Minnesota Nice was killing music criticism even back in 1933

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Photo by Erik Hess
"L'apres Midi D'un Faune" was perhaps the 1933 equivalent of Beach House's "Zebra."
Everyone's a critic -- except in Minnesota, of course. Well, we're just as judgmental if not worse in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but you'd hardly detect it from any publicly circulated opinion on the matter with a byline. Actually, I take that back. Those charged with writing criticism often get shunned from the glow of "Minnesota Nice."

"There has never been a better time to be a mediocre new local band," ex-City Pages music scribe Jim Meyer wrote in 2010 in a scab-inducing takedown of our best new bands popularity poll, aka the "ghoulish toddler pageant" Picked to Click. Unlike most among us, he was brave enough to type out this acrid contention -- in part that "one glad-hand washes the other" when it comes to music coverage -- which mostly makes the rounds more anonymously in local coffee shops, artist interviews in the U.K., and hilariously on message boards.

But did all this "niceness" sprout recently from blogs and hype and bath salts? If there are any septuagenarian readers of Gimme Noise, the estimable John K. Sherman should come immediately to mind. For all others, here's an introduction. In a piece penned in the Minneapolis Star dated December 2, 1933, he contends that opinions on music around here were already "danged monotonous." Whether you concede that it's a problem or not, it sure isn't a recent development.


Initially, it was tempting to attempt to pass off this opinion piece -- found during some research of the post-Prohibition era at the Minnesota Historical Society -- as a far-more-recent story, but that headline reeks worse than a crate of lutefisk! Almost certainly not written by the clever and slippery Sherman, "Too Tolerant and Amiable Attitude to Music Scored" lazily gleans two adjectives from the article's second sentence.

"Are we too good-natured, too amiably tolerant, too wishy-washily receptive to all the music that reaches our ears in concert halls?" Short answer: God-damn right! Proceed.
 
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From what we've read so far, there's nothing about these passages that betrays a current contrarian's argument about Twin Cities music critiques. Also, who isn't feeling a bit perturbed (read: hungover) after a "gruelling week of music" around here? In general terms, it's the challenge of all critics today to avoid soaking their evaluations in "deadly good will." Sherman does not excuse his own paper, but also doesn't indict himself directly. 

Before we delve further, you're probably wondering who this opinionated fella was. According to local archives, John Kurtz Sherman was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1898. After a short stint at the University of Minnesota, Sherman worked at the Minneapolis Star as critic and books and arts editor from 1925 up until he died in 1969. He's credited with authoring  Music and Maestros: The Story of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Music and Theater in Minnesota History, and some other titles. There are no records of what brand of scotch he drank or the lengths of his sideburns, however.
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Pardon the dated references here. What music can convey and, in turn, arouse in a listener is still a pressing concern. Referring to music fans in a "daze of aesthetic delight" was many decades too soon to be intended as a veiled reference to EDM drug culture by Sherman, so he must be seriously posing this question. So yeah, different music does trigger different emotions.    

Aside from the fun you might have swapping out classical artists for contemporary ones -- "Isn't Beach House's 'Zebra' occasionally as effective as a sleeping tablet?" -- the point here goes back to what Jim Meyer was talking about in our intro. The baby buzz band of 2013 was a "young and eager student" striding out to play Schumann on the piano 80 years ago. In either case, there's far less friction involved to just give them a pass even when these situations do make us "mad, or sad, or irritated, or..." -- well, let's just let Sherman continue.

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3 comments
put_some_ranch_on_it
put_some_ranch_on_it

Awesome piece, dude. You could have mentioned my band at least once, though.

Corey Lawson
Corey Lawson

Good find! And that Meyer article is pretty entertaining. Ayn Rand quotes always sound better out of context.

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