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Your Paper for Mainstream Music

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To the editors:

For what it's worth, I'd like to add my two cents to the recent volley of accusations between Reader contributors ["Truth or Dare: Madonna's Big Lie," June 21] and Reader readers [Letters, July 12 and August 9] regarding the lack of access not only to interesting music but to reviews of interesting music in this town.

The fact that such a pathetically predictable, impotent, solipsistic excuse for an artist as Madonna rates any mention at all--let alone center stage--among people supposedly motivated to discover new and exciting music is a sad commentary on what a bankrupt enterprise we're all dealing with in the first place. And while I'll admit I agreed with every word in the feature piece on her, it struck me even as I was reading it that two interesting columns about a couple of genuinely redeeming, lesser-known performers could have been run in lieu of this piece, which told us in effect what anyone with enough sense to pick up a Reader figured out years ago: Madonna isn't worth our time.

Is it really more valuable in terms of our evolution to feel that we can now articulate down to the minutest detail what it is that we hate about Madonna, if such insight must be obtained only by continuing to remain ignorant about everything else that is exciting and powerful and beautiful that's happening around her? After three years, I've come to the conclusion that the Reader must bear some of the onus for the ignorance of new (and old) music which continues to flourish in Chicago. The Sun-Times, whatever your opinion of its writers, can be excused for neglecting the more subterranean alternatives to Madonna and REM when they pass through. (REM is "underground" to most Sun-Times readers, I suspect.) But by definition an alternative press such as the Reader would seem to have an obligation to its audience to pursue and ferret out that which isn't likely to be found without some digging around. And to present the unusual--likeable or otherwise.

For me the last straw was your recent "Critic's Choice" on Joan LaBarbara [August 16]. Where were you when Diamanda Galas was here last spring? There wasn't one mention of her, either before or after her show here. A far more powerful, intelligent and experimental talent, Galas is not merely embellishing on the musical tradition in the manner of LaBarbara: she is literally reinventing the entire notion of "hearing" within the musical context. Over the past several years she has participated both as a performer and as a panelist in the New Music Seminars. Certainly, she would seem to command at least equal footing with LaBarbara. (Except that Galas didn't perform at Ravinia. Perhaps that's it!)

Another example: a couple years ago Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars toured the States for the first time in over a decade. Arguably one of the two most gifted ensembles currently interpreting ancient music, their visit was a major musical event, and while it received rave reviews elsewhere, they went unacknowledged in the Reader. (P.S. I was heartened to read a glowing review on them in one of the Chicago dailies a few days before their concert--in the Sun-Times, I believe.)

These consistent disappointments are by no means limited to these more "fringe" elements of the music world. (I realize ancient music isn't at the top of almost anyone's list.) In fact, the inversely proportional relationship of musical talent to press hype is nowhere more evident than in pop, new wave, hip-hop, etc. Two of the most intensely original bands I have ever seen, the Butthole Surfers and Tragic Mulatto, have never once been picked as a Critic's Choice in your paper since I moved back here three years ago. I've never even seen a picture of them in the music section. The Butts in particular are, quite simply, one of the most influential psychedelic-punk bands of the past ten years, and legions of watered-down art band imitators such as Eleventh Dream Day and Big Hat would have had little direction without them. Meanwhile, countless run-of-the-mill acts, both lesser- and more well known, continue to be plugged over and over again, no matter how many times they wear out their welcome here.

I've only dealt with what I consider to be the most egregious oversights; unfortunately, there are many others. But for me and some other fellow alternative-music freaks, these were far and away the most exciting performers to have come to Chicago in the last few years--and somehow the Reader missed them all. For those of us like myself for whom interesting music is something essential--more like a lifeline than a mere diversion--I'm afraid the Reader simply hasn't been there often enough when, quite frankly, the Tribune, the Sun-Times and Windy City Times have.

The ignorance in this town about alternative music is systemic--no one critic or paper can be blamed for what's happening (or not happening). Compared to San Francisco's coverage of the music scene, for instance, I find that the alternative press here is often more mainstream than the dailies are there--simply because they can afford to be more mainstream here. But if people aren't aware of the fact that there are three other choices, they're going to stick to the two they know about. It is true that from time to time the Reader plucks out one of those gems which might otherwise go unnoticed. I don't mean to suggest that you haven't had some share in getting people out to see things they wouldn't otherwise have known about. But you've also had some share in keeping them in on nights when they might have discovered something totally revolutionary, something that could've changed their views about music and themselves forever. My point is that when it comes to blaming others for their part in all this, you may feel you are part of the solution, and hopefully you are. But you may also be part of the problem.

Patrick Andes

N. Wolcott

Ted Shen replies:

Diamanda Galas's concert at the Vic last spring was noted by me in a Critic's Choice [March 29]. Moreover, the Reader was the only publication to call attention to her local debut back in the mid-80s, when she was all but ignored by the so-called mainstream press. Galas herself told me that without this paper's write-up she might not have been able to build a strong following here. A more thoughtful question Andes might have asked is: Why did the Tribune, which claims to be Chicago's newspaper of record, fail to run a review of her "plague mass," an important work in progress about the AIDS crisis?

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