Our Girl in Chicago writes:
The back of the book in this week’s New Yorker is a real roller coaster. It leads off with a typically smart review-essay by Joan Acocella about recent scholarly infighting over the historical origins of childhood. An Acocella byline is always good news. Here, she distills the lumpish books under review into their “good parts,” conducting a brisk tour of the most relevant and striking historical ground they cover. She’s an even-tempered, fuss-free giant slayer:
A good deal of our intellectual life in the past half century has been ruled by the following pattern: First, a French person, with great brilliance and little regard for standards of evidence, promulgates a theory overturning dearly held beliefs.
As one who exceeded her own recommended lifetime allotment of academic writing some time ago, I say: Joan, you had me at “a French person.” Flip a few pages, though, and the unsuspecting reader, knocked off guard by Acocella’s wit, seems to have strayed into an upmarket edition of FHM. Richard Avedon’s creepy photo of a smirking, haphazardly clothed Chan Marshall, leader of the band Cat Power, stages the accompanying article’s tagline in a laughably literal-minded way: “Cat Power demands attention, then resists it.”
But at least the Avedon photo, for all its raincoat-flasher aesthetic, has a couple of things going for it. One, lots of fans don’t really know what Marshall looks like. (When I saw Cat Power perform in Chicago this past March, it was maddening that the stage was unlit and her hair flopped over her face.) Two, the Hilton Als piece that goes with the picture is worse.
Cat Power’s music is ravishingly abstract. Marshall’s famous voice is at once disaffected and melodramatic, the instrumentation spare, the effect like strong weather for the psyche. Als’ piece seems to aspire to the same enigmatically profound condition. The problem is that Marshall is an artist, while Als is merely a critic–and not a very good one, either. After drawing out Cat Power’s classic blues roots in a reasonable enough middle section, he staggers from one undercooked metaphor to another, calling Marshall in the space of one column a cowboy, a preacher, and “a fluid version of Liberty standing guard over the Harbor.” To all of which, and much more, I can only say, “Huh?”
Yes, Marshall may be unprofessional and off-putting. She may also may be this generation’s incarnation of the untamable spirit of rock and roll. (It’d be pretty surprising, though, if the faux scandal of a naughty glossy photo in The New Yorker did anything but puncture the latter image.) But whatever she is or isn’t, her great music deserves better–and smarter.