Writing music criticism all too often feels like shouting into the void. When musicians remark on criticism, they often do so cautiously. Consider St. Vincent’s answer to Jessica Hopper’s question about her public image in a 2011 Village Voice article: “I have one answer for you if the tape recorder is on, and another if it’s off.”
Thus, when musicians openly engage their critical counterparts, it is a rare and valuable occurrence. As such, alt-country artist Ryan Adams’ rage-filled voicemail to concert reviewer Jim DeRogatis is an irreplaceable resource on music criticism, just as important as any Lester Bangs masterpiece.
In December 2003, DeRogatis — at this point a longtime critic of Adams — published a denigrating review of Adams’ latest show in the Chicago Sun-Times. Adams responded by leaving a whiny, but eloquent, voicemail on DeRogatis’ answering machine. The recording is immortalized online; you should listen to it. Adams drops the f-bomb 12 times. He sneers the words “old man.” He fluctuates between arrogance — “you can’t refute the music, obviously, it’s too fucking good” — and sorrow — “What’s your problem? You just have to come after me.” In the voicemail, however, music fans also hear a performer directly challenge, at points line-by-line, a critic’s complaints.
I definitely enjoy replaying the voicemail just to hear Adams’ lackluster, meandering attacks, but they are more than empty insults. Towards the end of the voicemail he jabs, “You’re obviously one of these guys that comes to gigs that just bums people out, that just stands around with your fucking notepad.” After reading DeRogatis drag Adams for numerous perceived offenses — goofy singing, making fun of Wilco, being a “poseur” — it is satisfying to hear Adams go on the offensive. DeRogatis describes Ryan Adams, the conceited, annoying frontman, and so Adams turns the mirror on Jim DeRogatis: a nitpicking buzzkill with a notepad. But when you peel away all of the indignation and cockiness, Adams raises important criticisms of, well, criticism.
Adams complains that, despite trashing his past shows, “you [DeRogatis] write about me every chance you can get,” concluding, “So get somebody else that gets it.” DeRogatis’ review bespeaks a lingering distaste for Adams and his “whole tired ‘troubled artist’ routine.” Adams accordingly asks a crucial question: Should critics continue to slam artists against whom they are clearly biased? As a writer, I want to defend DeRogatis’ right to cover whatever he desires (and DeRogatis, to his credit, is a clever and observant reviewer). Yet, Adams fairly points out that DeRogatis is either jaded or missing something if he still feels the need to rail against a performer’s act after three reviews.
Similarly, I felt a stab of shame when Adams calls out DeRogatis for putting himself on a pedestal. “You mention in the end that the fans eat it up,” Adams notes, “but you’re different, you’re, like, the voice of reason.” This point is the core of Adams’ grievances: Who ever declared that a notepad and a couple of Replacements references makes your taste superior?
Adams does not, however, completely prove DeRogatis to be an out-of-touch, nettlesome critic. In DeRogatis’ defense, if concert reviewers always deferred to the crowd’s preferences, it would be pointless to have someone cover concerts at all. Similarly, in an April 2015 Washington Post article, Chris Richards complains about modern poptimism — a tendency of (some) music critics to pile praise on to the most commercially successful artists — writing, “Worst of all, it asks everyone to agree on the winners and then cheer louder.” So let us not condemn DeRogatis, along with his rock canon references and disdain for shtick. Even without crowning winners and shaming losers, DeRogatis and Adams’ interaction broadens how to think about why and how critics write.
The exchange between the two parties is even more interesting because both sides seemingly want nothing out of it aside from personal vindication. The same cannot be said for many higher-profile music industry feuds. Note, for example, how the Brand New/Taking Back Sunday beef resurfaces whenever either band has a new release to promote. Conversely, if not for DeRogatis’ decision to broadcast the voicemail on his radio show — Sound Opinions — Adams’ words would never have gained notoriety. DeRogatis may have collected a paycheck for his disparaging review and garnered some attention for his radio show, but I doubt that either opponent recruited many fans due to the fight. If anything, Adams sounds remarkably vulnerable when he sighs, “You do this to me every single time.” It is a delicate counterpoint to DeRogatis’ accusations of his bravado and inauthenticity.
In the end, when performers and readers scream at answering machines and type furiously in comment sections, it means that they are still reading the criticism. I would rather wake up to a voicemail from every artist I have ever panned than write in a world where every music fan shrugs, mumbles “to each their own” and never challenges anything. Towards his message’s end, Adams lays out a promise to DeRogatis: “You directly talk to me … in your reviews, and I will call you, and you can be as much of an asshole as you like.” All I can say is: Ryan, yes please.
Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Morning Bowl of Surreal appears alternate Fridays this semester.