PRINT December 2003


Top Ten

When “Real Life Rock”—Greil Marcus’s Top Ten column—first appeared in these pages in 1990, his epic, pop-inflected diary on a dizzying range of subjects was perfectly suited to an art world obsessed with heterogeneity. But what does this critical format provide us today, when the Top Ten’s radical juxtapositions seem as natural as the weather? On the occasion of our “Best of 2003” issue, I asked Marcus to revisit the early days of his Top Ten and to reflect on the virtues and vices of a column that became a genre. —TG

IN ’78 I STARTED WRITING a column on pop music called “Real Life Rock” for New West magazine, which later became California and is now defunct. At the end of every column, there would be a list, the “Real Life Rock Top Ten,” which included things like records, movies, books, somebody’s appearance on the Grammys. In the mid-’80s Doug Simmons, the music editor of the Village Voice, called me and said, “Why don’t you do a column that’s just that top ten?” It was more fun than anything I’d ever done, except maybe when Francis Coppola hired me in the ’70s to write a weekly review of every movie on TV. But that was impossible; this was complete freedom. I’d find myself putting a Little Richard reissue together with the latest punk band from Detroit alongside critical essays from Zone anthologies.

Once I paired a Zone anthology with Madonna’s “Live to Tell.” I didn’t think it was odd to bring these things together, because I didn’t see the difference. I think the whole high-low business is a load of nonsense. I don’t pay attention to it, and I never have. You could find astonishing examples of what one Zone writer called the “luster of capitalism”—which is, after all, what I was focusing on in my column—in “Live to Tell.” The song is all luster. It is completely, unbelievably shallow, and yet it’s hard to hold that notion in your head, because it’s so glamorous and well made.

“Real Life Rock” went to Artforum when the Voice got a new music editor who didn’t want the column. I had been writing for Artforum since 1983, trying out ideas that eventually worked their way into my book Lipstick Traces, so I called David Frankel, then the senior editor, who immediately took the Top Ten. What was surprising to me about Artforum was that there the column became both more serious and more playful, both dense and swift. If I did feel any tension writing for an art magazine, it arose because it became too easy for me to write about dada, which was my great fascination when writing Lipstick Traces. It was too easy to find items that fit that whole dimension of twentieth-century culture, and I began repeating myself. But otherwise, having the new column meant mainly that I went to more gallery shows. It was very rare to walk into a gallery or museum and not come out with at least one item for the column—whether a poster or some bizarre Sumerian sculpture.

With top tens, you’re always writing about people no one has ever heard of—in fact, people you’ve never heard of before stumbling upon them. Certain subjects also become known as you pursue them over the years. If you look back over the Artforum columns, one of the continuing stories is Corin Tucker, a singer and guitar player in Sleater-Kinney, certainly the most interesting punk band the United States has turned out since Nirvana, if not before. Tucker started out in a two-woman band called Heavens to Betsy. I came across their first primitive home recording on a compilation album. It was called “My Red Self”; it was about, you know, a girl getting her first period. Through the column, I followed Tucker’s work in Heavens to Betsy and then in Sleater-Kinney. There you’ll find the story of everything she and her bands did in obscure singles, in celebrated albums, one concert after another. The column allowed for that kind of continuity.

If I have an argument to make for the Top Ten, it’s that you can find culture everywhere. Culture is always at work, it’s always changing or manipulating or exploiting our perceptions and prejudices—what we want and what we’re afraid of—and you can find very smart, dedicated people working on those premises in shopwindows, in advertisements, in painting and sculpture, in records, in performances. It’s like being at an amusement park with these incredible surprises happening all the time. That’s the sensibility, I suppose, that this column invoked when I was doing it as I should have.

List making is definitely the first retreat of the lazy. It is obviously easier to make a list than it is to write an essay. Still, an essay is fundamentally one idea that you play out; this kind of column is much more complicated. And making a good list, while fun, is difficult because it has to be done relatively quickly. If you belabor it, then it collapses under its own weight.

Over the years, I’ve done the Top Ten column for the Voice, Artforum, and Salon; now I do it ever y three weeks for City Pages in Minneapolis. If you’re writing one list for Spin or Mojo, you’re showing off. You’re showing how smart you are, how cool you are, what good taste you have. When you do a top ten column every month or every two weeks, it’s not about you—it’s about trying to get items together that will be as odd as they are entertaining. And it’s in the oddity that the critical purchase comes. It’s in the entertainment that the groundwork for criticism exists.

Criticism begins on the assumption that people are interested in the world in which they live, but they’re busy, they’re running around. They’re affected by all kinds of things (whether it’s music, movies, advertisement, conversations), but they don’t have time to sit down and think about it. You, the critic, this is what you do with your life. You’re running around too, but you do stop to think, that’s your vocation. You write something, and the person who is affected by the same stuff you’re writing about but is too busy to think about it reads what you’ve written and says, “That makes sense,” or, “That’s exactly what I thought,” or, “That’s complete nonsense, that’s total bullshit. No, it’s not that; it’s this.” That’s the way these columns are supposed to work.

Greil Marcus is a writer and critic based in Berkeley, CA.