There's a popular misconception that being a music critic is the cushiest gig in the world. People think I roll out of bed at noon, then spend the day listening to great music. Then a car service—paid for by a record company—whisks me off to a complimentary dinner at a four-star restaurant, where all I have to do is ask some B-list rock star about their "art" for 45 minutes. After that, it's off to the latest club—with beverages and drugs billed to someone else's tab—and full tilt merrymaking until dawn's early light. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
The reality is, while admittedly not backbreaking work, it isn't that fabulous. Honestly, the feeling my job as a rock scribe is most likely to trigger isn't ecstasy or abandon, but dread, because my office is teeming with stacks of unsolicited CDs. Every musician and record label, from the biggest multinational corporation to the meekest Jewel-wanna-be, truly believes that just being able to sniff out my mailing address inalienably entitles them to waste 45 minutes of my life with their insipid product.
Sometimes it's difficult to recall that once upon a time my entire musical universe consisted of my parents' Broadway cast recordings, scanning AM radio for the latest ABBA hit, and a couple of poorly duped Beatles cassettes. And how listening to a record I didn't want to listen to changed that.
Returning to school in the fall of eighth grade, I was greeted by a surprise. During the summer months, my friend Laura had "gone punk." The funny, bookish girl I'd been classmates with for five years morphed into a poised, cool young woman in a fuchsia leopard print top and black ankle boots. She talked about sneaking into nightclubs "downtown" and seeing curiously named bands like Tiny Desk Unit and Nuclear Crayons. I was baffled. What could possess a person to travel 45 minutes into Washington DC, which was still just a field trip destination in my mind, on a school night?
One morning, Laura showed up to class with a record under her arm. A gaunt figure with sunken eyes and a slack jaw contorted on the cover: Iggy Pop. She handed me the platter, entitled Soldier, and told me to listen to it.
Up till then, my knowledge of "punk rock" had been limited to ridiculous rumors disseminated about the Sex Pistols: They performed nude; they slashed their skin with razors; throwing up on the audience was a routine stage antic. I'd never heard actual "punk" music, but I imagined the worst.
Although I feared that Iggy Pop would cause me irreparable harm, I knew Laura would quiz me tomorrow; returning the album without listening was impossible. That night, after my parents were in bed, I crept down to the living room stereo and prepared for the rape of my tender ears by sounds so unholy I couldn't begin to imagine them.
But Soldier didn't prompt a brain hemorrhage, filling my headphones with blood. The lyrics of "Loco Mosquito" and "Dog Food" seemed silly, but the music was lean, tough, and biting—all the things I wished I was. The sneering "I'm a Conservative" and "I Snub You" appealed to my cynical side. By the second hearing, I was reeling around the coffee table, silently shouting along to the chorus of "Knocking 'Em Down in the City." That night, I, too, "went punk"—albeit unwittingly—and all my preconceived notions about what constituted "good" music went out the window.
A new CD reminded me of that pivotal episode the other day. Unprepared for the bus ride home, I pulled the Chainsaw Kittens' The All American out of the dreaded To-Be-Listened-To pile. I knew nothing about the Oklahoma quartet, save that I'd once met singer Tyson Meade at a Yoko Ono show in New York. As I settled into my seat on the 26, I braced myself to be at best irritated, or, more likely, bored by another by-the-numbers indie rock outfit.
At the risk of sounding evangelical, The All American unclogged my jaded ears and reminded me why I love rock. I haven't loved an album out of the gate this much since Imperial Teen's debut, Seasick. Once again, I was singing along on the second spin. And not only do these pianocentric glam-pop nuggets bristle with the visceral thrills missing from so much of what I hear, they touch on topics—abortion, Matthew Sheppard, overrated rock stars—that speak to the grown-up me as loud and clear as Soldier's snotty rants did to my younger self. Heck, the Kittens even do a cover of Iggy's "Nightclubbing" that's damn cool.
Chainsaw Kittens, next time you're in Seattle, the drinks are on me. Thanks for making my sorry job a hell of a lot easier and more fun this week. And you didn't even make my ears bleed.