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An Unfortunate Descent Into Rock Criticism: GQ And Editor-Rock

Posted by: Jon Fine on April 25, 2006

There is a kind of band and musician that I like to call “editor-rock.”

They are white, intellectual (or at least semi-intellectual), ineffectual, and generally namby-pamby, albeit with occasional forays into, you know, distorted guitars. No aggression. It’s very polite and well-mannered—way too much so, in fact—for rock music. It’s music for the head, and not the hips and gut. Judging from most ratios of sales-to-coverage-in-glossy-magazines, it’s beloved primarily by magazine editors in major cities. (But, as you may have guessed, editor-rock is not beloved by me.)

Editor-rock is: Aimee Mann, the entire genre of alt-country and Wilco in particular, Radiohead (the polite lunatic fringe of editor-rock), Jonathan Richman/Modern Lovers, New Pornographers, Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian, Fountains of Wayne … Bruce Springsteen is an older, mainstreamed version of magazine-editor rock. REM practically invented the form. A classic editor-rock move is to describe the new Bob Dylan record as being “his best since Blood on the Tracks.”

Editor rock is not: Slayer, Dizzee Rascal, Black Flag, Boredoms, Marianne Faithful (“Broken English”-era), Melvins, Funkadelic, Black Dice, High on Fire, Stooges, Public Image Limited, Magma, Nico (solo), Kyuss, and King Crimson and Miles Davis at their most aggressive and tightly-wound.

In the new issue of GQ, there is an article on the Unsung Heroes of Music, for which GQ asked a bunch of writers and (a few) musicians to submit their “unsung heroes.” Their 13 choices overweeningly tend towards to the namb:

Jonathan Richman (natch!)
Sex Clark Five (a short-lived Southern guitar pop band with severe editor-rock tendencies. UPDATE 5/1: Sex Clark Five actually lasted way longer than a band that you’d describe as “short-lived.” )
The Silos (described in the piece with this question: “Aren’t they the ones who invented alt-country?”)
The Wedding Present (along with The Pixies, the distorted end of editor-rock.)
The June Brides
Sonny Bono
Harry Nilsson
Kate Bush (from Outkast’s Big Boi—oh, man, what were you thinkin’?)
Mink DeVille

The article is not on GQ’s Web site, but an invitation to vote on your favorite “unsung hero” is (scroll down). As long as your choices for unsugn hero are Sonny Bono, Harry Nilsson, Jonathan Richman, Kate Bush, or The Wedding Present, that is.

Props to fired radio host David Lee Roth for selecting nine-piece soul band Cold Blood, to novelist George Saunders for choosing composer John Adams, and to novelist Matt Klam for shouting-out to twentysomething soul singer Jaheim, all of whom break up the monotony a bit.

Because: What a list. Nothing aggressive, no metal, barely anything funky or otherwise seriously danceable, no punk or hardcore, nothing spacey or art-y or … well, anything that meanders far from the tired confines of editor-rock.

What a very crabbed and small view of what constitutes good music.

(Disclosures: In a previous freelance life, I wrote about some non-editor-rock rock music for GQ, which was edited [and quite well, I might add] by current editor-in-chief Jim Nelson. In an ongoing alternate life, I’ve recorded, performed, and toured with a series of bands.)

Reader Comments


April 25, 2006 5:02 PM

Oooh, look at ME! I play in a BAND!
La di dah!
And I don't sound like Wilco.
Get off it, elitist and stick to telling me about ad pages!

David Lewis

April 25, 2006 10:07 PM

I've always kind of wondered if it's the editor-rock that feeds popular/mass taste or the other way people just gravitate towards the safe? Too bad for'em and their limited worlds, i guess... Probably a good thing, given your point, that there are a lot of of ways to hear about the wider universe of music outside major publications.

On a separate note, as for your own non-editor rock experience, I did see and enjoy a few of your house party shows w/ Bitch Magnet at Oberlin...although haven't kept up with your other bands. Great column, btw...


April 26, 2006 11:30 AM

Big Boi's love of Kate Bush is well-documented in many interviews, both print and TV, and in the first interview I read, Andre 3000 gets up and walks away from the interview when Big Boi starts talking about Kate Bush.

The Wedding Present were also well-known for embracing the office lifestyle and performed in the somewhat surprising jeans and oxford shirt style that every single 1980s temp I worked with dressed in. Pub rock for the salaryman.

But my question is, how is this demonstrably different than "English Major Rock," a similarly derisive term we used in college? It's music favored by intellectuals who "appreciate" more than they can create.

Clear Channel has a new radio format they're testing called Mother Truckers- Southern Rock, Metal and masculine country. This is Car Mechanic rock. Editor Rock would certainly also consist of Bob Marley and Public Enemy as crossovers from Reggae and Rap if one was to analyze it closely.


Jon Fine

April 26, 2006 2:36 PM

Editor-rock is the grown-up version of english-major rock. (Editors were not pre-med.) As for ad pages, in the first three months of 2006 Wilco and Aimeen Mann were both having another terrible year, with ad pages remaining flat at zero.


April 27, 2006 9:39 AM

Is The Mr. T Experience editor rock? 'Cause I really want to quote I Wrote a Book About Rock 'N Roll here.

Jon Fine

April 27, 2006 10:00 AM

Gotta believe that Mr. T. Experience, stylistically and song title-wise, is more meta-editor-rock than editor-rock.

The record Mr. T. himself made, though, is definitely not editor-rock.


April 27, 2006 10:32 AM

I now believe Radiohead is really just Blog Rock.


the patriarch

April 27, 2006 10:37 AM

REM and Springsteen? My God, I had no idea there were tens of millions of editors running loose in the land. It's an epidemic!

Anyway, I can't take any of what you say seriously, mostly because of the glasses.


April 27, 2006 4:15 PM

yeah. I see where you're coming from with 'editor rock' (like how creed is 'admin-rock') but the springsteen and rem mention is too simple-minded, even for a media critic.

Kim Cooper

April 28, 2006 4:27 PM

An editor, or editrix rather, here to suggest the (long-lived, actually) Sex Clark 5 deserve better than that curt dismissal. There might not be a hookier, smarter American songwriter than James Butler... well, maybe Scott Miller. BTW, SC5 music can be sampled free at the URL above.


April 29, 2006 2:28 PM

Editor rock is anyone who refers to David Lee Roth as a failed radio host.


April 30, 2006 11:01 AM

I've never known any non-writers that listen to The Boredoms or Magma.

Marianne Faithful tends to be favored by people that want to write but can't. Wait, those people are called editors.

Doug Sheppard

April 30, 2006 3:31 PM

I couldn't agree more -- and I find the reactions to your piece amusing. For once, politically correct rock like Springsteen is questioned; why, the very idea! Don't assail St. Bruce the Immaculate! Or REM -- the biggest bunch of watered-down lame-os since the Starland Vocal Band.

However, you left off hip hop, Sonic Youth, and the B(l)and. And another classic "editor rock" move is to not only put down any heavy metal/hard rock other than Led Zeppelin or Guns 'N Roses, but imply that its fans are all white males with too much testosterone. Oh yeah, and it's sexist, too. But it's not sexist for rappers to call women hoes and talk about raping and sodomizing them.

Josef Kay

May 18, 2006 6:00 PM


May 23, 2006 8:29 PM

George Saunders hasn't produced a novel yet, just short story collections, a mini-novella, and a children's book.

J Frank Parnell

May 24, 2006 1:05 PM

Nice sentiment, & your editor rock list is swell, esp w Aimee Mann at the top of it, because yeah, she's the main offender when it comes to KCRW-esque semi-popular music. Starbucks music. Pottery Barn music.

But as a fan of unintentional irony, I have to congratulate you on your list of what you say isn't editor rock. Save Black Dice and maybe one other, you're kidding, right?
--Miles Davis is jazz for those rock fans who haven't discovered Codona.
--Slayer, as good as they are, is another editor favorite, esp for those too scared to uncool-ly admit that Master of Puppets destroys all others, despite Metallica's subsequent collective death in an airplane crash in 1989(current members are imposters).
--PIL? Editor rock. The semiotics are right.
--Melvins; love 'em. Editor rock. This is the band it's safe to love from the early 90s Seattle scene and not feel as outdated and ephemeral as Spuds McKenzie.
--Dizzee Rascal. Entire career care of editors. He's what, 15? And the record was weak.
--Stooges; without editors, these guys might be forgotten. They hardly sold in their time, no?
--Black Flag? Maybe the Circle Jerks, or Fear, or Bad Brains. But probably the Child Molesters, the Zeroes, or Blind Idiot God.

So J Frank, what's not editor rock? Morbid Angel. Papoose. Sepultura. J-Live. Evolution Control Committee. The Ex. (Early) The Clean. Tony Allen. Sunn O))). Human Telelvision. Prefab Sprout. Speedking. Mary J. Blige. John Dowie. The Blue Nile. Shearwater. The Gun Club. The King Brothers. Lightning Bolt. Paavoharju. Pylon. Scott Walker. Sockeye. Gallon Drunk. Richard Hawley. The Warmers. Raincoats. The Souljazz label.

(sound of foot stamping)
-J Frank


May 25, 2006 12:35 PM

Speaking as an editor who moonlights as a radio DJ, I think all writers guilty of this should be forced to listen to Bob Boilen's All Songs Considered each week. He's like the anti-"editor rock." I especially enjoyed the show's 2005 year-end wrap-up. The show is consistently diverse and informative, and Boilen is a pro at not gushing, even when you can tell he really likes a certain band.

Also, what is it with today's "music critics" slamming on Radiohead? I don't think they're "editor rock" at all. But it seems people who have never really listened to them often make that assumption.

Music By Day

October 10, 2007 12:53 PM

What a BS article. Sigh. I suppose not everyone is going to get anything. But there's nothing wrong with music being intelligent.

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