Congenitally Honest Criticism: Greil Marcus Talks “Real Life Rock”

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Greil Marcus

In the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola was editor at City Magazine in San Francisco and one day he tasked Greil Marcus with reviewing every movie on television. “I noticed there were six different movies about uncles killing their nephews in one week,” Marcus recalls. “So it became a theme: I suggested that there’d be murderous uncles in films where in fact there weren’t, but something about them implied murderous uncles.”

Teasing themes out of seemingly discrete subjects later informed Marcus’ “Real Life Rock Top Ten” column, which organizes capsule reviews of music, books, movies, and most other conceivable bits of cultural material into sets of ten. The column—which started in the Village Voice in 1986, visited publications like Interview, Artforum, Salon, and The Believer, and now lives at Barnes & Noble Review—is anthologized in a new book, Real Life Rock.

Featuring some of the celebrated cultural critic’s most nimble and urgent writing on a constellation of topics, it’s a crucial reference—to be filed alongside Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide—and it catalyzed the following discussion, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.

“It’s a playful column,” Marcus says. “It sets the various people and records and books and signs in motion and lets them talk to each other. It’s an imaginary conversation. That’s the only way I can say it.”

greil marcus real life rock

You dedicate the book to frequent column subjects Sleater-Kinney and The Mekons, but I was really intrigued by The Fastbacks, who you celebrate throughout much of the book for never changing.

Well I write about them because they’re passionate, intelligent people who hold nothing back. It’s people wrestling with the contemporary world, a world that they feel has no place for them, isn’t interested in them, would just assume they were never born, people who aren’t particularly great-looking, people who don’t find it in their hearts to be very accepting of anything. And they make work that is funny, that’s full of pathos, that makes you hurt, and makes you glad to be alive. Musically they don’t change, but when you’re giving the listener everything you have it doesn’t have to change. If you have a really dear friend, you look forward to hearing from that person every year as a testament maybe just to the fact that that person is still alive and you are too, not that the person is going to have revelation or start writing letters to you in a new voice.

Can you speak to accommodating The Believer’s positivity policy?

It was founded with this manifesto against snark, about not saying gratuitous mean things. Nick Hornby, who’s written a music column and also a book column at The Believer for a long time, he talks in his literary column about how he’s not going to say mean things or, essentially, not going to say what he thinks, so he has to find other ways to be expressive and not cross this line. That goes against my grain, essentially. Everyone at The Believer was wonderful, but I was constantly trying to sneak negative comments into the column.

So there was no unexpected relief in not being able to write mean reviews.

Well no, it was a frustration, but one that I didn’t object to. I’d taken the job knowing what the magazine is about. One of the problems with the critic is that you ask the critic what he or she thinks and they’re going to tell you. They really are. It’s congenital. If you moderate what you really think then you’re lying. You’re lying to readers and to yourself. I’d try to find a way to point out what was wrong, what might even be a moral crime in something, without being in any way gratuitous or cheap and without attacking the persons responsible personally, while arguing that they were self-evidently saying stupid, thoughtless things.

How do you handle receiving criticism?

People ask me if I get upset about people saying nasty things about me in print or otherwise and usually I say that it’s never any worse than what I’ve written about people, which is true. And I was surprised reading back through the galleys of this book, just a little surprised, at how cruel I was so often and still am. I really do think there are crimes against writing and crimes again sensibility, that there are attitudes that particular writers strike that are unbelievably condescending and vile and if that’s how something strikes me I find a way to say it that’s interesting, not just swearing at somebody.

It’s evident from your criticism that as a listener you’re not interested in how artists intend their songs to be received. Do you think that puts you out of step with contemporary writing on pop?

If that’s so, then I’m really happy to be out of step. That’s a thoughtless and reductive way of looking at anything in culture and art… I don’t respond to a song or a novel based on the good and bad intentions of the people who created it. It’s not the intention of the performer that grabs you. It’s what they created, but intention can be interesting. It’s interesting that Miley Cyrus had no intention whatsoever involved in “Party in the USA”. It was something that was given to her and she needed a single at the time. And her lack of intention doesn’t take away from what the song is any more than if she had written it herself out of the deepest personal commitment, assuming the record would have been the same.

It’s much easier—and I guess it’s much more saleable in an era where the dominant literary form is memoir, which people oddly seem to believe is more true than novels are—for critical discussions to turn into biographical interrogation.

In reviews where the assessment hinges on biographical details or maybe industry analysis, do you think the roles of criticism and journalism are sort of being muddled?

That makes sense. It’s a disinclination to think, a distrust of the critical faculty, which is to say, why am I reacting this way, what’s going on, what’s producing this reaction in me. To do that you don’t say, oh I’m so sensitive or insensitive. It’s not about you. It’s about the work, what is it in this work, this song, this obnoxious thing I heard on television that’s got me so riled up. To think about it and make sense of it is the critical faculty. And it involves a lot of imagination. Some people distrust that. It’s much easier—and I guess it’s much more saleable in an era where the dominant literary form is memoir, which people oddly seem to believe is more true than novels are—for critical discussions to turn into biographical interrogation.

I remember a “Fresh Air” interview from years ago where Terry Gross is talking to the novelist Edmund White and she’s essentially asking what interviewers on radio and TV are always asking novelists, which is, “How much of this is true?” Or, asking songwriters or even filmmakers, “How much of this really happened to you?” Edmund White said something to the effect of, you know, twenty years ago on the occasion of publishing a new novel I would’ve been asked why I wrote a passage a certain way or how the characters took shape for me, and was it difficult to make these characters come to life and relate to each other and to the reader—you know, literary questions. All he was asked was whether this stuff really happened. So we are living in a period where intellectual laziness, combined with the dominance of the memoir, leads us to approach things in this utterly reductionist manner, which ultimately simply denies the power of art.

A lot of people lament what’s always called readers’ short attention spans. I’m sort of suspicious of that because snappy takes can be plenty rewarding and substantial, as Real Life Rock shows.

I’m really glad to hear you say that and hope it’s true. In terms of attention spans, people tend to generalize. Look at what was written about television in the 1960s: it was lobotomizing the public, it was rotting peoples’ minds, forcing the brain into patterns where only sentimental niceness would register as real life, subtlety and thinking were being erased, and that didn’t turn out to be true. People used to think when MTV started and everybody was putting out a video for their songs that because people would associate songs with the little movie it would be inhibit or even destroy their ability to form their own associations with the song and freeze the song into its video and prevent it from making new meaning. It didn’t turn out to be true. There were two books reviewed in the New York Times Book Review Sunday about the internet destroying our minds and intimacy and everything else. It’s condescending to younger people to think they can be generalized that way, as older people always generalize the younger generation.

I don’t know how I can have no attention span when I read something on a computer, that I’m impatient that I can’t read an email let alone an article, but on my phone I can read a ten-thousand word article and not get distracted. I don’t know how this works. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? A phone is like a book to me—even sometimes more involving, with more gravity and more magnetism.