Lou Reed Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lou Reed 1944–

(Born Louis Firbank) American songwriter, singer, musician, and actor.

Reed is known as an unconventional, sometimes bizarre, song-writer and performer. He began his career writing summer-love/surf's-up songs for a major recording company in the early 1960s, then formed the Velvet Underground in order to play the kind of songs he really wanted to write. The music Reed wrote, along with John Cale, was unlike any other at the time. His lyrics were some of the first to mention such topics as drug use, death, and sexual perversion. He was attacked for the despairing decadence revealed in his early works, yet these songs are now often called brilliant. As a part of Andy Warhol's mixed-media show, "The Exploding Plastic Inevitable," in the late 1960s, the Velvet Underground concentrated on wild visual effects in their live performances. Although the group did not gain widespread recognition before disbanding in the early 1970s, their music and concerts generated a new style of rock and roll, influencing the new wave and glitter-rock movements represented by David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Talking Heads.

Reed's second solo album, Transformer, gained him a wide following in the United States and Europe. The lyrics are not substantially different from those of the Velvet Underground era, but the album's popularity among young people reflects the changing attitudes of society toward previously taboo subjects. Transformer deals mainly with homosexuality, but instead of the revelations that might be expected from a professed homosexual, critics found the imagery mostly timid and stereotyped. One song, however, appealed to fans and critics alike. "Walk on the Wild Side" became a national top-ten hit for Reed, and some critics consider it an example of his ability to write powerful rock and roll.

Berlin was received with conflicting reactions. Thematically it recounts the story of Reed's disastrous first marriage, and while certain reviewers have termed the album a failure, others consider it a brilliant concept album. A basically simple story, it includes all of Reed's major themes—emasculation, sadism, misogyny, drug abuse, and emotional deterioration. The depressing tone, most often cited as the album's biggest flaw, is relieved only occasionally by Reed's sardonic humor. Reed followed this album with several unremarkable works, including Metal Machine Music, two records with exactly 16.1 minutes on each side, consisting of the sound of a blank tape running and some scratching noises. Such works as these, and Reed's alienating behavior in public, drastically lowered his credibility with critics and all but his most loyal fans.

Reed redeemed himself somewhat with Street Hassle, which critics generally thought exhibited the mastery first displayed in his work with the Velvet Underground. On Street Hassle he attempts to explain why most of his work has failed to live up to the promise of the Velvet Underground albums. Reed's characteristic mix of horror and humanity amid stylistic oddities is present, but the personalized emotionalism of the lyrics distinguishes the album from his former releases. Growing Up in Public is also highly autobiographical. Here Reed explores some of the forces that shaped him, and also loosely outlines the events leading to his second marriage. Reviewers tend to agree that despite the strongly literary lyrics, the music is pedestrian and keeps Growing Up in Public from being Reed's finest work.

The poetic quality of Reed's lyrics and the life-is-tough message that he expounds in all his work probably accounts for his consistent appeal to young adults. Critics, however, continue to disagree on his status as a songwriter. Some are still waiting for him to match the quality of his work with the Velvet Underground, while others feel that he has done so repeatedly and recognize Reed as one of the most important personalities in contemporary rock and roll.