I think music criticism is pretty much total bullshit. If enjoying music is a subjective experience, who is qualified to say what’s good or bad? I might know more names or own more records, but I can’t tell you what to enjoy, only what does it for me. If you think Fall Out Boy is a five-star band, then why let some pretentious, wannabe-musician writer piss on your opinion? That’s why I’m not a music critic.
Writing about music can be beautiful, revelatory and touching, and there’s a lot of ways to go about a record review that make for an engaging and informing read. Robert Christgau did it by being as direct and to the point as possible, saying more with 50 words than most could with 500. Lester Bangs did it by writing about himself, and occasionally mentioning the music he was reviewing – but with a style that ran deeper than your average first-person wankfest. There are more, too, but unfortunately it seems the world of music criticism is (mostly) a bitter, nerdy boys’ club that turns out the same crap over and over again. There’s even a formula that goes something like band A sounds like band B plus band C and are influenced by hip reference X, Y and Z so that Band A fits nicely into whatever ridiculous sub-genre or scene is the flavor of the week.
Still, it’s not like music criticism doesn’t serve a certain purpose, it’s just a very narrow one. At their basest level record reviews act as a consumer guide. If a so-called critic can establish credibility, usually by being associated with a respected publication like Pitchfork or Rolling Stone, his voice becomes a part of the hype machine that exposes new artists, canonizes old ones and shreds anyone who can no longer be considered cool.
Critics want to think they have more power than they do, but the truth is critics don’t make their favorite musicians mega-stars. I don’t think a respected critic on Earth praised the last Black Eyed Peas albums, but didn’t slow down sales one bit. The only realm of the industry that critics have that much power over is the hipper, trendier demographic – the indie world, if you will. If Pitchfork trashes someone (like the time they gave Travis Morrison a 0.0) then that person can say goodbye to all but their loyalist fans. And on the other hand, a grade above 9.0 means Wazoo better order 40 more copies.
That system works because sometimes kids need someone to tell them what’s cool, and with so much indie-rock totally sucking, it can be tough to sort through for the diamonds. That doesn’t mean that critical consensus means you ought to like something, it just means that maybe you ought to check it out and decide for yourself. After all boys and girls, being into things just because they’re deemed cool is what makes you a hipster, and these days who wants to be labeled that?
Isn’t this hypocritical? I’ve expressed some pretty strong opinions about music in the Daily. I justify it by trying to make sure that most of them are positive. After all, why else would you want to write about music if you didn’t concern yourself primarily with music you love? Rarely is music enough of an assault on my sensibilities (Tally Hall, The Doors) for me to go out of my way to say something negative about them. So, bottom line, I’d hope that I turned people on to music that affects them as much as it does me.
So yeah, I’m a pretentious, wannabe-musician who writes about music in a critical manner, but don’t call me a music critic. Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs – those guys are music critics (Google them, trust me). I’m just a music appreciator.
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