How To Quit Fucking Up

Rick Moody is fucking up.

The novelist, best known for The Ice Storm1, has been moonlighting the last couple of years as a music critic for the pop-culture website The Rumpus, in a column called Swinging Modern Sounds. It’s an exercise in critical self-indulgence, in which Moody gives himself free rein to discuss whatever he likes, at whatever length that he cares to go.

As Moody himself tells it in SMS #40 from January 15, he “normally only write[s] about things [he[ like[s],” but in this particular column, he chose to “experiment” with talking about something he doesn’t like at all: the music of Taylor Swift.

I think it’s kind of bizarre to spend your entire column talking about things you like and then choose to shit on something just to see how it feels. I also think that Moody says a lot of silly things: claiming Los Lobos will be “elder statesmen” in 5 to 10 years when some of them are already over 60; saying the NYC duo the Books lasted “as long as” the Clash, when they lasted considerably longer; referring to Americana artist Jolie Holland as “indie rock.” He is prone to ridiculously broad statements like “[t]here is no . . . singer [other than Holland] in the ‘indie rock’ world who is an effective interpreter of songs” and “the word “noise” when applied to music is incredibly stupid.” He fetishizes “analog” and “acoustic” methods over “digital” in the manner of people who don’t really understand how the recording process works: “I further believe that digital recording . . . makes vocals that were beautiful in a natural way sound as processed and auto-tuned as anything you might here on the ‘radio’ these days.” His writing is imprecise, hyperbolic, and long-winded.

In short, though he seems to have good taste, I don’t think all that much of Rick Moody as a music critic. But I also don’t think he has anything to apologize for as far as his comments about music go, because I don’t particularly think that critics should apologize for their opinions, even ones such as Moody’s comically intense dislike of Taylor Swift (“She makes me want to die”) or his fawning praise of everything else he writes about.

However, I do think that Moody has something to apologize for as a critic, which is that he says a bunch of sexist shit in his discussion of Swift, starting with his irrelevant reference to artists from the post-grunge era who are not very much like Swift or each other except that they happen to be women:

I remember all of that faux-confessionality from Jagged Little Pill, and from Natalie Imbruglia, and one summer’s bold and true lyrics are next summer’s post-menopausal antiques2

and continuing into his assertion that Swift will “marry up,” a phrase whose meaning is incomprehensible when applied to a rich, famous, and beautiful seven-time Grammy winner. Who’s she going to “marry up” to, Prince fucking Harry? And why does her marital status have anything at all to do with her music?

On Friday, Moody published a piece in Salon that was, if not exactly an apology, an apologia if you will, written in the face of what he describes as “assault that lay in wait,” entitled “I dared criticize Taylor Swift.”3 First of all, let me congratulate Rick Moody on his bravery in “daring” to say some bad things about a popular singer, which is something that certainly doesn’t happen on the internet thousands of times every fucking day.

Sarcasm aside, the argument of this simultaneously self-pitying and self-congratulatory piece of work is mostly a repetition of Moody’s original complaints about Swift, just longer.

It’s hard to understand who Moody saw this winning over, if anyone. Faced with disagreement, there’s little a critic can do to respond besides repeat him or herself. That’s why, unless one has changed one’s mind, or feels that the original piece was inadequate, there’s little point in writing justifications like this one, which inevitably conclude with pretentious claptrap like “it’s the job of the critic to sort through the collision of contemporary music with the history of the form and to assess music based on more enduring values” etc. etc. I happen to agree with this particular bit of pretentious claptrap, but expressing it about yourself in the face of critique is awfully high-handed.

Maddeningly, what Moody doesn’t do in this essay that he should have done is engage in a little self-reflection, realize that he allowed his negative feelings about Swift’s record influence him to degrade her as a woman, and apologize for it. Instead, he equivocates, embarrassing himself with cliches4 such as “I’m not a misogynist because I also praised women” and “what I said wasn’t sexist because I can also say it about men, see? Tim McGraw and some other guys nobody’s ever heard of ‘married up!’ And fuck Kid Rock and Toby Keith, amirite?”5

Moody has misunderstood a very important aspect of the criticism of his comments about Taylor Swift. The point isn’t that Moody is a misogynist who hates Swift’s music because it was made by a woman. It’s that he made degrading, sexist comments in his original essay. You can’t undo something like that by proving that you don’t hate women, because the complaint isn’t about you as a person, even though some people might express it that way because they’re mad; it’s about what you said. The only thing you can do is take back what you said and apologize.

This is a hard distinction to understand and accept when you feel like you’re under attack, and even once you understand it, taking responsibility and apologizing for what you said, publicly no less, are also very difficult. But recognizing when you are wrong is an essential part of accountability, and accountability is an essential part of being a mature adult, to say nothing of being a credible music critic.

In order to gain some credibility myself, I’m going to take this opportunity to try to set an example by accepting responsibility for a mistake that I made as a critic that was not very different from Moody’s. Back in 2005, I reviewed a record by a singer from New York named Maggie Kim for Space City Rock. I had many of the same complaints about it that Moody has about Taylor Swift: the record was too slick and commercial and not original enough. I find the review myopic and snide in retrospect, but those issues aren’t really the problem. The review opened with this sentence:

Though on Lesson 1.5, Maggie Kim claims artistic geniuses like Missy Elliott, Prince, Beck and PJ Harvey as her heroes, her actual closest analogue is more likely Christina Aguilera: a marginally talented also-ran who is more famous for her outlandish fashion sense than her music, although it’s much less likely that even Kim’s fashion sense will make much of a difference.

Here’s the problem; it’s twofold. First, I’ve lumped Kim and Christina Aguilera together by virtue of nothing more than the fact that they are both women who wear funny clothes sometimes. Second, I’ve referred to Aguilera as “marginally talented,” which is simply incorrect: Christina Aguilera is a remarkably gifted singer whose music I do not favor.

When I wrote this review, I allowed my distaste for Maggie Kim’s music to compromise my judgment, and I took the opportunity of the platform I was provided to make unfair and sexist comments about her and about another woman. I deeply regret having made those comments, and I extend my sincere apologies- however little notice may be taken by the wounded parties- to Ms. Kim, who deserves to have her work evaluated without bias or animus; to Ms. Aguilera, who deserves to have her talent recognized even by people who don’t enjoy her work; to Jeremy Hart of Space City Rock, who deserves uncompromised work from his writers; and to SCR’s readers, who deserve to read fair and level-headed writing. I also have to apologize to my wife Angela, who had to bring this issue up with me repeatedly before I was willing to understand and accept what she was talking about.

The personal struggle to overcome privilege and prejudice isn’t about trying to be a certain type of person, and it isn’t about being an “equal-opportunity offender.” It’s about recognizing the imbalances in society, being mindful of how they affect your thoughts and actions, and taking responsibility for the ways in which you take part in them. In order to do that, you have to recognize that you won’t always be in the right, and you won’t always be able to stand by what you did. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It just means that sometimes, you have to quit fucking up and say you’re sorry.

Your turn, Rick Moody.

1. Love the movie, never read the book

2. “Post-menopausal?!” Imbruglia and Alanis Morissette are both still under 40 well over a decade later! Morissette has a freaking two-year-old!!

3. Thanks to Andrew Dansby of the Houston Chronicle for sharing the Salon article.

4. These are exaggerated representations of Moody’s lines of reasoning, not direct quotes.

5. What are you talking about dude!

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