Critical condition

Decried by some, feared by others, Bob Hilburn is the unavoidable voice of L.A. pop journalism

For nearly 30 years his has been one of the loudest voices in the Los Angeles music community, yet few of us have ever heard him sing or play a note.

To his friends he’s Bob. To his envious fellow journalists he’s Hilburn. And, on a daily basis, for thousands of Angelenos and most of the American recording industry, he’s Robert Hilburn, L.A. Times pop music critic.

He gets the interviews and the backstage access that no one else can get. His opinions on artists, be they pro or con, are weighed against the opinions of others. Label execs circulate copies of his reviews the day they’re printed, hoping maybe to justify their latest signing.

“At every record company, you’re going to find someone who doesn’t like him because he gave their band a bad review,” says an L.A.-based A&R exec, who, like everyone interviewed for this story, requested anonymity. “Anyone who had that job would face the same thing. He’s probably the most influential newspaper critic in the country.”

Yet Hilburn will be the first to admit that he often wrestles with questions like, “Who am I to say what’s good or bad?”

Hilburn’s words can even launch a career, as in the case of Elton John’s early appearance at the tiny Troubadour in West Hollywood, which Hilburn applauded in the Times using “second coming”-like terms. John still credits that review for breaking him in the U.S.

Even more so than ex-New York Times drama critic Frank Rich, whose reviews had the power to extend or prematuerly close down a stage production on or off Broadway, a rave from Hilburn could be considered crucial for artists interested in gaining widespread commercial acceptance. After all, he’s syndicated in a total of 600 outlets, half of which are overseas. The U.S. papers in which he’s featured include Newsday, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and the Chicago Sun Times.

If you’ve seen much of his work — and if you’re reading this it’s a safe bet that you have — then surely you have an opinion or two about him, his musical tastes and reporting style. Hilburn, who says 80%-90% of any musical genre is recycled and imitative, describes his role as “trying to define ahead of time who is important in a generation.”

Yet his critics complain that he writes about the same people time and time again, and that he often is a bandwagon-jumper, as when he dramatically changed his tune on Pearl Jam. (He says he hated Eddie Vedder’s live act until he saw him at a Bob Dylan tribute in New York; before that epiphany, though, Epic Records printed promotional T-shirts that quoted Hilburn describing Pearl Jam as “annoying.”)

“Considering the enormity of trying to cover popular music, especially in an industry town like Los Angeles, it’s amazing Bob stays as current as he does,” says a veteran West Coast publicist. “Hilburn is always on the lookout for new music that means something, and isn’t easily impressed by trends. And while he gets beat up about his favorites like Bruce and Bono, show me someone who doesn’t have favorites and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t really take music very seriously.”

When asked about repeat coverage of his favorite superstar artists, Hilburn, who once considered doing A&R for his friend Irving Azoff when Azoff ran MCA Records, says the public deserves to know what the big names are up to.

“But who else has written so many positive stories about U2’s ‘Pop’ album and tour?,” asks an LA-based journalist. “Do I want to read another Bob Hilburn article about Bruce Springsteen?,” asks another writer. “Not particularly, because I think he’s said everything there is to say about the subject.”

“Is he over-covering [U2’s PopMart tour]?,” asks a New York-based writer. “I don’t think so. This is the biggest tour of the year. If you’re going to do daily news, U2 creates it. Smaller bands don’t. If you were music editor at the Times, would you write about The Prodigy or an unknown like Atari Teenage Riot?” (For the record, Hilburn’s recent review of the PopMart tour’s June stopover in L.A. was less than glowing, calling the band to task for not living up to the ambition of its previous “Zoo TV” tour.)

But Hilburn, who has included such popular groups as Led Zeppelin, Steely Dan and Duran Duran on his list of don’t-likes, stresses that he aggressively works to stay in tune with trends and with who the new taste-makers are — a claim his detractors might argue with but nevertheless stands as his mission statement. “Only a few people each decade really change music, and really inspire people on an important level, and the idea is to find those people,” he says.

“In terms of breaking new bands, Bob doesn’t have a great deal of foresight,” says a former Times contributor. “But it’s not the job of the L.A. Times to break underground music or trends.”

“It’s not the Times’ job to be cool or hip,” says an East Coast critic who has also written for the Times. “(Their readership) is a broad section of the American public, and to say they’re not giving enough coverage to (smaller groups like) Blur or The Geraldine Fibbers is stupid.”

Of course, when your paper’s circulation exceeds a million readers on a daily basis —the Sunday Times claims a circulation topping 1,300,000 — you’re bound to be endlessly second-guessed and scrutinized. The L.A. Weekly even used to run a column called “The Hilburn Watch,” which criticized his criticisms.

“I don’t envy him his job,” says a well-known West Coast journalist. “The Times is the voice of the entertainment industry, and a lot of received wisdom goes into putting out the Calendar section.”

“It’s just your opinion,” says Hilburn in summing up his approach to his position. “All you can do is be as open-minded as possible, listen to as much music as possible and let time prove the choices you make.”

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