Roger Ebert, John Updike, and the Lost Scrolls of Music Criticism


Roger Ebert took fire this week for a review he wrote of Tru Loved, in the sixteenth graf of which he unveiled perhaps the most baldly ridiculous use of that effete critic’s phrase, ‘full disclosure,’ invoked to variously pad the writer’s own ego (‘full disclosure: I wrote a story for the New York Times three years ago’) or to explain a conflict of interest so encompassing the review probably shouldn’t even be written in the first place (‘full disclosure: I made love to the lead actress of this movie mere hours before this piece was written’).

Anyway, Ebert: “Full disclosure. I lifted the words “San Francisco to conservative suburbia with her lesbian mothers” straight from the plot summary on, because I stopped watching the movie at the 00:08.05 point.”

This, among other things, was a glimpse into the weary pathology of a critic who just couldn’t take it anymore: “The handwriting was on the wall. The returns were in. The case was closed. You know I’m right.” But the ensuing controversy also led Ebert to scribble down Roger’s Little Rule Book, a suite of “enduring ethical ground rules” for reviewing movies. Among them: ‘Do not make challenges you are cannot to back up’ (“For example, never say in your Hamlet 2 review, “I challenge anyone who goes to see the movie not to sing the words to ‘Rock Me, Sexy Jesus’ for years to come”); ‘Beware of verbal parallelism’ (“Never make a statement such as, “I like women in real life, but I didn’t like The Women“); and, my personal favorite, ‘A trailer is not a movie.’

Famously, John Updike did the same thing decades ago, listing six rules for reviewing books. The two most commonly violated from that list? Number 4, “Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending”—largely I think because doing either of these things makes writing book reviews at least 60% easier—and Number 1, “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt,” which is another crime everyone commits, since it’s technically easier to express what you wanted the book to be rather than make a solid, controvertible guess at what the book was actually intended to be.

Anyway, this raises the question: Is there a similar set of rules written down somewhere for music criticism? I asked Robert Christgau, who shot back “Not formally, although I’ve told students and writers the same stuff many times.” His Consumer Guide rubric must get at part of it though—for instance, the idea that an ‘A’-rated record in 1977 should still be an ‘A’-rated record today. But this is all getting a little Matos at this point. Are there rules to this shit? (Off the top of my head: ‘potential’ is an absolutely wretched criteria and even worse when repurposed as backhanded praise, which is often done in a review’s last line; so is the idea that a band is getting better because their new record sounds more “pop” and less like whatever they sounded like before. I’m totally OK with ad hominem stuff, and I’ll argue that while that’s out of bounds for, say books, ‘musicians’ are selling sound-plus-lifestyle, not just sound, although this is where things get sticky and people stop agreeing. . .Chuck Eddy: “The whole idea that we’re supposed to care about rock stars as people (as opposed to, say, makers of songs and riffs) is ridiculous.”) So?