I Hate New Music
by Dave Thompson
To describe I Hate New Music as it should be described — in a word, pointless; in another, execrable — could easily be spun as having missed the point. The book is tongue-in-cheek. It’s intended to ruffle feathers. It’s written by a lover of classic rock for other lovers of classic rock; those who would demur aren’t its target readership.
And yet, having endured its 224 pages of drivel and non sequitur and harangue, I would grant that all of these are indeed true. It is despite — or because of — these very attributes that it fails so abysmally at being anything more than a wearisome rant dribbling off the spittle-flecked lips of the sot swaying on the nearest barstool. It is at best a stream of loosely connected, contradictory, often inflammatory sentiments imbued with a false air of legitimacy by the occasional quote or hard fact (e.g., the date of an album’s release, a band lineup, number of copies sold), all rushing headlong toward the vindicating climax of a dismissive rhetorical question. To wit:
“Where is that dissent [of the Neil Young variety] today? Where are the souls bared in musical opposition to the conflict in Iraq? Where are the angry young men of the 2000s — where are the voices raised and fists extended that could actually make Neil Young seem old?”
“[A]s long as [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band] is up there, glistening in the firmament, the barbarian hordes of modern-day youth will never erect a false idol in its place. Because Sgt. Pepper might be tepid melodrama. But would you really want to see Radiohead take its place?”
Self-righteous outcries like these have issued from the mouths of one generation after another, and if you should proffer one of many counterexamples to the first, or your reply to the second should be, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I would,” you won’t encounter the flimsiest semblance of reasoning to the contrary here. By posing these rhetorical questions or batting aside “[T]he Hives. Oasis. Tortoise. Built to Spill. Vampire Weekend” in one fell swoop, Thompson has firmly and definitively made his case. To the choir to which he’s preaching.
Ah, but it’s a manifesto. It says so on the dust jacket.
In that case, let’s look at I Hate New Music in the same light as we might view, say, Mein Kampf.
But the thing is, we can’t, because Thompson’s screed is deliberately steeped in sarcasm and hyperbole. When he defends the supremacy of a woefully imperfect format like 8-track by sniffing at “scratchy, warped” vinyl and “coasters with a superiority complex” (CDs), it’s not a position he’s genuinely trying to advance. When Thompson sneers at the idea of Nirvana being rewarded with its own niche in rock’s Valhalla, he doesn’t retract — or even acknowledge, for that matter — the praise he heaped on Kurt Cobain in his opportunistic, flawed biography of the singer, Never Fade Away.
Having eliminated the possibility of I Hate New Music being in earnest then, this presents the following situation: An otherwise capable critic has apparently written a book in which he is, by and large, loudly promulgating crass, rabble-rousing opinions he only halfheartedly believes, or worse, doesn’t believe in at all. Iconoclasm for the sake of iconoclasm. Vain performance art. Not a classical rock manifesto, but a nihilist’s manifesto.
At this point the question that arises is not, why would anyone bother reading this, but rather, why would Thompson bother writing this? Why would anyone waste the precious seconds of his life writing a spirited but altogether empty attack on the sentimentality of Live Aid and the pomposity of U2 (and such easy targets, too) when he could be slapping together another mercenary tabloid-style rock biography? One gets the feeling that the author, if he had any conscious motive at all, set out to have it both ways: to those who agree with its premise, the book is a chauvinistic call to arms; to those who disagree, it’s all in good fun, not meant to be taken seriously. This is a clever little feint, but as with its incomprehensible preface by Richard Meltzer, the baroque chapter intros (“In which we look at the multitudinous ways in which a rocker can make a name for himself… “), and the smug but incorrect incidentals (it was Will Ferrell, not Dana Carvey who imitated Bush, Jr.), I Hate New Music is giddy with delight over its own cleverness, which in turn makes it too clever by half.
To be fair, if the reader can approach the content selectively, Thompson has an engaging style and an aficionado’s command of dates, discographies, and anecdotes (I Hate New Music opens with an amusing, apt, though probably apocryphal one about the dangers of harboring delusions of youth), and his closing chapter offers something closer to the ostensible premise of his book than the useless musing on Spinal Tap that precedes it. But these fleeting displays of skill only succeed in making his catalogue of transgressions more unforgivable.
If I Hate New Music were either a treatise in praise of classic rock’s perdurance or a polemic against the state of rock today, it might have been something worth reading. It is instead neither fish nor fowl, a fatuous mishmash of the two that attempts to turn received wisdom on its ear but can’t hold it in that inverted position for very long.
I Hate New Music: www.ihatenewmusic.com