critics should be trained in the martial arts.
My real point is this. There is a great deal on the line in the interaction between artists and critics. It’s a fraught and vital relationship. Never believe artists who say they don’t listen to the critics. If Axl is listening, everyone’s listening (no offense, Axl). Artists listen and become infuriated, or hurt, or challenged, or excited, or turned on. The indifferent artist is an oxymoron. Yes, the artist may engage the public and/or the critics from a side-long angle, and they may truly not be reading what the critics write, but artists know what’s being said—by whom to whom and in what sorts of laudatory or dismissive tones. Even if they aren’t reading the stuff, they are picking up signals. Artists read signals very well indeed. They think in signals. Even the most cool-headed artist, I’ll bet you right now, has a “Get In The Ring”-type ditty dancing around in their head. Yes, I’m thinking of James Taylor telling Bob Guccione Jr. to kiss his ass and fellatio this. And that’s an important, if not beautiful, thing. One of the jobs of the critic is to keep the artist honest, to make sure the artist has skin in the game. But the critic too should be kept honest, should be made to feel the gravity of the task at hand. The critic should have skin in the game too. It all comes down to skin, doesn’t it? And in this light, doesn't the need for the artist-to-critic invective to be sexualized suddenly begin to make some sort of sense? Guccione Sr. would be proud.