Courtesy of the New York Times

January 28, 2016

COLLINS | ‘You Don’t Belong Anymore’: An Ode to the Greatest Musician/Critic Feud

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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.”


Courtesy of the New York Times


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 scollins@cornellsun.com. Morning Bowl of Surreal appears alternate Fridays this semester.


  • Jim DeRogatis

    Hi Shay: I very much enjoyed your piece on that silly old voicemail; I
    suspect you’ve thought about it a lot more than I ever did, and I KNOW
    you’ve thought about it more than young Ryan! My entire career is based
    on the belief that criticism is at its best when it is a passionate
    dialogue between people who care deeply about the art, so I agree with
    many of your points. The thing you missed — and this is out there,
    because I’ve said it whenever I’ve been asked about it — is that that
    was the first and only time I’d reviewed Ryan in concert! So all those
    repeat-offense grievances of his, beyond that review (which notes him
    drunkenly and badly playing the same song several times in a row, which
    i don’t think even his most devoted fans enjoyed, and which he does not
    address) — all that “you do this to me every time I come to town” stuff
    — all of that is imagined! That always makes me chuckle. Plus, I am
    barely 10 years older than him, so I don’t know if that qualifies me as
    an old man in comparison. Doesn’t matter to me; better to be hit with
    that than the number-one insult aggrieved readers often toss at me:
    “You’re fat!” As if that somehow disqualifies my criticism… or maybe
    they think I had just never noticed and will be crestfallen once I am
    made aware. Anyway, I feel for him, post-Mandy. But that does not mean I
    liked his Taylor Swift cover album.

    All the best — JIM

  • Jake Daniel

    Nice piece, Shay. I know it happened well before your time, but I think it’s worth pointing out the state Ryan Adams was in on that tour. He played Bailey Hall days before the notorious voice mail. For those of us who survived the gig — and I choose the term purposefully — there was a queasy sense of despair mixed with the giddy high of watching a massive implosion.

    He was, in short, a catastrophe on legs.

    He was pie-eyed before walking on stage. His band (this was the “Rock n Roll” album tour) was clearly falling apart and tiring of Ryan’s mishigas. He managed to snag his guitar cable on every mic stand and sundry object on stage, to the point where the band had retreated to the stage curtain.

    At which point he fired them. The show was 35 minutes in.

    After some time refueling off stage, he came back out with a gorgeous Hummingbird acoustic guitar and sat by the edge of the stage. By this point he was gassed up like a Panzer division on the Polish border. I will never forget his cigarette crisis (rules be damned, he was going to smoke in Bailey). He had one burning in the ashtray and another going in the head stock of the guitar when he lit a third. Watching this very talented musician spend a good 45 seconds trying to solve this puzzle was possibly the most traumatizing event of the year for many of us.

    I saw the Replacements in 1986. I know of what I speak. That night at Bailey Hall Ryan Adams transcended his Westerberg wannabe status and became the pathetic addict I’ve ever seen on a stage. It wasn’t charming; it was pathetic.

    And he would. Not. Stop. Ever.

    At one point, he found a bottle of bubbly at his feet. “When the fuck did I start drinking champagne?”

    After three hours of what had become a siege, he finished a surprisingly strong “Dear Chicago,” stood up, smashed his $3000+ guitar on the edge of the stage, flipped us off, and left.

    When the voicemail, the pissing match with Mats fans at First Avenue, and the broken arm in Liverpool followed, I remember being surprised he was still alive.