Culture, Context, And Criticism

     Forgive me, Gentle Reader: I’ve lost the link, but a few days ago I read an article that sticks in my mind for reasons you will soon grasp without prompting. It was a critical article about The Who, the great British rock group that blew through pop music in the late Sixties and early Seventies like an energizing tornado.

     Peter Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon brought a furious, irresistible power to pop music at a time when it was drooping toward self-obsession and self-indulgence. Far too many rock musicians had decided to posture as creative geniuses (not a chance), virtuosi (damned few), or gurus (God save us). They had begun to drift away from the essence of what had brought them popularity: the entertainment value of music written for ordinary people to enjoy, to carry around, and perhaps to imitate.

     In those years there was only an embryo of a critical institution dedicated to pop music. There was Rolling Stone, and a handful of far smaller and less influential imitators. Establishment cultural critics mostly dismissed pop music, often with contempt (“Noise in three major chords”). Even the worldwide popularity of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had little influence on criticism at that time.

     The Who forced people to pay attention. Partly it was their power-pop music, a far cry from most of what was being recorded at the time. But some of it came from their outrages, such as the destruction of their instruments in the middle of a performance. Critics scratched their heads over it. Could such deliberate flaunting of the norms be the new trend in pop entertainment? There was no consensus, only this deliberately outrageous band that seemed to disdain conventional notions of entertainment.

     The Who’s first three albums sold well in England. They’d had a couple of hits that crossed the Atlantic, “Happy Jack” and “I Can See For Miles,” which were enough to stimulate American pop fans’ interest in this outlaw band. But it wasn’t until 1969, a landmark year for all of pop music, that The Who’s star was firmly anchored in the firmament.

     The key was Tommy, the first true “rock opera.”

     Music has been used to tell stories for centuries. Indeed, the union of song with story is responsible for much of what we know about the lives of our progenitors of medieval and later times. But rock music hadn’t gone beyond the love song and the political or “protest” song. The “concept album” concept was still in the process of being born. Then came Tommy, a full-length story of love, murder, intrigue, and a child compelled to witness it all and to keep silent about it.

     Tommy was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. No, it wasn’t Verdi or Puccini. It didn’t have the majesty of a Beethoven symphony or Bach’s Mass in B Minor. It had something else: popular reach. Approachability and comprehensibility. An affecting story told in popular tunes your neighborhood party-guitarist could copy. In a year that featured some of the very best, most seminal rock music ever recorded, Tommy was at the pinnacle.

     The critics of the time were somewhat bemused by it. They’d been following the self-nominated virtuosi and gurus. It seemed to them that there was more mileage in those currents than in the Who’s power pop. Given the developments of the decades since then, they were probably right about that. Even so, Tommy compelled them to take notice. They dared not disappoint the millions who thrilled to it if they wanted to sell column-inches.

     Fifty-two years have passed since then. Many changes have come over pop music. I’m an old man, soon to be seventy, and at a great distance from the stuff that’s being promoted today. But I still listen to Tommy now and then, and smile.


     As for the aforementioned critical article about The Who, the author, whose name has vanished from my memory as completely as the link, said of Tommy that over the years its significance has “diminished greatly.” That caused my eyelids to snap back against their stops. What could the writer have meant with such a curt dismissal?

     Granted that Tommy blazed no new trails in musicology. Granted that other concept-oriented works, including a couple of “rock operas,” have come along since then. Granted even that The Who thereafter traveled a great distance from the musical and narrative styles Tommy exhibited. But what of that? What made Tommy a pop-music milestone was the cultural context in which it emerged.

     “Cultural context” strikes me as a unitary concept. It is impossible to grasp a culture divorced from its seemingly noncultural surroundings. Could the many “protest songs” of the Sixties be understood apart from the Sixties’ sociopolitical milieu, most emphatically including the Vietnam War? What about the psychedelic songs and the “acid rock” of Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane?

     An attempt to separate a cultural artifact from its time inevitably does violence to the artifact. The artifact must be viewed in its original context for its significance to be appreciated. So it is with pop music, quite as much as with orchestral music, painting, sculpture, drama, or any other element that receives cultural attention.

     Tommy defied many existing and emerging trends. Its popularity confused those critics who saw the San Francisco and Los Angeles musical communities as the wave of the future. Once again, they weren’t entirely wrong about that assessment, judging by the music of the decades that followed. But there’s important information in that critic’s dismissal of Tommy’s significance. In a sense, its relevance is eternal:

Critics are always an Establishment.

     The critical temperament seeks the same thing as the creative temperament: audience, acceptance, and applause. However, the critic’s assets are far weaker than those of the creative. He is tightly bound to his time’s creatives, unable to command attention without them. This automatically makes him seek for the trend in motion (or about to erupt), and to strive to “get out in front of it.”

     Many have commented on this phenomenon. It does seem to partake of a pervasive envy among critics of the creatives upon whose products they feed. Perhaps the pithiest of such commentary comes from a creator of note: the late Robert A. Heinlein:

     A critic is a man who creates nothing and thereby feels qualified to judge the work of creative men. There is logic in this; he is unbiased, he hates all creative people equally. [From Time Enough For Love]

     If you’re a creative – once again, the medium in which you choose to create doesn’t matter – you might want to keep that thought handy for when your stuff comes in for critical attention. Think of them as remoras straining to suck nutrition from your scales and fins. The attitude drains all the sting out of their superciliousness. It’s done wonders for me.

1 comment

    • Kye on March 23, 2021 at 7:56 AM

    Just reading the word “superciliousness” made me smile.    I have neither seen in print nor heard in speech that word in years.  I actually had to say it out loud to appreciate the sound again.  Thanks, Francis.

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