How To Be Smug


I remember watching a thousand girls sing along with “Wrecking Ball” and chant “Girl don’t go away mad, girl just go away!” with gleeful gleams in their eyes as if the songs must be about the girl next to them, who was a bitch and deserved every bit of disdain and contempt that Mötley Crüe could spill. Fine, no law against it, Crüe rocks. But it’s a fine example of “false consciousness,” wherein you identify with the interests of someone who’s doing very well by treating you like shit.

If you feel an allegory coming on, good call. But first, a few words on the first-ever pop music critic for The New Yorker. I basically like Nick Hornby; he wrote that cute book with John Cusack in it. In his current essay for his bosses’ music issue, he spills his cute wit over the musical question “What does the new Top Ten list mean?” Said wit is too fatuous to quote here, but suffice to say that the brains behind it make Vince Neil’s critique of the feminine sound like Nietzsche.

Mr. Hornby places himself in the tradition of Gore Vidal’s 1973 literary slugfest with the Times bestseller list. Curiously, Vidal had an actual point about the cheek-by-jowl appearance of the arty (Solzhenitsyn) and the crap (Jonathan Livingston Seagull), and went after them both—for him, the list “meant” that hi/lo was a sketchy distinction in the marketplace. This may not be news anymore, nor the highest-minded insight in the world, but it passes safely over Mr. Hornby’s head, leaving his middlebrow undisturbed. He looks at his Top Ten list and sees only dismissable lo crap, as distinct from the canon fodder of his youth (Stones, Aretha) and arty stuff he favors now (Joe Henry, Olu Dara). You will notice that this is not, in fact, a thought.

Mr. Hornby’s datedness dates closer to 1961: an aesthete slowly waking up to the discovery that his paradise of elegant show tunes and jazz standards has been paved over by tasteless goons. Once upon a time, one wouldn’t have been surprised at a couple thousand words noting that kids lacked the subtle and discriminating taste of midlist novelists, and moreover that they were barbarians compared to the kids of yesteryear; such smug insights were common knowledge. But then it occurred to a few people—and then a lot of people—that both youth culture and popular culture might have some meaning beyond the the tragic debasing of traditional values.

Already far gone into boomer retreat and mortified into intellectual catatonia, Mr. Hornby seems to have shut all that out. Indeed, he deduces no meaning whatsoever, perhaps because his essential analytic move is simply to parse the lyric sheet. Why, after all, would a music critic suppose that some of music’s meaning might be located in the music? Just as well; when he does mention sonics, it’s only to note their success or failure at resembling music he liked back in the day. Another insightful fellow anxious to announce that the world was better when his body was younger.

In truth, music is incidental to what Mr. Hornby has to say. His main job is to flatter his employer’s readership: Don’t worry if you, too, should find yourself quite anxious about your age and concerned you’re out of it. Kids are just idiots and scum these days. Your values are still the real values. The failure of The New Yorker to employ a pop critic was for years a sign of retrograde snobbery. It turns out they mean not to remedy this position but consolidate it. The article does the same job as not having a critic, but more energetically: It insists that pop music is beneath discussion, if not quite beneath contempt.

If you like pop music yourself and pay money for The New Yorker, you are those girls at the Crüe show. Your pleasures are a source of loathing and anxiety for The New Yorker and for Mr. Hornby; they in turn are spilling disdain and contempt all over you. Their interests are not yours, though we can be confident they are interested in that dollar in your hand. Hmm, maybe they learned something from pop music after all. Perhaps we could learn something too: Girl don’t just go away, go away mad.

Click here to read a review of Nick Hornby’s novel How to Be Good.