How and When Paul Williams
Made Good on His Promise of
Intelligent Rock Writing
Dave Mistich is a graduate student in the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communications. His research interests, and current thesis exploration, focus on tracing the evolution of rock’s critical discourse and the peripheral cultural forces that influenced its development. Dave freelances as a music journalist for the Charleston Daily Mail, Relix, and the WV Rock Scene and plays bass and mandolin for the Huntington-based rock band, Wine & Water. He hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in Mass Communications. The following abstract is for a paper he presented at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture association 2011 Joint National Conference in San Antonio, Texas
THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT THAT ROCK MUSIC has proven to be a historically important force in America. It has been a central element to American culture and it’s evolving sound has helped define generations as early as the 1950s. It’s a style of music whose sound and ideological platforms have had tremendous impact over the course of six-plus decades. While the musicians who wrote and recorded the songs and albums are primarily responsible for these evolutions, music journalists and critics have also played a vital role by instituting a discourse by which rock has evaluated and understood in various social and political contexts.
During its genesis in the late 1950s and early 1960s, rock journalism teetered on the brink of schoolboy fandom. Its writing—featured in trade publications like Billboard, Cash Box and Hit Parader—appealed mostly to passive consumers rather than thoughtful, critically-minded fans. These publications functioned mostly as an arm of the recording industry, providing a means of publicity and left much to be desired in the way of careful criticism. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that rock criticism found it’s true home in highly specialized publications that began evaluating music from a much deeper perspective.
With this in mind, rock writers and their publishers began critiquing music outside of it’s market potential and sought to break down the music on creative, artistic and communicative levels. One widely discussed theme that emerged was the idea of authenticity, or the degree to which music conveyed the songwriters’ feelings or beliefs without being swayed by the recording industry. Music that is authentic, one might say, can be seen as having a political or poetic message that is meant for commitment rather than consumption.
Crawdaddy!, America’s first rock magazine, was first published in February 1966 by Paul Williams, a student at Swathmore College in Pennsylvania. Fed up with the state of the rock press, Williams promised an outlet where music criticism would be handled as “serious business”—a place for discussing “life changing” experiences listening to new music. Whether he knew it or not, Williams was subtly promising a publication that would focus on authenticity—a concept perpetually at odds with the commercial nature and growing influence of the recording industry.
Williams started as a one-man show in the magazine’s earliest days, acting as writer, editor, and publisher His earliest critical evaluations mirrored the trade publications that preceded him and focused mainly on a song, album, or artist’s “hit potential,” which can be seen as ignoring the concept of authenticity.
However, as Crawdaddy! began to grow in size and cultural impact, Williams began introducing writers who would later become fixtures in the rock criticism canon. Names like Jon Landau and Richard Meltzer found their way onto bylines in Crawdaddy! and began evaluating the music that engaged them with the idea of authenticity closely in mind. In turn, the magazine’s new critical voices influenced Williams’ own writing and he soon adopted the theme in many of his own essays and critiques.
The current study explores the idea of authenticity as a standard in the critique of rock music and attempts to pinpoint its implementation and use in Crawdaddy! Few historical studies have sought to understand the concept of authenticity in a practical sense other than establishing a handful of key words and phrases. Considering Crawdaddy!’s impact on rock criticism and the fact that authenticity remains a widely discussed standard in the field, it makes sense to merge the two subject into a study that attempts to show the parallel evolution of both. PDF of the full paper.