For the duration of the 20 years that Robert Fontenot has been writing for Offbeat, he has never been afraid to speak his mind. In hundreds of reviews, he has consistently engaged the work of New Orleans musicians with razor-sharp honesty. However, in the wake of the backlash from his review of Tasche de la Rocha’s album Gold Rose, the writer may now think twice before committing his opinions to print.
When the March edition of Offbeat hit the streets, fans of de la Rocha were quick to express their outrage on social media. One called it an “incredibly distasteful and sexist rant,” another said “both the content and tone of the entire article are dripping in deep-rooted misogyny.” Ultimately, the almost unanimous conclusion of the group was that his comments rendered it a “social justice” concern.
The strength of the response proved effective. Just five days later, Offbeat took the review down from their website and issued an apology, saying that “the write-up in question was an editorial oversight on our part” and that it “never should have been published.”
There are times when being a woman in this world is nothing short of excruciating, and I can imagine that for female musicians, it is all the more so. When your body and self-presentation are constantly on display, navigating the labyrinth of the patriarchy while staying true to yourself and your creative vision must be difficult indeed. I have nothing but respect for women like Tasche de la Rocha, who have the courage to perform regardless. It is my experience that very few men take the time to truly imagine what it is to face the world each day as a woman. More than likely, Robert Fontenot is no exception. The words his critics most objected to—”Romantic Pixie Dream Girl,” “waif,” “little girl,” and “twee porn practitioners”—indicate a pretty casual attitude towards the challenges inherent in being a female performer.
However, reducing the review to a brazen act of male chauvinism seems a little simplistic, and since doing so automatically nullifies any genuine criticisms of the work he might have raised, it strikes me as a suspiciously pat response. It’s true that the dismissive tone of this review demonstrates a certain laziness that is atypical of Fontenot’s work. He comes across like he has an axe to grind from the first sentence, which reads:
Someday in the distant future, anthropologists may yet discover why a horde of hipsters obsessed with Billie Holiday and Django Reinhardt descended upon post-Katrina New Orleans like a plague of stylish locusts, devouring all the funk and soul and blues in their path.
Such sweeping remarks aren’t necessarily advisable for someone who stakes his reputation on being a discerning arbiter of taste; his criticisms are usually executed with the kind of precision required to come across as truthful instead of bitter. For instance, the kind of critique Fontenot wrote, for the same issue, of Alison McConnell’s These Walls has a complexity to which it is harder to take offense:
Alison’s voice expertly walks the tightrope between sounding wise and just plain earthy, but these little nuggets of wisdom aren’t worth scaling her huge walls of sound inch by inch. In fact, what emotion is here usually gets wrung out of Marco Delmar’s guitar neck. Big sounds and big presence need big ideas off which to feed.
Throughout his body of work, in statements such as these, Fontenot clearly shows that he is not trying to crush artists so much as hold them to a higher standard. He may be less measured in his review of Gold Rose, although he gets much more complimentary towards the end, but his criticisms still raise a few good points. Take, for example, his accusation regarding de la Rocha’s Billie-esque vocal stylings:
It’s not so much her voice, which is one of the more affected and labored Holiday impressions out there; like too many of her contemporaries, she uses Billie’s breakthrough stylings to set herself up as yet another Romantic Pixie Dream Girl, the exact antithesis of the complicated, tortured love songs Billie (and let’s not forget, Ella) was known for.
I once saw Tasche de la Rocha singing “He’s Funny That Way” on Frenchmen, and I’ll confess that the word “affected” popped into my mind as well. It’s hard to prove definitively that a vocal style is derivative, but the risk of covering the greats is that it automatically invites comparison. In order to pull it off, an artist needs a performance style which completely stands on its own. When Amy Winehouse sings Billie Holiday’s “There Is No Greater Love,” her singing voice has nothing to do with Billie’s. As long as she has the microphone, the song belongs to no one but Amy. If the same can’t really be said of Tasche de la Rocha, isn’t it the critic’s prerogative to point it out?
Some of her fiercest supporters may not think so, and so this controversy brings into question what exactly is the role of critics in art? Do they contribute to a useful system of artistic quality control, or are they taking cheap shots at those who have had the courage to make themselves vulnerable? “Critics and reviewers are frustrated artists who don’t have the guts to put themselves on the street,” wrote one supporter on de la Rocha’s Facebook page.
That doesn’t seem entirely fair. Robert Fontenot is a writer, and an honest one, and that takes its own kind of courage. In this case, his honesty may have even cost him his job, considering that Offbeat is “currently re-evaluating” their “relationship with its author.”
His detractors may think his primary motivation is a “deep-rooted misogyny.” After reading dozens of his reviews, many of which are admiring— and all of which display a painstaking attention to the music—it is this author’s opinion that as a New Orleans native, Robert Fontenot is motivated by a fierce and protective love of the New Orleans musical tradition. This makes him perhaps a bit quick to judge musicians that for him don’t quite deliver, but then again, wasn’t Offbeat paying him for his opinion?
I believe it is well within the rights of de la Rocha’s supporters to disagree with this review as vehemently as they like. In fact, I believe that such disagreements provide fertile ground for the kind of discourse that pushes art forward. There isn’t a single successful artist who hasn’t been leveled by a bad review at least once; by no means does it have to be the last word. The Impressionists used their most vicious reviews as a platform to reinforce what made their work visionary, and from the vantage point of posterity, they inarguably had the last laugh. If Offbeat had published de la Rocha’s defenders after the review, they could have successfully fostered meaningful dialogue surrounding what it is to make music in the city of New Orleans without compromising their integrity.
However, in issuing a retraction, Offbeat shut down the conversation instead of elevating it. If Offbeat doesn’t want to risk publishing negative or controversial opinions, then they may as well assign reviews to musicians’ publicists.
We are entering a moment in history in which the press and freedom of expression are more threatened than they have been for decades, and having fewer voices in the conversation will only leave us culturally and intellectually impoverished. Besides, isn’t it always a more effective and stimulating proposition to outsmart the opposition rather than silence it? It’s all of our jobs to protect ourselves and each other from censorship regardless of its origin, even when the public discourse makes us angry or uncomfortable.