In mid-February 1999, an 11-page document called “The Rock Critical List” (download) landed on the desks of several music editors and a music publicist in New York City. Squished into single-spaced Geneva and subtitled “Squirming in a box marked ‘Fucked’ since 1998,” the List bemoaned the state of rock criticism by insulting a cohort of its practitioners.
“As a ‘veteran’ (i.e., decrepit and disillusioned) music scribbler,” the writer, taking the pen name “JoJo Dancer aka The Gay Rapper” began, “I can assure you that music criticism, like all criticism, has, more often than not sucked the ass of a lubricated goat.”
In what he calls “1998’s Top Ten List,” the core of JoJo’s manifesto comprises profane potshots taken at his colleagues in the music writing business:
- Neil Strauss: “A balding, dickless imp… Trying to snicker under your breath 24 hours a day is a grueling job.”
- Joshua Clover: “The only award-winning poet ever to turn music writing as [sic] a cure for menopause.”
- Joe Levy: “His VOICE review of Rancid’s latest album featured a key paragraph in which the writer and the boys dined at one of Say It Ain’t So Joe’s favorite East Village ristorantes, apropos of absolutely nada.”
- Simon Reynolds: “No writer has ever made dance music seems so hysterically important, yet so impenetrably dull.”
- Thomas Frank: “Hey, close your eyes, and its [sic] like Noam Chomsky, as if he’d seen Big Black at Maxwells in 1987! Cool!”
- Matt Diehl/Touré: “No matter how you dress ‘em up, a bitch iz a bitch iz a bitch.”
- Robert Christgau: “Funk Master Bob’s late-era writing has been tripped up less by his sadly clotted prose and populist autism, than by his total lack of feeling for today’s most important your musics [sic].”
- Eric Weisbard: “Check out, if you have caffeine pills, his incoherent VOICE book report on the ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC.”
- Ethan Smith: “From SASSY cabin boy to EW sniglet editor to NEW YORK pop music critic, this emaciated young lad has risen steadily to his current level of total incompetence.”
- Danyel Smith: “With the introduction of glossy hip-hop stepchild BLAZE, she’s free to pursue her dream of transforming VIBE into a touchy-feely, art-directed celebration of faux-bourgeois splendor (free of rap-related grime).”
Over the next six weeks, a media shitstorm—equal parts whodunit and rockcrit navel-gazing—crescendoed and diminuendoed. For a while there, the Rock Critical List had all the intrigue of a cheap potboiler, the connect-the-dots suspense of a conspiracy flick, all set to a soundtrack sufficiently obscure for music writers to keep listening.
And then, as quickly as the mystery began, it disappeared. People were scandalized. Then nothing changed.
Everyone hates rock critics. Especially rock critics themselves. Several theories have been put forward to explain why this is the case.
All rock writing sucked after Lester Bangs.
- Lester Bangs spawned legions of shitty imitators who, in turn, ruined rock writing for the rest of us.1
- Lester Bangs was a shitty writer in the first place who, in turn, spawned even shittier imitators.
The whole enterprise of criticism and being a critic, especially without being a practitioner of whichever art one is criticizing, is fatally flawed.
- Musicians are, by and large, awful writers.
- There’s the whole “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” school of thought. This famous quote, attributed to everyone from Martin Mull to Frank Zappa to Elvis Costello to Steve Martin, captures perfectly how music’s effect cannot be captured adequately with words. It’s a valid point, what with at least instrumental music considered as a non-referential art, and writing as one that’s dependent on referents and signifiers and signified and all. Except when one considers people do actually dance about architecture, and some of it is pretty good.
- People hate writers in general.
- Rock critics tend to prefer the obscure over the crowd-pleasing to feel better about themselves. There’s been some explanations for this, one that’s best summed up by former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth. “Rock critics like Elvis Costello,” he said, “because rock critics look like Elvis Costello.”
- Rock critics write horribly in the first place.
That last one is my own pet theory. Ten years have passed since JoJo’s Rock Critical List tried to shake the tree free of rock writers who “sucked the ass of a lubricated goat.” Ten years later, rock criticism is still littered with purple, hacky, adjective-dependent prose. Rock crit clichés—where ballads haunt and mid-tempo numbers blister, where style descriptions lean on such prefixes as post- and uber- and the hoary suffixes -esque and -isms, and where urgent is the standby descriptor—still rule. Magazine writers, rock music and otherwise, fawn more than ever over their profile subjects in ways too embarrassing to mention.
Ten years ago, JoJo decried a state of rock criticism that has still not changed. What has changed is that the hostility of the List is now the prevailing orthodoxy. Maybe this is why the List is largely forgotten; a recent Google search for “Rock Critical List” turns up only 25 results.2
In the parlance of a TV news anchor: That no one has come forward to claim authorship leaves a chord still unresolved.
From the Rock Critical List:
AND ANOTHER THING: For years, mediocre feebs have mewled about the New York-based “cabal” that controls thought and drives agendas and keeps “new writing voices” from emerging. These feebs are usually underachieving whiners (or closet “experimental” DJs) who spend their spare time getting drunk and clawing the anuses of NYU or UCLA (or whatever) students down at the local “underground” boho emporium or open-bar listening party, exclaiming how it’s a crime that Uncle Tupelo or Sonic Boom or Silver Apples or Charles Gayle or the Fastbacks or Freestyle Fellowship never hit it any bigger than they did (which was often bigger than they could’ve expected).
CHECK IT! It’s a goddamn wasteland out there, and if somebody has something to say, the forum will find ‘em. But these whiners do have one point—music scribbling out of New York-based national publications at this exact moment IS unnecessarily lifeless, artless and idiotically panglossed, unless even as a “consumer guide” (no props to Grandaddy Xgau, who’s got the blood of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY on his hands).
“It’s an artifact of a bygone age,” Chuck Klosterman, who in 1999 was still an arts writer for the Akron Beacon Journal, wrote to me. “From my perspective, that manuscript is like Beowulf or the cave paintings of Altamira or something.”3
News of the Rock Critical List spread in a manner that, by today’s Twitter-quick standards, feels quaint. Like a 19th-century presidential debate, people heard of the List before they read it. Writers faxed copies to each other across the country. That’s how Klosterman got a hold of his copy in Ohio.
The List predates a full-blown blogosphere—before everyone became a critic, before media memes cycled through incident, analyses, dead horse, and Wikipedia posterity. Rock writing itself was situated at the end of an era where the auteur-as-rock-critic still mattered, before Napster and iTunes democratized rare 12-inch mixes, before places like Pitchfork offered a homogenized handbook for each listener’s niche sensibility.
It’s unclear how the List was first made public. More than likely, the March 22, 1999, issue of the New York Observer (quoted in full here) marks the first time a publication reported on its existence.
The story, which ran in the newspaper’s “Off the Record” column, came complete with critiques from those on the list. “I thought it was moderately witty,” Christgau (no. 7), the self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics,” told the Observer.
What drew me back to the Rock Critical List over the years was its meanness masked by anonymity, how it felt scandalous to read how such-and-such critic sucks donkey cock. “He slammed people who were asking for it, people I don’t like either.” Joe Levy (no. 3) said. “It’s extraordinarily rare that you see something that demonstrates this much intelligence and this much poor reasoning.”
The Observer mention is also significant because it is the first to report the buzz around one person as its alleged author: Charles Aaron, then and now a senior music editor at Spin magazine. Mentioned in the List as recipient of the “Average White Man Award” for a sympathetic Limp Bizkit profile4, Aaron and JoJo Dancer, it was pointed out, shared a lot of the same rockcriticspeak quirks and hyphenated neologisms.
Eventually, when the List was excerpted on Spin’s then-primitive website and appeared on a few online forums, it started to garner still more press mentions. Record nerds like me bought copies of the original for $1—one to keep and others to mail to friends—at the front counter of See Hear Fanzines Magazines & Books in the East Village, where business was brisk.
Those who followed the Rock Critical List hoopla outside the New York rock critic establishment either viewed the entire enterprise as a self-referential circle jerk—“analyzing the shit you’re sitting in” is how one letter writer, Windy Chien from Aquarius Records of San Francisco, put it in the Village Voice—to a much-needed wake-up call. “The Critical List does offers some healthy food for thought to the Rock Critic Establishment,” Matt Ashare wrote at the time in the Providence Phoenix, comparing the document to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses—”only with more expletives.” The List controversy, Ashare says, “overshadowed” a music writing conference held at the Dia Center in mid-February.
What drew me back to the Rock Critical List over the years was its meanness masked by anonymity, how its profanity-laced insults seemed so new then, how it felt scandalous to read how such-and-such critic sucks donkey cock. Its audacious disregard for careerism was as a model for what not to do as a writer.
“In some ways the R.C.L. was an advance glimpse of the free-for-all of semi-anonymous invective that is the blogosphere,” Simon Reynolds (no. 4), wrote to me. “Sort of makes you wonder, given that in 1999 the web was in full flight, why it wasn’t done as a web pamphlet? Too easily traceable, perhaps.”
Who wrote the Rock Critical List? From the start, fingers did point to a music scribbler: only a rock critic, for example, would select a nom de plume that references the 1986 Richard Pryor film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling or use the phrase “lubricated goat,” the name of a late-’80s Australian noise band. Rock critics either fell on the side of wanting the whole thing to go away or of wanting to find who wrote it and treating him or her to a Full Metal Jacket-style blanket party.
Then the April 13, 1999, issue of the Village Voice arrived. Perhaps to make up for lost time or to reflect increased buzz around the List, music editor Chuck Eddy assigned three pieces, a full page plus jumps, all on the JoJo Dancer/Rock Critical List phenomenon.
“I didn’t think the JoJo Dancer controversy was worth the space he was giving it,” Frank Kogan, one of the three writers, wrote to me. “The core of my complaint wasn’t the Rock Critical List’s negligibility so much as that, if I’d come across an idea by a Greil Marcus or a Rob Sheffield, etc., that really excited me, and I wanted to write a piece about the idea because I thought people should know about it and confront it or put it to use, no one would print the piece.”
“But I was happy to cash the check.”5
The author of a shortish sidebar piece, Sara Sherr, wrote to me: “I still think this piece is a joy to read, even if I don’t agree with all of it. That person, if he/she was not already a published writer, deserved a column somewhere. I would read anything that person wrote.”
“I felt that the Voice treating it like a witch hunt was wrong. They should have dealt with the writer’s ideas, rather than the identity. I still to this day feel guilty about my indirect role in the witch-hunt aspect of it. And was/am still scared to ask Charles Aaron for work.”6
But it was the Voice’s lead investigative piece that broke new ground on the whodunit front. In “Dancer in the Dark,”7 Jeff Howe wrote that “attributional evidence seems piled high against Spin editor Charles Aaron.” A Voice tech writer who is now a contributing editor for Wired and coined the word “crowdsourcing,” Howe said he, too, loved the Rock Critical List when he first read it 10 years ago.
“I wish it was read more broadly,” he said to me over the phone. “But I regret what I did outing Charles.”
Part of Howe’s regret must have come from recruiting a big dog into the pen in the form of Donald Foster. A Vassar professor and Shakespeare scholar who in 1996 outed Joel Klein as the real-live Anonymous behind the best-selling Primary Colors, Foster was contacted by Howe to see if he could repeat his feat in the case of the Rock Critical List’s true authorship.
Foster had developed a computerized textual analysis system for scholarly purposes—he first made headlines for attributing a 578-line elegy as a missing work of Shakespeare—that has also been used as a forensic tool, working with the F.B.I. to identify Theodore Kaczynski as the Unabomber and to work on the JonBenét Ramsey case.
Howe narrowed down possible candidates to six rock writers and examined eight of each of the writers’ articles. “We must have faxed Don something like 300 pages,” Howe said. Foster then went to work. After examining the articles and the List, Foster determined that JoJo’s use of similar compounded neologisms, hyphenated and non-hyphenated, along with exact phrases such as “noontime feedings,” pointed to Charles Aaron as the writer.
“On the record,” Howe said, “Foster was 100 percent sure it was Charles Aaron who wrote it.”
Howe’s JoJo-fingering piece lost some authority when Foster’s agent called the Voice to take his client’s name out of the story, leading Howe to use terms like “catalogue of thumbprints” without Foster’s imprimatur.
“Listen, Don loves to do it for the joy of it,” Howe said by way of explaining Foster’s involvement but lack of credit. A later Observer piece did reveal it was Foster behind the forensics, but no matter: Without the professor’s name, the outing of Aaron wasn’t as definitive as it could have been.
It’s all for the best, Howe says now. “Today, I would not have outed Charles. When you’re younger, you don’t think about the implications of what you write. You don’t worry about those sorts of things. Where I work now at Wired, we can close businesses.”
Did anyone try to stop him from writing it?
“Charles did,” Howe said. “He was livid. I told him, ‘Listen, I’ve got Don Foster, he’s 100 percent sure.’ He [Aaron] was extravagant in his denials.”
Which, in Howe’s book, is a shame. “He deserved plaudits for writing it and I don’t think he needed to be anonymous.” Not claiming authorship, Howe said, “was a real pussy move.”
Simon Reynolds (no. 4) described his reaction to appearing on the List at the time as feeling “weirdly honored.”
“I’m pretty thick-skinned,” he wrote to me. “I came up through the U.K. weekly music press, so I’ve had worse things said about me by colleagues at Melody Maker, let alone by readers writing into the letters page.”
Critics should be able to handle criticism themselves, Reynolds said. “I’ve said some harsh things about musicians over the years.”
Reynolds does draw the distinction, however, with the Rock Critical List’s anonymity. “There’s a big difference, though, in so far as those negative comments always had my byline attached to them. Especially when the document in question is bemoaning a lack of integrity and guts in music journalism!”
“At the end of the day, it’s cowardly to put out your opinions anonymously, isn’t it? If you’re going to call out everybody else, they should be able to point to your record and say ‘Well, hang on a minute.’”
“As for my own feelings about it, I’m not sure what to say except that it’s always disappointing to come in second.” Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, who JoJo mentions in the aftermatter that follows the Top Ten, says he “felt pretty honored” for his inclusion, “like being a member of an editorial rouges gallery.”
“I haven’t read it in years,” he writes. “But I do remember thinking it was pretty hilarious and actually mild compared to some of the anonymous media eviscerations going on back then, like on urbanexpose.com.”
Then there was Joshua Clover (no. 2). When I got ahold of Clover over email, he sounded understandably apprehensive: “Can you give me some sense of your interest and angle in writing this story? My own experience as a journalist makes me curious.”
I told Clover about my fascination with the List, how it could be said that rock critics needed such a manifesto. Or at least parts of the content, I told him; calling Touré a bitch seemed like a personal take-down and nothing more. I told him about what I called the “intrigue angle,” the whodunit mystery, Howe’s Voice piece, and how Foster pegged Charles Aaron, with “100 percent certainty.”
“It sounds like you found it all a little more interesting than I did,” Clover writes back. “As for my own feelings about it, I’m not sure what to say except that it’s always disappointing to come in second.”
Fair enough. I wrote back with some other questions: Why would a senior editor at Spin write an anonymous manifesto, distribute it to people who are one degree of association away from him, take down just about everyone else in his corner of the world in a personal and ad hominem way, writing in a style that is the same as his day job, and not expect to be named?
“It’s odd to me that you think Charles ‘got away with it,’” Clover writes. “In the sense of not getting fired? Nobody gets fired for such things. In the sense of not losing his friends? I suspect he was doing that anyway; the document was symptom, not cause. His punishment was being him.”
“Every single person I knew at the time who cared believed without a doubt it was Charles… Those who were in general concerned about Charles’ fragility wished him well, in addition to being put off. No one really wanted to see him completely self-destruct. He was a pretty talented writer.”8
Punk rock fans are opinionated little shits who care too much about what and what doesn’t suck and get by on a wicked sense of humor. —Charles Aaron, quoted in “Where It All Began”
“Outside of the 15-minute parlor game over who wrote it,” Jeff Howe tells me, “the number of true rock nerds who might be interested in the Rock Critical List would be two to three times the number of people mentioned in the piece.”
Although it flattered me that I might be one of a few “true rock nerd” obsessives who read and remembered JoJo’s manifesto, I disagreed with Howe. To conduct a completely unscientific experiment, I emailed an old friend of a friend, Bill Cawley, to see if he remembered the List.9
A “true rock nerd”-turned-sound editor who in 1998 moved from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Los Angeles to get started in the movie business, Cawley remembers getting a copy from other “pop culture maniacs” he met in town.
“They were from Oklahoma, of all places, via Austin,” Cawley told me. “One of the key things out here used to be going to the right ‘used’ stores. Every industry hackoid dumped their promos at Aaron’s Record Shop or Backside Records in Burbank—you could get anything below price.”
By the time the Rock Critical List came out, Cawley and his fellow nerds in L.A. were poised to lap it up. “This is a music town,” Cawley, who reckoned copies were sold at Aaron’s Record Shop, “and in the ‘90s that meant [music] journalism, too.”
“I remember having a good chuckle about the Simon Reynolds bit,” Cawley said. “Totally on the mark. I also remember focusing on the East Coast types [on the List]—Christgau, et al., perhaps fueled by my lifelong hatred of Dave Marsh and his douchebag ilk.”
“It’s still great,” Cawley told me, re-reading his copy of the List as we spoke. “But it seems like it’s from a different era now, what with the 80 quadrillion bloggers out there. It’s from a different mindset—information like this just traveled down more select pipelines. But it did travel out here.”
Bill and I had been in the same social circles for years. I know him through a mutual friend, a guitarist/composer named Bob and his cousin Gene, another musician. In April 1999, the four of us acquired separate copies of the Rock Critical List on our own. If four dudes from the Delaware Valley, three from the same bumfuck town in South Jersey, would seek out copies of the List, it’s likely this scenario played out across the country on a fairly regular basis.10
Whatever fallout occurred from the publication of the Rock Critical List and the subsequent coverage, recriminations, and alleged outing of Charles Aaron, it happened off-camera.
According to several people I spoke with, the List caused some rifts with Aaron and other people at Spin. “He never talked to me again,” Howe said. They had emailed before the article, met in person a couple of times. No more.
Howe recalls an incident plucked straight out of a classic late-’90s rock critical milieu. “We were at the same Pavement show,” Howe said.11 “He was over with his friends, me with mine. We didn’t speak.”
Before contributing her Voice piece, Sara Sherr spent a good deal of time writing for fanzines. “The difference between fanzines and blogs is distribution. Anyone can read your blog and anyone can start a blog. Even if you rage against Pitchfork, you can start your own blog. Blogs are not without their own problems, it’s just that now, everyone’s a critic, everyone can hear the same stuff. There’s tremendous power there. Which is scary and awesome.”
Though Charles Aaron didn’t respond to my inquiries, several of those interviewed for this story claimed Aaron told a friend he was the real JoJo Dancer. Maybe it increases the legend. More than likely, it’s the type of story we in the internet age know well: You work up a lather, write a hateful screed in the heat of the moment, send it out to the world, then regret doing it.
Say what you will about what JoJo, he had a great eye for talent. Most who appear on the Top Ten went from writing music onto other beats, other genres. Neil Strauss, the “balding, dickless imp,” shaved his head and boasts several best-selling books about pick-up artists, Jenna Jameson, and survivalism. Joshua Clover just published his sprawling theoryfest 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About. Joe Levy edited Blender, then Time. Thomas Frank told us What’s the Matter With Kansas and detailed Dubya’s Wrecking Crew. You might have seen Touré on CNN commentating Michael Jackson’s funeral. Robert Christgau still reigns as Dean of Rock Critics, for whatever that’s worth. Eric Weisbard organizes the pop conference for the Experience Music Project in Seattle.
And a decade later, Charles Aaron still works at Spin. As the world of print magazines crumbles around us, it’s Charles Aaron who still has a gig writing about popular music. Which, considering how the game has changed, is saying something. Rock critics don’t matter nearly enough anymore. Everyone’s a critic.
Or perhaps everyone is Charles Aaron. In still another twist of identity-claiming in Charles Aaron’s life, every single critic participating in the Village Voice’s 2008’s Pazz and Jop poll received a ballot addressed to Charles Aaron, complete with Aaron’s login and password information. The result, the “I’m Not Charles Aaron” Affair, resulted in about 1,000 self-loathing rock critics to deny they were the person to whom the letter was erroneously addressed, resulting in an “understandable identity crisis in the rock-critic community at large.”
Whether or not Aaron wrote the Rock Critical List, there are levels of irony to be found in this story. If he did write the List, it’s fitting this happened on the occasion of the Pazz and Jop poll, since JoJo referred to it in his Letter as the rock critics’ “self-serving year-end wankorama.” If he didn’t write the List, then it’s just another instance of someone stealing Aaron’s identity, writing style or otherwise. The Voice’s piece on the “Charles Aaron Saga” did not refer to the paper’s Rock Critical List triple-shot 10 years before.
In an interview recorded earlier this year, Charles Aaron spoke with Max Robins about the state of the music industry and his 20-year tenure at Spin.
“After all this time, I’m still really engaged, excited about it,” Aaron said. He has an intelligent-sounding voice, about my age. There’s a slight twang. “I really do have to be grateful for that. I’d be a complete moron [if I didn’t] feel fortunate to have this job.”
“If you don’t get excited by music…it’s kind of your last refuge. Like, what else is going to excite you? I find people who get bored with music, and they’re like, I love 30 Rock! TV is so awesome now!
“And I say, ‘Yeah, I like TV, too. But TV didn’t change my life like music did.’”