Jeremiah was a bullfrog

To be a 16-year-old music lover in 1971 was a wondrous time.

Rock ‘n roll wasn’t universally loved when it arrived on the charts in 1955, not by a long shot, but over the next 15 years, it grew exponentially in popularity as the music and its audience matured.  It grew like a massive oak, branching out into multiple mini-genres – folk rock, acid rock, Motown and soul, bubblegum, country rock, electric blues, even (already?) roots rock.  Quite the cornucopia of styles.

By 1971, the table was set with a sumptuous buffet of musical options from which to choose.  The Stones and The Who were at their creative peaks.  You could still enjoy The Beatles’ final albums while trying to adjust to their initial solo work.  There were the San Francisco jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the early metal bands like Deep Purple and Grand Funk laying down hefty slabs of power chords.  The progressive rock coming from England – Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Genesis – was pushing boundaries, and the ever-evolving rhythm-and-blues scene crackled as Motown and Memphis morphed into funk and Philly soul.  Dozens of confessional singer-songwriters emanating from Laurel Canyon added emotional depth, and if you wanted to, you could still reach back and appreciate what the pioneers had accomplished with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Chantilly Lace.”  And, as always, there were the middle-of-the-road acts churning out bland pablum for the unhip.

It was all there, from Black Sabbath to the Partridge Family.

It was also a time when Top 40 was losing its grip on the American musical psyche, as most record buyers were turning away from singles and investing in albums instead.  In 1967-68, singles still ruled, but by 1970-71, albums outsold singles. People wanted to hear bands’ complete artistic statements.  They liked The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” just fine, but they wanted to know what the rest of the songs on “Who’s Next” and “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon” sounded like.  We still chuckled at ditties like “One Toke Over the Line” by a one-off duo like Brewer & Shipley, but most of us were ready to invest our time and money in the whole body of work found on “What’s Going On” or “Sticky Fingers.”

In 1971, it was an embarrassment of riches: Led Zeppelin’s “Untitled/Zoso/IV,” Carole King’s “Tapestry,” Yes’s “The Yes Album” AND “Fragile,” Cat Stevens’ “Teaser and the Firecat,” Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung,” Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” Santana’s “Santana III,” Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s “Four-Way Street,” the Allman Brothers’ “At the Fillmore East,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Eric Clapton and his alter ego Derek’s “Layla,” Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory,” Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” Don McLean’s “American Pie,” The Doors’ swan song, “L.A. Woman”…

So I chuckle now as I remember lying in a hospital bed in February 1971, recovering from knee surgery, as the radio played a new song by Three Dog Night, a band I liked okay – didn’t love them, but they were okay.  And the song starts with the excruciating line that has plagued us ever since: “Jeremiah was a bullfrog.”

I instantly hated it.  Good God, I thought, what has become of Three Dog Night?  They used to grab me with great stuff like “Easy To Be Hard” from the Broadway hit “Hair,” or Harry Nilsson’s great “One,” or the wonderfully melodic “Out in the Country.”  But what was this dreck?  “Joy to the World“?  “Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me”??  Seriously??

(I was later amused to learn that the band apparently disliked the song as much as I did, giving it a thumbs down when their manager suggested it for them.  They resisted, but eventually gave in and recorded it, and groaned when it became a massive hit single.  “I never liked ‘Joy to the World’, and can’t stand to hear it on the radio,” said vocalist Chuck Negron in his tell-all book “Three Dog Nightmare.”  Negron no longer participates in Three Dog Night reunion tours but remaining members Danny Hutton and Cory Wells are saddled with performing it every night.)

In a year when brilliant, substantive #1 songs like “It’s Too Late” and “Me and Bobby McGee” were released, “Joy to the World” was by far 1971’s Number One selling song in the USA.  It went on to become enormously popular at wedding receptions and even appeared on the soundtrack of the baby-boom classic flick “The Big Chill” 20 years after the fact.  It was enough to make you want to throw up.

“Joy to the World” wasn’t the only hideous #1 tune of 1971, by the way.  There was Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” and Dawn’s “Knock Three Times” and The Honey Cone’s “Want Ads.”  But really, in just about any year you name, the popular music landscape has been littered with insipid, inane ditties that rocketed to #1 over far more worthy songs.  Remember “Release Me” by Englebert Humperdinck?  I didn’t think so.  But incredibly, it kept the spectacular double-sided Beatles single “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” from the #1 spot in the UK in 1967.  Similarly, you may be sick to death of “Hey Jude” at this point, but can you believe it was ousted from its #1 perch in the US in 1968 by a piece of crap like Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”?

I once put together a mixed tape I called “Cringeworthy Songs of the ‘70s.”  These were the truly putrid songs that, in a searing indictment of the listening public’s taste, somehow managed to reach the top of the charts – “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” “My Ding-a-Ling,” “The Candy Man,” “The Night Chicago Died.”  Just for fun, I used to put it on at parties and watch the reactions of horror and disgust.  But every so often, some partygoer would hear one of these awful tracks and exclaim, “Oh, I used to LOVE this song!”

And that’s the underlying fact about popular music:  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  As much as I shudder at this stuff, I fully recognize, and am sympathetic to, the phenomenon known as the “guilty pleasure.”  Lord knows I’ve wallowed in the depths of some amazingly shallow music over the years.  We all love songs we feel we shouldn’t – songs that are embarrassingly saccharine, or stupid, or simplistic.  “If” by Bread, or “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe, or “Brand New Key” by Melanie.  Or, later, the hits by Debbie Boone, The Captain and Tennille, or the Bellamy Brothers.  My wife cringes every time I crank up a song like “Rainy Days and Mondays” by the Carpenters.  “Oh my GOD,” she says, “how can you LISTEN to this??”

Well, here’s how.  I was 16.  I was in my mom’s car with my new driver’s license and my new girlfriend.  I was really hoping to finally kiss this girl after weeks of hoping and trying.  That lightweight Carpenters song, with its wistful sax solo, came on the radio, and damned if we didn’t start making out.  And now, lo and behold, that song is part of my life’s soundtrack.

That’s what music does.  That’s the power it has.

Truth be told, somewhere, to someone, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” has the same effect.

The critics falling over to tell themselves he’s boring

It’s safe to say that there have been art critics in existence for as long as there has been art to critique.  But until the 1960s or so, critics in newspapers and magazines tended to focus their efforts on the fine arts, film and theater; popular music was dismissed as fleeting and unworthy of such scrutiny.

Beginning around the time The Beatles took the long-playing record album and turned it into an artistic statement, “rock journalism” became a thing, led by pioneering wordsmiths like Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs writing for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Crawdaddy and Creem.

When I was in high school in the early ‘70s, I started subscribing to RS and always looked forward to reading the album reviews.  They gave us the lowdown on the latest releases of not only our favorite and familiar artists, but new and unfamiliar groups as well.  These reviews proved helpful to us (if not always accurately) in determining which records to add to our growing album collections.

By the time I was pursuing a journalism degree at Syracuse, I came to realize that the type of writing I enjoyed most was reviewing, or “critical writing,” as the course was titled in the curriculum.  It was impressed upon us that a review couldn’t merely say that we liked or disliked something.  We had to explain why.  We were assigned to analyze and evaluate movies, plays and TV shows, always giving reasons for our opinions.  Of all the art forms we surveyed, I most enjoyed using my passion for music and my knowledge of specific genres and bands to offer informed opinions about the latest rock albums and live music shows.  I became a regular contributor to, and eventually an editor of, The Daily Orange, SU’s daily independent student newspaper.

I felt rather privileged to have access to this forum.  Just about everyone has an opinion, but in the pre-Internet age, very few had the chance to share those opinions with the public through the media on a regular basis.  Once I got a job as a reporter/reviewer at a chain of community newspapers in my home town of Cleveland, I felt I had the dream job: I was being paid to attend the concerts of dozens and dozens of major and minor artists and then to publish my observations about the performances.  Friends envied me for this, and I don’t blame them.

I soon learned I had to develop a thick skin, because not everyone agreed with my opinions.  (Imagine that.)  Some readers were sufficiently annoyed with what I had written that they wrote angry letters to the editor or called me at the office to rant about how I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.  Usually these were rabid fans of some band that I had had the audacity to criticize.  Even if I had given what I felt was a positive review, the reader could not abide even one negative remark.  And on those occasions where I disliked the concert and wrote disparagingly about it or the artist in general, the gloves really came off.  “You’re a complete idiot, Hackett.  How can you call yourself an objective reviewer?” one letter said.

That always made me laugh.  A review is, by its very nature, not remotely objective.  It is a subjective commentary, merely one person’s opinion.  But because I had the forum to print my opinion and he didn’t, the reader found it unfair.  “Who does this guy think he is?” was the gist of his response.

I certainly understood his frustration.  I, too, still get a little irritated when a favorite artist of mine receives a scathing critique for a new release or appearance.  But having been on both sides of this equation over the years, I have learned some important truths about this intriguing “critical writing” profession.

The primary definition of “criticism” in Webster’s is “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.”  And there you have it, the main reason why many people don’t like critics: They tear down, they find fault, they harp on the negative.  And it’s a fact that some critics seem to delight in writing what are known as “hatchet jobs,” which, depending on the clout and reach of the critic, can unjustifiably ruin artists’ careers, or at least their self-confidence.

However, the converse is also true.  If a review unendingly gushes compliments to the point where it sounds like it was written by the artist’s publicist, it lacks credibility, especially if the critic routinely writes this type of “puff piece.”  That’s why it’s interesting to note that artists often claim to dislike overwhelmingly positive reviews nearly as much as the brutally negative ones.

The secondary definition of “criticism” is “the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of an artistic work,” and that’s a more apt description of what a really great critic does.  He/she uses knowledge and expertise about the subject, seasons them with his/her own particular taste and sensibility, and renders a meaningful judgment about the work in question.  Typically, the most worthwhile reviews include a mix of pro and con, because in almost every case, even the very best stuff has weaknesses and even the worst dreck has some redeeming value.

It’s frowned upon these days to pass judgment on anyone or anything:  “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” and so forth.  But the key word here, I think, is meaningful; if the judgment has depth and authority based on knowledge, it has more weight and credibility than a mere thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating.  The critic who offers perspective – weighing new songs against previous work, for instance, or why and how yesterday’s concert compares to shows from years past – is adding substantive discussion to the understanding of the artist’s message and milieu.

Some say music critics are merely frustrated artists who don’t have the juice to write songs themselves, and their envy motivates them to take shots at those who do.  No doubt there’s some truth to that; some critics seem to either have a hidden agenda or develop a bias against (or for) certain bands or musical styles, doing the artists and the readers a disservice.  But if the critic’s motives are pure and honest, and he writes with expertise and a desire to search for the how and why, the reviews can be illuminating, well-reasoned and fair.

Artists know going in that their work is going to be put under the microscope and evaluated, sometimes in a manner they find decidedly unfair.  They can ignore it, they can complain bitterly, or they can have a sense of humor about it.  The title of this essay comes from a 1974 song called “Only Solitaire” written by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, who cleverly used actual phrases from critical reviews to poke fun at himself in the lyrics.  Critics who found the flautist’s exuberant “Pied Piper of Rock” stage persona tiresome saw their disdainful words thrown back at them in lyrics like: “court-jesting, never-resting, he must be very cunning to assume an air of dignity, and bless us all with his oratory prowess, his lame-brained antics and his jumping in the air, and every night his act’s the same and so it must be all a game of chess he’s playing…”

There are a few maverick musicians who have proposed doing away with music criticism altogether.  The late iconoclast Frank Zappa once said, “Most rock journalism is written by people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”  Elvis Costello – channeling the school of thought that says “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” – had this to say about what he feels is the futility of music critiques: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

I doubt that critical writing of the arts will ever go away.  Indeed, the explosion of social media outlets in recent years has made that once closely-held public forum available to anyone with a laptop or smartphone, so now “everyone’s a critic.”  Hell, pretty much anyone can start a blog…

I regret the trend in recent years away from the longer, thoughtful essays on artistic work and toward the quickie “capsule reviews” found in most publications.  These tend to be woefully superficial and almost pointless for those of us searching for reasons why we should consider investing in the album/song/concert/artist.  My advice would be to take any review only for what it is: One person’s opinion.  It would be wise to read multiple reviews, particularly those that go into greater depth, to get some sense of balance.  If you find you invariably agree (or disagree) with a particular critic’s reviews, you’ll probably end up giving more (or less) weight to his/her opinion, much like viewers who get their political news from sources that reinforce the views they already hold.

Or you might do with music reviews what my daughter does regarding movie reviews: She refuses to read them at all, or at least not until after she’s seen the film.  Understandably, she grew weary of staying away from a movie because it was panned, only to see it later and totally enjoy it.

Perhaps that’s the best approach:  Judge for yourself.