David Hajdu’s new collection Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture (Da Capo) is packed with shrewd, original observations about subjects ranging from Elvis Presley to Elmer Fudd, from Kanye West to (well, whattaya know) Taylor Swift. Over the past decade, Hajdu – a former EW editor – has established himself as an ambitious, wide-ranging critic and biographer. (His previous books include the Bill Strayhorn biography Lush Life and a history of comic-book repression, The Ten-Cent Plague.)
The essays in Heroes and Villains are most often critical assessments mixed with biographical sketches, a rare form in this time of the short review and the widespread assumption that readers will be confused upon encountering an actual opinion in the midst of a profile. Hajdu is the rare first-rate critic who’s also a first-rate interviewer – he’s rarely interested in putting his own opinions ahead of the stated intentions of the artist under discussion. If the critical appraisal is at odds with the good quote, he lets both stand, and a fresh tension is the result.
In writing about Joni Mitchell, for example, Hajdu reports that the singer-songwriter insisted to him that she’d always been a jazz artist, never a folk singer, a notion Hajdu takes quiet but firm issue with in proceeding to give a brief but thorough overview of her career, tracing her (yes) folk period, her jazz period, and her subsequent electronic experiments and, most recently, her re-recordings of some of her best-known songs. It takes a hardy critic to plow through much of Mitchell’s latterday work, and Hajdu listens to this music with a typical clear ear canal.
In his introduction, David Yaffe compares Hajdu to Otis Ferguson and Edmund Wilson, and I would add that he’s also working in the tradition of Gilbert Seldes or Robert Warshow, cultural critics who took the long view without standing aloof from pop culture. Hajdu’s writing is always generous. Even when he’s listening dubiously to Josh Groban (“a wondrously strange living amalgam of imposed ideas about pop artistry, most of them fearsomely cynical”), he can find time to describe his voice as “an airy, robust baritone… an impressive instrument well employed to impress.”
Now that’s a good critic.