My question to those solid-disciples-of-journalism over at The New York Times Book Review would be: Why in hell would you assign Rob Sheffield to review a book on progressive rock?
Which is what happened on Sunday when The Times published Sheffield’s take on Yes is the Answer – And Other Prog Rock Tales, a series of essays edited by Mark Weingarten and Tyson Cornell. Here is the review.
Yes, Rob’s a frequently amusing and knowledgeable writer about many things. He’s covered all manners of pop culture and music as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and his nonfiction books include a heartbreaking, music-studded memoir called Love is a Mix Tape.
However, anyone who’s read even a bit of Sheffield’s work over the years could pretty accurately predict his opinion on prog rock. As he wrote in his Sunday piece, the music “remains one of the most intrinsically silly of rock fads: concept albums, ornate time signatures, keyboard solos, lyrical ruminations on the tendency of mountains to fall out of the sky.”
I'm not sure how a keyboard solo constitutes silliness, but fair enough. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion and Sheffield is, after all, a professional critic.
As much as I disagree with his views, then, I could understand why he’d write them in the pages of Rolling Stone or in one of his books.
But I’m not sure why The New York Times Book Review would hire someone who so clearly dislikes a subject — to turn around and write a review of a book on that precise topic.
How could a reader expect anything resembling honest analysis or impartiality?
Sheffield, I’ve no doubt, laughed out loud when he was offered the assignment, and will be happy to cash the check for what was in his view a wonderful opportunity to write a series of one-liners costumed as thoughtful but necessarily acerbic criticism.
In that sense, it’s hard to blame Sheffield for taking the gig – although some people might hope he would hold himself to some form of higher journalistic standard (or at least publish a disclaimer that he really hates progressive rock).
As for the folks at The Times? The whole thing’s sorta embarrassing, really. Oh, I get it, I get it: I’m sure someone over there responsible for assigning reviews is a pal of Sheffield’s, and they sit around together and sneer at everyone not smart enough to live in Brooklyn.
Now, obviously, in case you don't know or can't infer: I grew up loving a lot of progressive rock. Still do, in fact, along with all manners of other forms of music — something Sheffield suggests in his review is simply not possible.
“Prog,” he writes, “seems to induce some kind of oblivion with regards to other forms of pop.”
Note to self: go home and toss my 2,000 CDs that aren’t prog.
Sheffield also asserts that prog is music that best functions “as a shelter from school, from sex, from the frightful adult world.”
Jesus, Rob, you really are pompous. I bought the King Crimson catalog; I didn't hire out as a clown and bury 32 boys in my basement.
In the future, Rob, why don’t you just let us Prog Folk glue on our wizard’s beards and hum along to Gentle Giant in peace? While we're doing that, maybe you can use your skills to make the rest of the world's ears hurt a little less by helping Steve Malkmus learn how to tune his stinkin’ guitar.
Speaking of which: Hey, NY Times! When the time comes to publish a review on any upcoming books written about Rob's fave band, Pavement, you know who to call. I’ll be waiting. As I’m sure Sheffield did with Yes is the Answer, I’ve already got the jokes ready to go. Now all I need is for someone to write the book.
Or are you already working on it, Rob?