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October 25, 2017

SHERMAN | When I Worked for the Greatest Website in the World

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The fact that, back in high school, I was very, very smart and knew many more things than a lot of other people is indisputable. While I certainly read more books, watched more movies and generally thought about more interesting things than pretty much all of my classmates, what I was most proud of was my music taste, which was impeccable, unsurpassable and precisely cultivated. To put it bluntly, I was much better listened than you or anybody else.

Anybody else, that is, except for one man: the prolific music critic, even more prolific blogger, part-time poet, full-time hiker, politically enigmatic historian, dubious scientist, insatiable and indiscriminate (and, in all likelihood, prevaricative) consumer of media, insidious/inescapable online meme and — most importantly — my one-time employer, Piero Scaruffi.

Known on the internet over for his, um, uncommon takes on the history of rock and popular music, Piero first wandered into my life while I was doing research for my final project in a “History of Rock” class. For this project, each student had to adorn one section of the Music Room’s wall with an edificatory mural on some rock-related topic of their choosing. While my lowly classmates picked such artists as Queen, Rush, Britney Spears or the Rolling Stones, my undying precocity and pedantry led me to immortalize on my scant, sheer white facade an album which, as I would soon discover, had already been immortalized (for reasons that now, shockingly, seem even more pedantic than my own) on the hallowed, mustard-and-wallpaper-colored webpages of Piero’s own website, as the most Scarufficore album of all time: Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica.

At the time that I picked my poison, what I already knew is that Trout Mask is a hideous, fascinating hour and a half of avant-rock/outsider music from old Frank Zappa-classmate/affiliate Don van Vliet. It had snuck its way onto my radar somewhere between the ages of 12 and 13, when the complete unlikelihood of its abject cover art immediately caught my edgy eye during a scroll through Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” where it rests (inexplicably) at number 60, between a CCR compilation CD and Sly Stone’s Greatest Hits.

But Piero, as I was soon to learn, values Beefheart and the Band‘s opus quite a bit more than the Rolling Stone Magazine. In fact, he thinks that it is, unequivocally, the greatest rock music album of all time, only one of three to be worthy of a score of 9.5 out of 10 on his website, resting at the coveted peak of his “Best Rock Albums of All Times” list.

I loved it.

But that was only just the beginning.

On top of the bottomless piles of thought-ephemera and the endless ranked lists of books, poems, movies and paintings that can be found at any one of www.scaruffi.com‘s more than 10,000 pages, Piero has ranked tens of thousands of popular music albums, from those of Kemialliset Ystavat to Kanye West, Brothers of the Occult Sisterhood to (famously) the Beatles. 15 year-old Troy — with what felt like a string coming down from the sky mechanically pulling his nose upwards at all things popular, famous, obvious or liked — was more than just interested; he was enthralled.

I spent hours wading through Piero’s opinions, sitting, at his website’s behest, through insufferable experiment after unlistenable attempt, all of which the internet’s original Edgelord peddled as the truest art which rock’s put forth since Elvis swung his hips (or not, if we take Scaruffi’s revisionist word for it). A lot of it was awful, a good deal unlistenable and damn near inaccessible, but I internalized it in the name of transcending those silly folks I walked by in the halls, or on the street who hadn’t ever heard of Vampire Rodents, Half-Machine Lip Moves, Holger Czukay or Cyclops Nuclear Submarine Captain.

It soon became clear that the utter transcendence from normie culture, which I craved, wasn’t to be attained simply by listening to an experimental album or two (or 300). I soon realized I had to go straight to the source.

That is, after a year of dedicated, unwavering Scaruffi-ing, I decided it was time to send the man an email. Mustering up my courage and compiling a mental list of facts with which I could impress him, I sent a note to the address which he provided on the “New Media Internships” section of his website, proclaiming myself a “disciple” and asking how I could get involved in his site. Less than a day later, something curious popped up in my inbox: an unread email from one “piero .·´¯`·.¸.·´¯`·..·´¯`·. scaruffi.” In the blink of an eye, I had gone from being some nobody high school junior to an intern at “The Greatest Website of All Time.”

Translating the more crucial sections of Piero’s site from Italian into English, I was hindered only by the fact that I didn’t know a lick of Italian, but was able to rectify this through (in Mr. Scaruffi’s own words from the three-sentence letter of recommendation he wrote for my Common App) “using high technology, knowledge of Latin languages, access to Italian speakers and common sense.” In other words, I put his articles through Google Translated and then heavily edited them. Sometimes I asked my Italian friend Bianca for help.

The whole goofy schtick lasted for about a year and half, maybe less. And while I could draw some conclusions and make some claims, I don’t know if this is the place to do that. Off the top of my head, the fact that, oh, his top 100 rock albums contain (by my count) fewer than 20 women and absolutely no people of color, or that his Lemonade review complains of Beyoncé’s status as “an industry artifact with no personality,” should be proof enough that Scaruffi is fruit hanging low enough that it might as well be buried underground. The degree to which his hot takes are out of touch with the role and vitality of pop(ular) music in 2017 is honestly mind-boggling, which is what makes his work — which more often than not seems like it was written by a hermit who has albums shipped to his cave rather than a well-travelled Stanford affiliate with Silicon Valley interests and an enormous online following — so deliciously meme-able. It may be true — but it must be too obvious — that his writing amounts to everything that’s wrong with music criticism taken to its most absurd and regrettable apotheosis. Who knows.

What I do know — and know for sure — is this: the fact that so many books still name Piero Scaruffi as “the greatest,” or “most significant,” or “most influential” music critic ever only tells you how far music criticism is from becoming a serious art.

Troy Sherman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at tsherman@cornellsun.com His column Troy to The World runs alternate Thursdays this semester.