Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music Press Stooge:
Great Steve Albini Letters-to-the-Editor Debate
(I took out everything but the article, Steve Albini's letter, and Neil
Jendon's response to it. For the complete article go to http://ben.dev.upenn.edu/~bonfield/chireader.html)
1993 was an interesting year in Chicago. Albums by Urge Overkill, the
Smashing Pumpkins, and Liz Phair brought unprecedented national attention to the
city. In an end-of-the-year essay, published the first week of 1994, I tried to
find some commonality among artists routinely described as representing
irreconcilable camps in a fractured music scene. I noted that Phair, Urge, and
the Pumpkins' Billy Corgan all rejected "the insularity that increasingly
characterizes underground music and the fringes of alternative music in America.
. . [its] harshness, contrariness and machismo"--this all based on my
definitions of underground as "deliberately non- pop music" and
alternative as "relatively personal music that doesn't necessarily exclude
This analysis was not received well by the denizens of the local
underground, and soon their most noted spokesperson, Steve Albini, responded.
Albini is best known for fronting Big Black, Rapeman, and, most recently,
Shellac, and for his production work for the Pixies, PJ Harvey, and Nirvana.
More interesting to me is his writing. His contributions to fanzines like Forced
Exposure and Matter display a remarkably clear expository style and a
vituperative flair that I wish more mainstream writers possessed. Anyway,
Albini's billet doux, titled by the Reader "Three Pandering Sluts and Their
Music Press Stooge," set off one of the paper's all-time great letter wars.
Here is the original column from January 7, 1994, followed by Albini's letter to
the editors and a whole raft of reader responses. --BW
January 7, 1994
Not From the Underground: 1993 in Review
The line on Chicago's 1993 contributions to the national pop
firmament--Liz Phair, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Urge Overkill--is that they've
in effect agreed to disagree on musical approaches, making for a fractured
"scene" with little cohesion. This is true, but their stylistic
differences mask the philosophical ground that unites them and seems likely to
influence a second wave of bands from Chicago in 1994: an explicit rejection of
much of the insularity that increasingly characterizes underground music and the
fringes of alternative music in America. Few would question what I guess would
be called the artistic integrity of any of these acts: yet they've avoided (Phair),
criticized (Pumpkins), or loudly abandoned (Urge) the harshness, contrariness,
and machismo of the underground in favor of a professed desire to sell records.
Hence the reaction of certain fans, smaller record labels, college radio DJs,
and other scenesters: scathing attacks on Urge, gleeful, sexist whispers about
Phair, the contemptuous dismissal of the Pumpkins' Billy Corgan. Of course, the
players have to varying degrees brought a lot of their problems on themselves,
and at any rate they're beginning to see the kind of bank balances that tend to
put such problems into perspective. Yet each artist had to grapple with what's
supposed to be a dichotomy between being popular and being
"alternative." Once it became apparent that the fine line between the
two was blurring, the rear guard from the underground--which I would define as
deliberately non-pop, whereas I guess alternative would be relatively personal
music that doesn't necessarily exclude pop--tried not only to keep them clear,
but to make a big deal out of which side of the line you were on. This, of
course, is bullshit, and these artists took a stand and the resulting heat to
Corgan, whose teen-friendly guitar rock seems a likely foundation for a
Depeche Mode- or Cure-sized career, had the best of '93, finding the critical
respect denied him in his hometown from the likes of the LA Times's Robert
Hilburn and the New York Times's Jon Pareles (who named Siamese Dream their
number-two and number-three albums of the year, respectively) and scoring an
album headed for double-platinum status. Urge Overkill, a band made up of some
very smart boys acting dumb, had a more ambivalent year, cursed, as they say, by
the granting of all their wishes. The band had a good record company enthused
about promoting a good record, and good wishes and support from all quarters:
both alternative and mainstream radio, the press, MTV, Nirvana, you name it. Yet
for some reason, while the group's very smart record sold respectably, it never
really clicked with buyers. Nor did its even smarter videos turn on the MTV kids.
On balance, the band was either too smart about being dumb or too dumb about
You decide; Hitsville's head is spinning.
Of the trio, Phair (whose album was number one on Pareles's list, number
six on Hilburn's) had the toughest year as Guyville bit back. Growing up in
public is no fun, and there's no good advice (just a lot of it) about how to
navigate the infrequently traveled path she seems to be on. The snarkiness of
the local music scene is irrelevant to most normal people, of course, but Phair,
for better or worse, lives in the midst of it and has endured its extreme,
almost pathological preoccupation for about 11 months now. It's difficult to
overstate the sheer volume of noise about Phair around town, ranging from slurs
about her personal life to endless discussions about when she actually first
heard Exile on Main Street (the record she based Exile in Guyville on) to
charges that her label (the acerbic Matador) wasn't indie enough. As an amateur
Phairologist and free-lance moralist I deem far too much of it to be nasty to be
healthy and the very fact of its existence much more interesting than its
substance. Phair's certainly pushing somebody's buttons.
In other local news, Q101's heavily programmed alternative format rolled
up ratings. It's a funny station: song for song, it probably plays better music
than any other outlet around, and it's pretty aggressive about doing what radio
stations should do, which is play new music from new groups. But it has three
major problems: One, it almost never plays music by black people. Two, its
playlist is far too small, sometimes approaching Top 40-style rotation. And
three, it has a museum-quality selection of numskull disk jockeys. Everyone I
know has their favorite embarrassing Q101 DJ moment; Hitsville will be happy to
list his own and the favorites of any readers at some future date.
The Loop, one of the most famous and successful AOR stations in the
U.S., abandoned rock music altogether this year. (Disclosure: Hitsville does a
talk show on the Loop, but since none of the other papers in town have written
about this subject, I figure it's worth mentioning.) The Loop always had a
notoriously tight playlist even by AOR standards; pinched by the heavy metal of
the Blaze on the right and 'XRT and Q101 on the left, and seeing its own
audience aging fast, the station took advantage of relaxed FCC ownership
controls to buy the Blaze, turned its AM to sports talk, and gave up the ghost
on AOR entirely in favor of all talk. Who could have predicted, just a few years
ago, such a major shift in the configuration of rock radio stations in one of
the largest media markets in the U.S.? Could it be that--oh, nevermind
HITSVILLE'S TOP TEN
Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
Urge Overkill, Saturation
Dr. Dre, The Chronic
Nirvana, In Utero
P.M. Dawn, The Bliss Album...?
Bettie Serveert, Palomine
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Spinning Around the Sun
Stereolab, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements
Digable Planets, Reachin (A New Refutation of Time and Space)
Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music-Press Stooge
The opening paragraph of your Year-in-rock recap [Hitsville, January 7]
is one of the most brilliant bits of ass-forward thought I've seen in years. If
I read your heavily parenthetical English correctly, you are making the case
that Liz Phair, Urge Overkill and the Smashing Pumpkins are somehow unique in
rock music because they are brazenly trying to sell records. Genius.
You also intimate that anyone having a gripe about these artists'
calculated and overbearing hype barrage is being merely parochial or petty. You
dismiss this sort of discussion as "bullshit." Since I like using
words like "bullshit," and I am one of the people who see nothing of
value in any of these three artists, I will gladly adopt the term as shorthand
for the position you argue against.
In your rush to pat these three pandering sluts on the heinie, you miss
what has been obvious to the "bullshit" crowd all along: These are not
"alternative" artists any more than their historical precursors. They
are by, of and for the mainstream. Liz Phair is Rickie Lee Jones (more talked
about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking
chore to listen to), Smashing Pumpkins are REO Speedwagon (stylistically
appropriate for the current college party scene, but ultimately insignificant)
and Urge Overkill are Oingo Boingo (Weiners in suits playing frat party rock,
trying to tap a goofy trend that doesn't even exist). You only think they are
noteworthy now because some paid publicist has told you they are, and you,
fulfilling your obligation as part of the publicity engine that drives the music
industry, spurt about them on cue.
You attempt to validate your lionizing these frauds by referring to
other music critics, after owning up to the reality that these artists don't get
much respect from anybody else. In their day, their precursors were considered (by
tools like you and those you quote) to be the nuts. That nobody gives a shit
about them now is evidence that their appeal was temporal, transitory and
superficial, and further evidence that tools like you (and them) don't know shit
from fat meat.
Watching the three artists you moo about prostrate themselves before the
altar of publicity these last 12 months has been a source of unrivaled hilarity
here in the "bullshit" camp, and seeing them sink into the obscurity
they have earned by blowing their promo wads will be equally satisfying.
The "bullshit" characterization concluded your argument that
the music scene is tiny, and the perspectives of other artists, independent
record companies, fans and the like are too insignificant to warrant serious
consideration. Look at the shoes you're standing in, big nuts. Music press
stooges like you tend to believe and repeat what other music press stooges write,
reinforcing each other's misconceptions as though the tiny little world you guys
live in (imagine a world so small!) actually means something to us on the
Out here in the world, we have to pay for our records, and we get taken
advantage of by the music industry, using stooges like you to manipulate us. We
harbor a notion of music as a thing of value, and methodology as an equal, if
not supreme component of an artist's aesthetic. You don't "get" it
because you're supported by an industry that gains nothing when artists exist
happily outside it, or when people buy records they like rather than the ones
they're told to.
Though you wave your boob flag proudly throughout the rest of the piece,
you did make one reasoned and intelligent statement. You stated your disapproval
of those who would snicker at Liz Phair's personal life in lieu of actually
discussing her merits as an artist and her album as a work. Considering how easy
a target Phair's music is, it is a shame that some of her critics have nullified
the discussion by using the leering mode you refer to. In truth, she and her
album are probably the least offensive of the three you focused on in your
column, which may explain why you think she is any good.
Artists who survive on hype are often critic's pets. They don't, however,
make timeless, classic music that survives trends and inspires generations of
fans and other artists. There are artists in Chicago doing just that, but you
don't write about them. You save your zeal instead for this year's promo
fixtures. Shame on your lazy head. Clip your year-end column and put it away for
ten years. See if you don't feel like an idiot when you reread it.
Hurt Me, Steve, Hurt Me!
This is in response to Mr. Steve Albini's letter printed in the January
28 issue of the Reader.
Steve, Steve, Steve, why all the bitterness? You blasted against three
"mainstream" bands, but in light of your recent production work with
the multiplatinum, critic-adored (like yourself), and "mainstream"
Nirvana, all your erudite spleen purgings stink of hypocrisy.
It sounds to me like you are pissing and moaning about the meal you have
been served after devouring every morsel off your plate. In your world, success
and integrity do not mix. Watching you spit and growl to maintain your
underground credentials over the last 12 months has been a source of unrivaled
Your image as self-appointed standard bearer for the underground has
grown a bit tiresome. To be more blunt, you are starting to sound like my weird
uncle who comes over uninvited, drinks all of my best liquor and then gives me
tomes of unsolicited advice about gardening, pet care, women, etc.
Crank, crank, crank. Drunk with self-righteousness.
Bill Wyman is not the propaganda arm of some recording industry
conspiracy. He is a normal guy. This might come as a shock to you, Stevie, but
as a normal guy, Wyman's entitled to his opinions. Just like you, Steve! See how
it all works? So he doesn't write about the bands you want him to, that's his
choice. You went to a prestigious journalism school and should know all about
I am not defending what Wyman writes; I don't always agree with him,
either. Unlike you, I don't give a rat's ass about it. Wyman has no
responsibilities to me or you or anyone other than himself and his editors. If
he did, that would be tantamount to him telling you how to operate within your
So, Steve, take this all to heart, and at the first opportunity, say all
kinds of scatological things about my band. Nothing would make me feel better. I
would love to be the next target of your childish rage.