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Rock critics may have worn out their voices

In the 1980s, a college student in Atlanta had a weekly jones for The Village Voice. In the pages of New York's alternative tabloid, Toure found writing like he had never seen before. Greg Tate, Nelson George, Harry Allen, and others were talking about hip-hop in a way that was almost as inspiring as the music itself.

"There was this murderers row of writers who had voice, opinion, gravity, intelligence and style," says Toure, who goes by his first name only. "The Voice not encouraged but demanded a voice from writers. To think of joining that group was like joining a successful sports team. If you really wanted to show your chops to the community, then you wrote something in the Voice."

Toure moved to New York, where he wrote for the Voice, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. He's now a Rolling Stone contributing editor and author of the short story collection "The Portable Promised Land."

But these days, you're as likely to see his talking head on TV, where he may be commenting on Michael Jackson for CNN or on Whitney Houston for "Nightline," as you are to catch his byline. That's because, as he and many other writers say, pop criticism isn't what it used to be.

"I have no sense now that it matters in the same way, that people are paying attention," says Toure.

And yet if pop music criticism is a dying field in print journalism, it's having a thriving afterlife elsewhere. There's a whole new crop of books aspiring to enter the canon of music criticism. Rock critics are also the heroes, or antiheroes, of at least one novel (the scathing parody "Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel") and movie (the sentimental hogwash "Almost Famous"). And there seem to be fertile opportunities for pop pundits to play themselves on TV, as commentators and historians.

The bad-boy avatar of gonzo journalism has simultaneously become a parodied icon and part of the media establishment. It's enough to make Lester Bangs, the late, great rock scribe and muse for both "Pollacks" and "Almost Famous," roll over in his cough-syrup-soaked grave.

"When you think of the kind of writing there was in Rolling Stone 30 years ago and look at magazines now, it doesn't even need to be pointed out," says Barney Hoskyns, founder of the archive www.rocksbackpages.com and editor of the anthology "The Sound and the Fury: A Rock's Backpages Reader." "Most writers are writing in the shadows of Bangs or writing bland stuff. No one's been able to get over that and create a post-new-journalism template."

"I would like to see the whole thing blown up and start all over," says Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis. "But it hasn't happened."

In the late '60s, such writers as Bangs, Greil Marcus, Richard Goldstein, and Ellen Willis began writing about rock 'n' roll with a literary passion that spawned a whole new field: rock criticism. Publications Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy, and England's Melody Maker became countercultural forums in which debates about Van Morrison's lyrics could become gateways into a generation's changing morals and politics. In the '70s, books like Marcus's "Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music," Charlie Gillett's "The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll," and Richard Meltzer's "The Aesthetics of Rock" brought rock criticism to local libraries.

By the '80s, writers weaned on rock criticism began asserting their voices at such nascent magazines as Spin, Option, and The Source. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of traditional publications began hiring pop critics. The new generation was influenced by the flippant rebellion of punk and the heady street culture of hip-hop. "The first thing that made me want to write was music journalism," says Nick Hornby. The British author of "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy" was inspired by the New Musical Express generation of the late '70s, namely writers Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. "They were doing something different. Everything went up a gear with them. They were incredibly rude when they wanted to be, and they knew about other things besides music. You couldn't predict the way they'd think."

DeRogatis dates the last great era of pop writing to the early '90s, when books like Gina Arnold's "Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana," Rachel Felder's "Manic Pop Thrill," and Simon Reynolds's "Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock" were published. "There were books about genre history and ideas," says the author of "Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs." "Then it petered off."

Some writers blame the decline in trenchant, in-the-trenches criticism on media's increasing starry-eyed obsession with celebrities. Superstars' images are carefully controlled by their handlers. Gone is the era when a journalist could spend days on the road with the Rolling Stones. "It's a seller's market. You have to fight to maintain any sense of integrity," says Smith. "Somebody's got to break this cabal going on with publicists and artists.""Bands are so buffered," says Hoskins. "If everything is so carefully controlled, it explains why the magic and mystique have gone out of the thing."

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