Hack Factory

True story and, come to think of it, we've probably told this one before: A couple of years ago, we went to see the Beastie Boys at the Fort Worth Convention Center. Had pretty good seats, affording us a prime view of the in-the-round stage setup, as well as allowing us to share an armrest with Dallas Morning News pop music critic Thor Christensen. Mr. Christensen (playing by the News' rules, see?) spent the bulk of the set dutifully taking notes and appearing as uninterested as possible, the very model of subjectivity. Bored, even.

So, anyway, the B-Boys come back to the stage for the of-course encore and, a couple of songs in, the familiar guitar riff of "Sabotage" hits the speakers and the crowd hits back. Including one Thor Christensen, momentarily lulled away from his notebook, arms stretched out toward the ceiling as though he was giving J-Hova a high-five, strange look of disbelief on face. (Still can't figure that one out; "Sabotage" is and was the group's biggest hit, or tied for first with "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)," at any rate, so they were pretty much contractually obliged to play it at some point.) And his voice was pitching itself headfirst into hoarseness, as he yelled for a full minute. (Transcript: Unintelligible. Actual length: Approximate; due to repeated alcohol vs. watch dust-ups, we did not have anything with which to accurately time outburst.)

Point is, for a few minutes, Thor was a fan again, not just some sleepy-eyed scribbler assigned to review the show. No shame in that; "Sabotage" is a great song, think we can all agree on that. We only bring it up (again, possibly) because it's an incident that represents the main problem with the News' glue-factory-quality stable of music writers: Far too often, they are merely bored hacks mechanically doing their jobs, never getting excited, never giving the impression that they care one way or another. Their prose is flatter than a junior-high drill team's tops and their critiques (or lack thereof, usually) have less bite than a newborn. They are in a position of power (Dallas is one of the top media markets in the country) yet they choose to bunt instead of swinging for the fences. There is the odd "Sabotage" moment, but it appears in their CD and concert reviews and interviews about as often as a skilled soundman at the Galaxy Club. In short, Christensen and the rest of the News' music writers--Teresa Gubbins, Rob Clark, Mario Tarradell--don't seem to care much for music in general. Somewhere along the way, they've forgotten how to be fans. We're not sure when they forgot to be writers.

Don't misunderstand us: We're not asking for Christensen and his fellow DMN writers to start cranking out press releases touting the latest and greatest to hit stores, although that would at least be an interesting change from reviews that are as equivocal and vague as a lifelong politician. We just want them to have a heart or a soul (prolly too much to ask for both), an opinion that isn't culled from the latest issues of Rolling Stone and Spin. (More than likely, Christensen doesn't get out of bed unless someone in Rolling Stone mentioned it was a good idea.) Much of the time, the News' music coverage is nothing more than syndicated reruns and reheated leftovers, commentary that only seconds other writers' motions instead of starting debates. (Of course, the same goes for the entire DMN arts staff, save for the solid, occasionally stellar work of Ed Bark and Chris Vognar.)

Then again, the News' music writers don't seem to be capable of doing anything but rehashing conventional wisdom; their own thoughts are misguided, at best. Check their coverage of Jimmy Eat World's Gypsy Tea Room gig earlier this year. Gubbins devoted most of her short preview of the show to the band finally winning its bloodless battle over the domain name jimmyeatworld.com. (A bit of news only important to, say, the group's Webmaster.) And Christensen's concert review tripped over itself (wrongly) comparing JEW to pop-punk bands such as Green Day and The Strokes (?) and pointing out all the (virtually nonexistent) Ramones references, making us think, briefly, that we had attended a completely different show.

There's a reason why, when magazines like Entertainment Weekly put together charts comparing how music critics from across the country rate various albums, the News is never invited to participate. No one takes the paper seriously, and there's no real reason to. The News may see itself as the South's version of the New York Times but, unfortunately, it's chosen to assemble a group of music critics unfit for employment at the Waco Tribune-Herald. Damn shame. We could use a good fight.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain