A few weeks ago, several rock critics, music journalists and a publicist got an 11-page photocopied manifesto in the mail. Called "The Rock Critical List," the homemade screed had one point, which it hammered for about 3,000 or so words. To wit: "Music scribbling out of New York-based national publications at this exact moment is unnecessarily lifeless, artless and idiotically panglossed, useless even as a ‘consumer guide.’" Signed by one "Jo Jo Dancer, a.k.a. The Gay Rapper" (a requisitely hip reference to a forgettable 1986 Richard Pryor film, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling), the self-hating analyst takes apart a bevy of pop music critics, backing the invective up with such pointed inside information, and in some cases, potshots at their personal lives, that those assaulted are wondering which one of their "friends" wrote it.
The manifesto first appeared on the desks of a chosen few: Vibe music editor Sacha Jenkins, Spin senior editor Will Hermes, Spin senior contributing writer Mike Rubin and Girlie Action publicist Felice Ecker. Most got it the last week of February, when The Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop poll–or, as Jo Jo so assiduously puts it, "self-serving year-end wankorama"–came out. "The hand-scrawled nature of [the envelope] kind of freaked me out," said one recipient, who said he thought about dumping it in the sink. As it turned out, it was fairly explosive, albeit only in the tight little world of people who write about Blur, Britney Spears and Biz Markie for a living.
The bile comes pouring out in a top 10 list of rock criticism’s worst offenders. Leading the pack is The New York Times’ Neil Strauss, a "balding, dickless imp," writes Jo Jo, who has become "the most craven, punch-drunk phony in the business." (Reached by Off the Record, Mr. Strauss had no comment.) The apparently once virtuous Rolling Stone music editor Joe Levy has morphed into "an unabashed, self-righteous propagandist for pop music’s ephemeral pleasures. In other words, indie-rock was over, he had a reservation at Union Square Cafe with Elastica, and hey, we’re a winner, baby!" Venerable Village Voice critic Robert Christgau is taken to task for his "sadly clotted prose," "populist autism" and "total lack of feeling for today’s most important youth musics–hip-hop and electronic dance." And New York’s Ethan Smith "has the profitable ability to prattle on like a mid-40’s patrician (therefore pleasing his mid-40’s patrician editors), yet still front like he relates to the wounded, channel-surfing troubadours of his generation."
Understandably, reviews from the critics mentioned were mixed. "I thought it was moderately witty," said Mr. Christgau. "He slammed people who were asking for it, people I don’t like either." Mr. Christgau thought he came out "all right," though.
"It’s extraordinarily rare that you see something that demonstrates this much intelligence and this much poor reasoning," sniffed Mr. Levy.
Matt Diehl, who freelances for Rolling Stone, was summed up by Jo Jo, along with the writer Touré, thusly: "No matter how you dress ’em up, a bitch iz a bitch iz a bitch." Mr. Diehl called it "more of a drive-by than a critique" and added that he was more concerned that "this person went out of his way to humiliate me and then mail it to the people who I make my livelihood writing for."
In the small, tightly wound subculture of pop music critics and the publicists who feed them, the list has caused a lot of internecine finger-pointing about who the real Jo Jo is. (Copies of "The Rock Critical List" are going for $1 at See Hear on East Seventh Street in the East Village.) "It’s obviously a white person obsessed with hip-hop who at the same time doesn’t read any African-American writers–or very few," said Mr. Diehl. Another editor noted, "it’s such a small pool of people who could have written it. Not that many people know the details"–like that Boz Scaggs’ son fetches coffee for Mr. Levy at Rolling Stone–"or care, and are as barbed, as funny."
"It seems like most people are obsessed by who it is," said Spin senior editor Charles Aaron, who received the "Average White Man Award" in the list for his "cultural studies blood-letting" in a recent Spin article defending white rappers. Despite his being slagged, Mr. Aaron has become the prime culprit in many of his fellow critics’ minds. One writer pointed to the apparently Aaron-ish phrases "tiny lives" and "satori" as textual "proof."
Mr. Aaron said he is not the real Jo Jo. "In my circumstance, it would be really insane for me to do things like that because it would hurt people who are my friends," he said. "I don’t know who did it, and it’s not me." Besides, he added, "the information that’s in there was not privileged, it’s basically stuff that writers talk about." On top of that, he said, the list "was apparently postmarked from California."
Other names circulating among the pop crit crowd as possible Jo Jo manqués include: former Grand Royal editor and current Vanity Fair contributor Bob Mack; Adam Heimlich of the New York Press; freelance writer and musician Sasha Frere-Jones; and Gerard Cosloy of Matador Records. However, among the critics contacted by Off the Record (both on and off the list), Mr. Aaron is thought to be the most likely suspect. "Guilty until proven innocent," said one nervous writer who was attacked, referring to Mr. Aaron. "That’s how people seem to be thinking about it."
"If someone who’s a friend really thinks that I did it, then they can talk to me and I could assure them that I didn’t," said Mr. Aaron. "Beyond that, I just hope that it passes and folks aren’t too hurt by it."
Or, as Jo Jo’s final words put it: "Peath Out."