If, over the last two and a half decades, there is one musical artist with whose work I’ve most connected, it’s Scott Miller. The man with the ordinary name has recorded some of the most extraordinary power-pop ever committed to vinyl (CD, MP3—take your pick). His music—by turns frenetic and fragile—may not actually fit the classic definition of power-pop, but he’s pushed the perimeters to accommodate his larger, more personal vision. And although relying on analogies is a shortcut for those who have two right feet when it comes to dancing about architecture, try to imagine Alex Chilton fronting early Roxy Music—and inject the allusive verbosity of a young man smitten by James Joyce and up to his knees in pop culture.
I bought the first album by Miller’s '80s band, Game Theory, Blaze of Glory, which came in a plastic trash bag—likely a sardonic surrender to the presumed (unfoundedly so) inevitability of being tossed in the college-radio-station waste basket. The album was a keyboard-heavy mix of Chris Stamey-ish pop and clever lyrics that were somehow both highly personal and compulsively referential. I somehow located the two—now incredibly rare—releases by his even earlier band, Alternate Learning, and came to the conclusion that Miller was never actually influenced by Stamey—time and place ruled him out as a suspect—he was rather a soul brother born into a kindred post-Big Star eccentricity.
So it’s interesting to witness Miller put down his guitar and grab a pen—a pen that’s simply dripping with think-ink. In Music: What Happened? the rock critic side of this accomplished musician comes to the fore. Though a lot of the book’s entries were written a while ago, journaling the songs—the ones outside Miller’s own sphere of music creation—to which he paid attention through the years, these mini-essays have never before appeared in one place. I’m a skeptic when it comes to talented people wearing different hats. For example, I don’t particularly enjoy watching Madonna act in movies. (I rarely have the urge to hear her sing.) And as good and accomplished a painter as Tony Bennett might be, I’ll never think of him as anything but the quintessential crooner. I took the long way to get to the big question: Does Miller pull off his gig as a rock critic? Can he play the other side of the fence, or is he just marking new territory?
Answer: Not only does Miller totally acquit himself as a rock critic, he’s produced one of the most interesting compendiums of music journalism since Robert Christgau’s Rock Music of the ‘70s.
Before addressing any specifics in Miller’s book, I should explain my own theory of rock criticism—which is one I’m guessing I might share, to some extent, with Miller and even Christgau. I’ve been writing about music for over 20 years, but I’ve never felt qualified to be a rock critic. I have biases, embarrassing gaps in my knowledge, and an off-kilter concept of musical paradigms. I could ramble on forever about punk-rock, ‘70s soul and 60s pop, but I could never give someone like Bruce Springsteen a fair shake, because I just don’t get it. Jadedness is the cancer of critical even-sightedness—but I wear my weariness as a protective device. It takes a lot to impress this shopworn curmudgeon. I’m not sure if I have higher standards or a lower threshold. Ever since the mid-‘90s, when it was my job to have my finger on the pulse of rock’n’roll’s breathing, sweating body, I’ve been fairly out of touch. I have no idea what’s a gigantic hit on the radio right now. And when I see some young band rocking out on Letterman, I’m bound to snicker—feeling very much like their father, and wishing they would do something else for a living.
To me, rock criticism is about insight and personality. And music listening is about tastes. Many times when I’ve trusted a writer’s opinion, I’ve been burned. He had no right—or special knowledge—to profess to know what I’d like. But if a writer is fun to read, it doesn’t matter whether his or her tastes are in tune with my own. I don’t want a dry consumer guide by some neutral reviewer. I want to learn new ways to think about music.
Miller has a great writing style—very alive, specific and entertaining. He seems influenced by Christgau, occasionally swept away by his own analytics, whimsical at the expense of accuracy, and compulsively iconoclastic. But that almost always makes for fun—never dull— reading. I disagree with Miller more often than I would have thought. I say no way to his claim that “There She Goes,” by the La’s is better than “Ticket to Ride.” “There She Goes” has a lilting main melody—but the main melody is all there is. The song goes nowhere. Nothing by the La’s can hold a candle to anything by the Beatles, particularly the breathtaking “Ticket to Ride.” But it’s ultimately a he-said, he-said. Disagreements give criticism its gonads.
Another sort of qualm I have is that Miller, who as an artist is perhaps the king of esoteric excellence, sticks pretty closely to college rock playlists—not to mention the omnipresent Top 40. Hasn’t he heard seminal records with striking parallels to his own—for instance, Black Vinyl Shoes? Or perhaps he’s heard them but eschews discussing obscure releases in favor of music that’s resonated in the public marketplace, and thus his eardrums? For example, he references Emitt Rhodes in the service of making a point about other artists, but doesn’t discuss Rhodes’ music in and of itself. It’s hard to tell if being left out of this book means the artist in question doesn’t register on Miller’s worthy-of-inclusion radar, or if it was strictly a matter of not having enough space. Still, he does find room for people like Van Duren. Never heard of him? That’s precisely why he’s more interesting to read about than Aerosmith.
Nitpicks aside (and nitpicking is no picnic when you admire the subject so much), this is an indispensable collection of rock criticism. Miller’s larger point is that he believes music critics often cater to the non-musician contingency of a readership, electing to leave out a world of observations about the technical aspects. He feels that’s a condescension that limits criticism’s communicability. But it’s not like this is rocket science, anyway—it’s, at best, rock science. Or is it an art? Is dancing about architecture even possible? Sure—perhaps someday in a stage musical about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. But for the time being, in Music: What Happened?, Scott Miller has found the words to justify that famous expression. He puts his best foot forward.