Remember the rock and roll adage "If it's too loud, you're too old"? Apparently, it has a corollary: If you're dressed like that, you couldn't possibly like this.
That, at least, was the lesson I came away with after attending the Summer Sanitarium Tour at PSINet Stadium a few weeks ago. This was one of the summer's biggest heavy rock tours, and although the headliner was Metallica, one of the genre's most venerable acts, the bulk of the bill was given over to younger, less traditional bands such as Korn, Kid Rock, Powerman 5000 and System of a Down.
Korn, for example, boasts a sound that owes as much to Boogie Down Productions as to Black Sabbath, leavening the heavy crunch of metal with the bass-driven punch of hip-hop. There are moments when singer Jonathan Davis gets so caught up in the groove that his vocals seem like some weird cross between rapping and speaking in tongues.
During such moments, the crowd was in total thrall to the beat, rippling with the rhythm like leaves of grass. I was moving with the groove, too, until a young woman in the row behind me tapped my arm and asked, with an air of incredulity, "You don't actually like this, do you?"
The typical Korn fan is a good bit my junior, but it wasn't age alone that made her ask. Even though, at 43, I was old enough to be her father, there were Metallica fans of similar vintage seated nearby. Metallica frontman James Hetfield himself just turned 37.
No, what made me stand out from the crowd were my clothes. Nearly every other male in the crowd sported the regulation black T-shirt and ratty jeans. I wore khaki pants and a light- colored short-sleeve shirt. The other guys looked like heavy rock fans; I looked like a tourist from Harborplace.
So how could I possibly like Korn?
Funny thing was, I had had a similar experience 14 years earlier, when I was covering the Monsters of Rock tour at RFK Stadium. Back then, Metallica was the edgy, up-from-the-underground band only young people were supposed to like, and when a group of them noticed conservatively dressed me reacting appreciatively to the music, one inquired, "You don't actually like this, do you?"
"I'd think that if anybody should know not to judge somebody by the way they look, it'd be Metallica fans," said Hetfield, when I recounted my Monsters of Rock story a few months later. Hetfield figured that since his fans often got grief for their long hair, tattoos and grungy attire, they'd know it was stupid to assume that anyone's worth would be determined by the clothes they wore.
But clothes are also a reflection of culture, and the way I dressed suggested to these fans I was not one of them -- something that aroused suspicion in some fans.
It's worth noting that what happened with Korn and Metallica is not the universal fan reaction to differently dressed oldsters. For instance, a few weeks after the Korn incident, things ran late at the office and I wound up covering Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem and the rest of the "Up in Smoke" tour while still in a business suit. Again, a young woman in the row behind me tapped me on the arm, but her question was different. "So what do you think?" she asked hopefully. "Do you like it so far?"
Nobody really expects reviewers to be just like the fans. By the very nature of the job, we're expected to be informed but objective, interested yet apart. Rock critics in particular need to avoid looking like the people they cover, since nobody wants to be written up by a wannabe. As David Lee Roth once said, "Nothing scares me more than a critic whose hair is longer than mine."
Still, there are those who worry that critics are sometimes a little too distant -- that aging rock critics are incapable of covering the music and culture of kids young enough to be their children.
Joey Fatone of 'N Sync put the problem succinctly a few months ago when he told a press conference that part of the reason his band got so many negative reviews was that the reviewers were simply too old. "Some critics, a lot of times they don't even listen to our style of music, so they're not really into what we do and what we're about," he said. "A lot of times they're older people who listen to more R&B or classic rock or whatever."
Being too old to cover rock and roll has become an issue in the press, as well. Earlier this year, 53-year-old critic Richard Harrington filed an age-discrimination suit against the Washington Post, alleging that he had been removed as staff pop music critic -- a position he had held for 19 years -- because he was deemed too old for the job. The Post denies Harrington's age had anything to do with the decision; the case has yet to go to trial.