Being a critic is a somewhat tenuous position. Day in and day out, I’m forced to find objective value in something that’s entirely subjective. And even though this seems impossibly trivial, people make these same judgments every time a new song hits the airwaves.
Deciding whether or not a song/album is good/bad has a significantly more important effect on the art world than you probably believe. What if Alan Lomax or W.C. Handy thought that the blues was a waste of time and nothing more than pointless noise? What if these songs – and moreover the genre as a whole, which traditionally is seen as the first real American music – were entirely overlooked? I’m not trying to imply that every time you think the new Ludacris song sucks it’s a monumental decision, but essentially, these daily value judgments are undeniably important and have some bearing. As such, critics hold a special place in popular culture.
All of this is not meant to imply that my opinion – as a critic – is any more valuable or relevant than one you might have. Unfortunately, though, whether or not readers harbor this sentiment toward Daily Arts, countless people bow to the critical grading of publications like Rolling Stone, XXL and Pitchfork Media. They swear by “Best New Music” labels and Robert Christgau’s five-star ratings.
But as someone who’s written alongside critics from Village Voice, Pitchfork, Slate and more alt-weeklies than you can shake a stick at, I know that, for every imported Konono No. 1 album we rave about, there’s a Temple of the Dog disc that gets adequate spins on its oh-so-pretentious turntables. We understand our importance – slight as it may be – in cultural debates, but none of us are entirely able to avoid how incredible “Sweet Escape” and “Mr. Brightside” actually are.
Some critics will try and tell you that anything on Billboard’s Top 40 is trash. And it’s this mindset that garners public cries of pretension. Walking around campus I’ll randomly come across people bashing Daily Arts’s review of the new Jack Johnson album, arguing that we hate all music that anyone has heard of. Some think that just because it’s released on a major label, all critics will hate it. These same people, however, don’t look at the actual credibility and quality of the record.
What these people are responding to are the few critics that actually believe that all mainstream music sucks. These critics are, unfortunately, living up to an ideal, one that’s been placed on the critical community, that very few actually fall in line with: Critics only enjoy the best of the best, and that anything mainstream is pop drivel that deserves little consideration.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a legitimate music critic that thinks FutureSex/LoveSounds is a bad album. Justin Timberlake is the epitome of a mainstream act, and yet countless critics rave about his perfect pitch melodies and incredible production. Those that find his latest effort complete trash are typically saying so because of a perverted dogma under which they were trained, making them a part of a tiny minority. And where in the past, many would find this mainstream worship a “guilty pleasure,” you will find very few who consider Timberlake and his associates’ releases “guilty pleasures.”
What many in the critical community have come to understand is that there is no such thing as a “guilty pleasure.” Sure, there are albums that will never be considered alongside the new Radiohead disc in contention for a Grammy, but that’s not to say you should feel guilty for enjoying it. You like what you like; it’s that simple. When I sing along to “Machine Head” in Ashley’s Underground, I feel no shame despite the three people staring at me.
And it’s in this regard that being a critic becomes so complicated: I’m forced to make an objective judgment on the new Jamie Lidell album whether or not I actually enjoy it. I’m supposed to break it down and look at production, lyrics, structure and melodies. And this, somehow, is supposed to help me determine whether or not it gets any one of 11 different star ratings.
There emerges, then, a schism between what is seen as objectively good and what is objectively bad. And yet all I can really tell you is whether or not I enjoy an album. Herein lies the contradiction. Since there is nothing I can say to change your opinion of an album, I’m ultimately just spewing hegemonic bullshit about my own delusions of grandeur. And yet every time you or I pass judgment on an album, it seems to have a lasting effect on the culture around us, whether through the prolonged career of the latest teen craze or just a few more tickets sold at the Backstreet Boys reunion tour.
So upon my departure from Daily Arts, I sentimentally reflect on all the music that I brutalized in print and all the hate mail I received because of it. But in the end, that’s all my words are actually worth. Because nothing you listen to will ever be something to be ashamed of, and I’ll never be able to convince you that it is.