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Give Me Centrism or Give Me Death!

Chuck Klosterman // December 10, 2004

If you are the kind of person who talks about music too much, there aretwo words that undoubtedly play an integral role in your workadaylexicon: “overrated” and “underrated.” This is because those twosentiments pop up in 90 percent of all musical discussions.

What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that no one uses the samecriteria when applying either of those terms. For example, bands can beoverrated because certain rock critics like them too much (Sonic Youth,Wilco, Yo La Tengo), or underrated if they sell a lot of records butaren’t widely regarded as brilliant (Thin Lizzy, Duran Duran), orunderrated because barely anyone seems to know who they are (Tortoise,Sloan, Lifter Puller). Bands can be overrated because they’regood-looking (the Lemonheads in 1992), or they can be underratedbecause they’re good-looking (the Lemonheads in 1994). Some groups canbe overrated and underrated at the same time (Radiohead). Some groupsseem overrated on purpose (Oasis). Some groups seem eternallyunderrated because-no matter how hard they try-they’re just not asinteresting as groups who are overrated on purpose (Blur). It is veryeasy to be underrated, because all you need to do is nothing. Everyonewants to be underrated. It’s harder to become overrated, because thatmeans people had to think you were awesome before they thought yousucked. Nobody wants to be overrated, except for people who like tolive in big houses.

However, I am not interested in overrated and underrated bands.

It’s too easy, and all it means is that somebody else was wrong. I’mobsessed with bands that are rated as accurately as possible-in otherwords, nobody thinks they’re better than they are, and nobody thinksthey’re worse. They have the acceptable level of popularity, they haveattained the critical acclaim their artistry merits, and no one isconfused about their cultural significance. They are, in fact…


10. The Black Crowes: Their first album sold more than fivemillion copies, which is precisely the right number. Stoned people likethis band, drunk people think they’re okay, and sober people hate theoverwhelming majority of their catalog. This all makes perfect sense.

9. Madness: This is one of only two ska bands admired by peoplewho hate ska (the other being the Specials, who are somewhatoverrated). No one disputes this admiration. “Our House” was a prettygreat single, but it’s nobody’s favorite song. Nobody seems to disputethat assertion, either.

8. Triumph: Always associated with Rush and/or the nation of Canada, but not as good as either.

7. Tone Loc: Nobody really takes Tone Loc seriously, except forfrivolous pop historians who like to credit him for making suburbanwhite kids listen to rap music that was made by black people (asopposed to the Beastie Boys, who made white suburban kids listen to rapmusic that was made by other white people). This lukewarm historicalsignificance strikes me as sensible. Neither of Mr. Loc’s hits aretimeless, although “Wild Thing” samples Van Halen’s “Jamie’s Cryin'”(which I like to imagine is about M*A*S*H star Jamie Farr, had CorporalKlinger pursued sexual–reassignment surgery in an attempt to get aSection 8) and “Funky Cold Medina” samples “Christine Sixteen” (at atime when Kiss were making records like Hot in the Shade andnobody in America thought they were cool except for me and RiversCuomo). Those two songs were actually cowritten with Young MC, whosesingle “Bust a Move” is con-fusing for the following reason: Its lastverse states, “Your best friend Harry / Has a brother Larry / In fivedays from now he’s gonna marry / He’s hopin’ you can make it there ifyou can / Cuz in the ceremony you’ll be the best man.” Now, why wouldanybody possibly be the best man in a wedding where the groom is theirbest friend’s brother? Why isn’t your best friend the best man in thisceremony? And who asks someone to be their best man a scant five daysbefore they get married? This song is flawed. And while I realize theincongruities of “Bust a Move” have absolutely nothing to do with ToneLoc, the song somehow seems more central to Tone Loc’s iconography thanhis role in the movie Posse, which was the best movie about blackcowboys I saw during the grunge era.

6. My Bloody Valentine: On the surface, My Bloody Valentineshould be underrated, but they’re not; everyone who aggressively caresabout alt guitar music considers Loveless to be a modernclassic, and everyone who is wont to mention “swirling guitars” duringcasual conversation always references this specific album. Lovelesssold about 200,000 copies. This is the correct number of people onearth who should be invested in the concept of swirling guitars.

5. Matthew Sweet: Every Matthew Sweet album has only one goodsong, and this good song is inevitably the first single, and thissingle is always utterly perfect (“Sick of Myself” off 100% Fun, “Where You Get Love” off Blue Sky on Mars, “Girlfriend” off Girlfriend, etc.). He sells enough albums to live comfortably, and that seems reasonable.

4. The Beatles: The Beatles are generally seen as the singlemost important rock band of all time, because they wrote all the bestsongs. Since both of these facts are true, the Beatles are ratedproperly.

3. Blue Öyster Cult: The BÖC song everyone pays attention to isthe suicide anthem “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” However, that song isstupid and doesn’t use enough cowbell. The BÖC song almost no one paysattention to is the pro-monster plod-athon “Godzilla,” and that song isspine-crushingly great. So, in the final analysis, Blue Öyster Cult isaccurately rated-by accident. This happens on occasion; look at ScottiePippen.

2. New Radicals: There are only five facts publicly known aboutthis entity. The first is that 1998’s “You Get What You Give” is analmost flawless Todd Rundgren-like masterwork that makes anyright-thinking American want to run through a Wal-Mart semi-naked. Thesecond is that nobody can remember the singer’s name. The third is thatthe singer often wore a profoundly idiotic hat. The fourth is that ifthis anonymous, poorly hatted singer had made a follow-up album, itwould have somehow made his first record seem worse. The fifth is thathis album didn’t quite deserve to go gold, and it didn’t.

1. Van Halen: This band should have been the biggest arena actof the early 1980s, and they were. They had the greatest guitar playerof the 1980s, and everyone (except possibly Yngwie Malmsteen) seems toagree. They switched singers and became semi-crappy, and nobodyaggressively disputes that fact. They also recorded the most averagesong in rock history: “And the Cradle Will Rock.” What this means isthat any song better than “And the Cradle Will Rock” is good, and anysong worse than “And the Cradle Will Rock” is bad. If we were to rankevery rock song (in sequential order) from best to worst, “And theCradle Will Rock” would be right in the fucking middle.

And that is exactly what I want.