Intellectuals have always been skeptical of rock music. Bill Haley and Gene Vincent’s early rock’n’roll singles epitomized a form that was commercially accessible and simplistic in musical structure. It’s purpose was solely entertainment-based, seemingly unworthy of lyrical analysis or academic study. Musical elitists held onto their Bartok and Stravinsky records as symbols of a refined understanding of classicism and music as a “higher” art form. From the late 1950s and well into the 1960s, the unspoken boundary separating the elite and ignorant music fan began to disappear, obscured by the integration of classical forms into pop and popular forms into classical works. George Martin’s use of the string quartet in “Yesterday” changed rock’n’roll the same way Leonard Bernstein’s score for “Westside Story” influenced classical composition.
The birth of true rock criticism can be directly linked to the rise of the full-length album as the preferred medium of musical production in the mid to late ’60s. Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, The Beach Boys’s Pet Sounds and Leonard Cohen’s debut album combined innovative musical approaches with lyrics that drew more from poetic form than traditional song structure. Counterculture publications, most notably Rolling Stone, sprang forth to criticize and document rock music as a legitimate art form. The creative fertility of the 1960s can now be looked at as an anomaly, a then-renaissance for pop music that has yet to see an equal in the years that followed. But its principles for criticism still define the way in which our modern publications operate and approach aesthetics.
As a result of the Internet, modern criticism is at its most diffuse – any kid with a favorite band and a computer can publish his opinions to the rest of the world. I would argue that this isn’t true rock criticism at all, but the vague opinions of a select number of vain music fans. Blogs are filled with overtly subjective analyses, drawing from a shallow knowledge of music, but written in a way that implies authority. Blogs provide the modern consumer with the least amount of useful information. Posts that attempt to tackle the release of new music usually read like fan letters, heaping praise upon a band’s achievements without any true examination of the cultural context or musical significance of the record – far from the pantheon of great rock journalism.
The middle ground in the hierarchy of good music criticism can be found in the various popular print (Rolling Stone, Mojo) and Web-based (Pitchfork, Stylus, AMG) music magazines. Many of the writers who contribute to these various sources are students of popular music, whose intimate knowledge of the form and its history are evident in their thoughtful approaches to the critique of an album. Dominique Leone and Amanda Petrusich both write for the oft-maligned pitchforkmedia.com and their work is among the best of this new breed of online publication. The reviews they compose are precise in the musical reference points they mention and engaging in their vivid, emotional prose. The problems that come with being a popular publication are the inherent biases which creep into the reviewing process stemming from the influence a single reviewer may yield on an album’s sales figures. The grading systems employed by many of the popular media outlets do nothing but marginalize the overall quality of the criticism, lending an easy outlet for those who don’t care to read the actual written review. The condescending assignment of a number rating or letter grade to a piece of art completely undermines the temporal qualities of music. Some albums take months or years of listening to fully reveal their meanings and redeeming qualities, especially when the music is challenging (Song Cycle by Van Dyke Parks) or unassuming (Pink Moon by Nick Drake).
Niche publications like the now-defunct Arthur magazine or the U.K.-based Wire give readers criticism that is distilled and relatively pure in its analyses. The small readership of such publications allows writers to operate in an almost-vacuum in which public expectation is less of an influence and rating systems are nonexistent. In my opinion, Wire is the most impressive music magazine in today’s market and every element of its presentation reflects an obsessive devotion to music. The album reviews are short in length and direct, giving each artist a respectful critique without hyperbole.
So it’s ultimately the small-market publications that provide us with the best music criticism. They’re produced by specialists and don’t bend to the whims of popular society. These critics understand the importance of the album and approach each as a singular piece of art.