By James Lanik
The phrase “dancing about architecture,” used to illustrate the absurdity of the idea of music criticism, has been attributed to many different people, from Frank Zappa to Thelonius Monk, but no one really knows who coined the idiom first.
Regardless, it is undoubtedly an artist’s expression. To one who has made music their life’s work, the brutality of criticism can often seem completely antithetical to stimulating musical ideas. Shouldn’t the creation of art be encouraged rather than attacked, as so many inflammatory publications have? Most musicians would tend to think so, it’s easy to take someone’s negative opinion about your last several years of hard work on a project personally, especially when many of these critics and newspapers can have a pivotal role in the success of one’s work.
Regardless, it was a much simpler task to make the case for critics in the 80s and 90s, when music and money were in limited supply, and owning CDs and the hardware to play them actually cost more than a ten dollar monthly subscription.
If an album of interest wasn’t getting airplay, the only way of really getting a sense of what the music was like was to pick up a copy of NME or Rolling Stone and delve into an archive of reviews of varying pretension. In this era, critics all too often were able to thrive on the perception of superior taste alone, which is why even many non-musicians often detest pompous pundits who made their living off of their jargon-filled rhetoric.
But there really isn’t any need to pay attention to these types of people anymore. Sure, sites known for their polarizing hot takes are still around, but publications like Pitchfork are no longer “The Most Trusted Voice In Music” like their web tagline still proudly claims. Much like the internet age did to music itself, criticism no longer needs to follow a singular cultural movement. Instead, everyone gets a seat at the table and is able to offer new perspectives on a piece of music that you may not have thought of.
Luckily for us, that’s exactly where journalism seems to be going. These days, when it would be quicker to press play than it would be to read a verbose dissertation on the new Friday releases, it’s safe to say the market for pretentious tastemakers has become a rather niche area.
Critics have to rely on their fresh and invigorating commentary they bring to the conversation that helps people think about a piece of music they’ve already heard in new ways, rather than gatekeeping the new trends. Of course they still exist, but they aren’t the ones in the spotlight. Just take a look at YouTube.
Independent music commentary channels like Anthony Fantano’s “TheNeedleDrop” have surged in popularity over the course of the 2010s, and for good reason. Commentators like Fantano have uniquely meme-able qualities that continue to drive their internet fame, but if they also weren’t able to drive the conversation forward with each review, it’s likely that they wouldn’t have millions of dedicated followers that look to them first for musical guidance.
Avid readers of music journalism (especially publications that consist of a single person’s opinion, like Fantano’s channel) often get criticized for having no opinion of their own and being a blind follower of those with perceived elevated levels of taste. But in putting all of these listeners in such a dismissive category, one can often fail to realize what drives most of these music fans to these channels: consistency.
The mark of an excellent critic is one who can clearly and concisely convey to their readers what themes and attributes of music they find most engaging, thus creating a benchmark for all of their future criticism. A mutual understanding of the tastes of the critic and their audience is key, and as a content creator builds their repertoire of writing, new readers have a continuously expanding base of knowledge of the critics’ likes and dislikes, and can then decide whether their tastes align with that of the reviewer. If the reviewer is consistent in their rubric, then it becomes easy to build a relationship of trust with that writer.
Take the case of film critic Armond White. White is one of the most notorious figures in film journalism for his predictably contrarian viewpoints on cinema. He has given famously negative reviews on critically-acclaimed movies such as Pulp Fiction, The Dark Knight and The Social Network, while simultaneously giving praise to flops like Jack and Jill, Transformers and Grown Ups.
His views on what makes a good movie are patently crazy to most people, and understandably so. However, for a long time, he remained remarkably steadfast in his approach to reviewing movies. And while it may be hard for movie-goers to agree with his indictments of many modern classics, his work is incredibly easy to understand when taken as a whole.
If you’re about to watch a movie that White thinks belongs in a dumpster, then it’s safe to say you’re in for a pretty great ride. Does that make him a bad critic, even when he wears his judging criteria on his sleeve? I don’t think it does. It’s not about liking things to be culturally superior to others, it’s about understanding.
As ubiquitous as music is today, only a minor fraction of daily music listeners pay much attention at all to music journalism. And that’s okay. Even as a writer myself, I’d often rather form my own opinions on an album than try to keep up with the latest reviews. But to dismiss the profession as a whole these days, as many seem to do, seems like a misunderstanding of the concept to me.
There are many people that do value the opinion of someone that makes it their life’s work to study music and the culture surrounding it, and there are more people making superb and non-pretentious material more than ever before.
Why read a decades old publication where you’re liable to get one person’s opinion out of dozens of different staff writers with no consistency in between, when you could support independent journalists that bring fresh and inspiring new dialogue?
Featured image by James Lanik.