This review ran a while back on the now defunct Bridge Magazine website.
“Rock’n’roll is a spontaneous explosion of personality and it is an attitude,” Chicago-based music critic Jim DeRogatis tells us towards the end of Milk It, his collection of columns from the ‘90s. After making this sweeping statement, DeRogatis goes on to insist that Josephine Baker and the Farrelly brothers be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also provides a lengthy analysis of Beethoven’s confrontational Grosse Fugue.
Ha ha. No, of course he doesn’t. The definition which he provides isn’t meant to be taken seriously; like most aesthetic pronouncements, it’s simply an effort to present the taste of his own demographic as universal. What DeRogatis really means when he says “rock n’roll,” as it turns out, is music sold mainly to college-educated white twentysomethings. Today’s marketing executives call such music “alternative,” and it is with the birth of alternative music as a successful programming format that DeRogatis’ book is primarily concerned.
Now don’t get me wrong — I like Nirvana as much as the next pale-faced Oberlin grad. And, to be fair, DeRogatis is an intelligent enough writer. The clichés are kept to a minimum, and the attempts at humor are usually pretty funny in an efficient, no-nonsense kind of way, as when he suggests that “Even those who enjoyed Woodstock ’94 would have been within their rights to storm the stage, hog-tie David Crosby, and drop his bloated carcass right on top of co-promoter Michael Lang.” Nor is DeRogatis crippled by undue reverence, either for old sacred cows like the Grateful Dead, or for newer ones like Alex Chilton.
None of which can save Milk It from terminal predictability. As you read through its pages, you learn that Kurt Cobain was very talented and his death was sad; R.E.M. started to really suck during the ‘90s, etc. etc. etc. If you care about the genre, you know this stuff already; if you don’t — well, you’re probably not reading the book, are you? Even DeRogatis’ efforts to demonstrate eclecticism seem overdetermined: when he chooses to champion a hip hop group, for instance, it’s Arrested Development, a decent band whose up-with-people attitude and just-funky-enough grooves have made them the darling of white rock critics who don’t quite get de la Soul. When he chastises the U.S. for failing to appreciate non-native music, he’s not touting Scandinavian black metal or the phenomenal ‘90s Japanese rock scene — no, he’s unhappy because Americans just aren’t buying quite enough Brit pop. And when he does profile some surprising acts, he lumps them together in a section entitled “Freaks and Geeks,” just so we know that he knows that Aphex Twin and the Melvins aren’t, er, mainstream. In any case, none of these outré musicians receive as much space as the decidedly unfreaky U2, nor as much as Courtney Love, with whom DeRogatis, like the fashion magazines, is unaccountably obsessed.
On several occasions, DeRogatis states that nostalgia is the biggest enemy of rock ‘n’ roll today. Nostalgia is certainly a force for evil: witness DeRogatis’ own misty-eyed hope that September 11 will do for the music of Generation Y what Vietnam did for the music of the baby-boomers, man. Bad as nostalgia is, though, it’s only a symptom of a larger problem: the tendency to view music as a lifestyle accessory rather than as an art form. The middle-aged suburbanite paying a hundred bucks to see Mick Jagger is just not that far removed from the trend-happy rock critic who can’t say “Smashing Pumpkins” without adding “one of the most successful rock bands Chicago has ever produced.” At least the Jagger fan knows he wants to keep listening to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” till his brains fall out of his flaccid peter, or vice versa. DeRogatis, on the other hand, has to constantly be on the lookout for that spanking new sound that’s the same as the old sound. The Foo Fighters, Liz Phair, Yo La Tengo; they’re rebellious, they’re catchy, and, by God, they were newsworthy once. So it goes, over and over again, till you feel like you’ve read the same fairly entertaining review about a hundred times. The ‘90s can’t have been this dull, and, indeed, they weren’t — unless, of course, you spent them, like our author, staring into the navel of Jim DeRogatis.