In Defense of 21st-Century Music Criticism

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There’s been a lot of discussion online about an article the Daily Beast ran yesterday by Ted Gioia, wherein he laid into the state of music criticism in 2014: “Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.” Can he possibly be right? And is there really no middle ground in music criticism between technical analysis and lifestyle reporting?

I enjoy Gioia’s writing, and he’s certainly a rarity as far as critics in 2014 go, a writer who obviously has a deep understanding of the technical aspects of music and performance. (It’s no accident, I’m sure, that he writes about jazz a lot.) And I think he’s got a point, to an extent — there’s a whole lot of asinine, lightweight writing masquerading as criticism these days, much of it focusing more on the personality of the artist than the merit of the music in question. And, yes, it’s probably true that music is identified more with the personality of its practitioners than it used to be.

This is indicative of a fundamental shift in the way we approach music, for better or worse. I’d argue that you can trace this shift back to punk, and the repudiation of the idea that you had to be a good musician to make good music. This democratization of music was ultimately a good thing, I think, albeit not without its drawbacks. Perhaps the most pernicious of those was the idea that lack of skill was a virtue, rather than just something that shouldn’t be a limiting factor. This is a shame, and it explains why punk quickly became an artistic straightjacket. To put it rather pithily, the whole, “Here’s three chords, now form a band” idea never meant that those were the only three chords you should ever play.

With the democratization of music came the democratization of criticism. Gioia cites Lester Bangs, a man whose name will forever be identified with punk, as the writer who started the trend away from technical analysis, “manag[ing] to compensate with metaphor and bravado for what [he] lacked in technical knowledge.” This is spot on, and rather explains why I’ve never been a big fan of Bangs’ writing — it gets tiresome, basically. And yes, Bangs spawned a thousand inferior imitators, whose legacy you see today in first-person screeds that are more about their author than anything else; they’re the equivalent of punk bands who never got beyond wanting to sound like UK Subs.

But just like some great music and musicians came out of the process of punk liberating music from the clutches of prog types with double-necked guitars, so too did some great writers come out of the liberation of criticism from technical analysis. Writers like Jon Savage, Ellen Willis, and Greil Marcus were more interested in considering music in its sociopolitical context than they were in analyzing its song structures and what mode the guitar solo was in. This is an approach that suited the music that it was applied to — after all, rock from the late ’60s on was as often a political and social force as it was a musical one.

As ever, no good deed goes unpunished, and what’s happened to the music industry since has been a parallel of what’s happened to society as a whole. The individual liberation of the ’60s and ’70s devolved into the hyper-individualism of the Reagan/Thatcher ’80s, and the music industry worked out how to make bucketloads of cash out of what had once been a counterculture. Turning rebellion into money, as the Clash put it. This has happened across all aspects of our media, and Gioia makes interesting observations as to how media has become more individualist in general: “The lead-in for traffic is a cheery: ‘Now a look at your morning commute.’ Business news is introduced with a glib: ‘Here’s a look at your money.'” We see the legacy of the ’80s everywhere.

Still, despite all that, I’d still argue that the democratization of criticism is ultimately a positive development, because it allows for a plurality of perspectives. And in any case, the point of criticism is to evaluate the art in cultural context, not just on its technical merits. As Gioia acknowledges, there are plenty of musicians who are great technicians but uninspiring songwriters, and conversely, there have been many influential and inspiring musicians who haven’t been particularly proficient. Critics also have to think about their audience: if you start talking about how a song switches from 5/4 to 4/4, how many readers are gonna know what you’re talking about?

That’s not to say that audiences today don’t care about this stuff — just because they mightn’t be able to tell you that, say, “Hey Ya!” throws a bar of 2/4 into a repeating five-bar 4/4 passage, doesn’t mean they won’t recognize that there’s something cool and unusual about its beat. And similarly, just because they know that “Ms. Jackson” was about Erykah Badu, with all the sort of celeb lifestyle-spotting implications that involves, doesn’t mean that they won’t appreciate Outkast’s music for being innovative and dynamic and fascinating.

To evaluate a band’s music without looking at their image or politics or even, sometimes, their personal lives — especially if the band itself is making a point of emphasizing those things (or, for that matter, concealing them) — is only telling half the story. And the person best placed to tell the other half of the story might not be the one who can tell the phrygian from the lydian. This is not to justify the sort of asinine OMG-look-what-she’s-wearing!!1! stuff that turns up in the tabloids, because that’s also only telling half the story — or, more likely, substantially less.

But there are plenty of great writers out there today who strike a balance between the two. The thing is, they’re just as likely not writing for Billboard, or Rolling Stone, or any of the places where you might have expected to find serious criticism a generation ago — the “leading music periodicals,” as Gioia puts it in his piece. He quotes Billboard‘s former editorial director, Bill Werde, who complained shortly before quitting the magazine, “It’s a sign of the times that celebrity trumps actual culture,” and lamented that outlets refused to cover performances at the American Music Awards where nothing controversial happened.

I submit that if you’re looking at either Billboard or the AMAs for anything remotely culturally relevant, you’re looking in the wrong place. The sheer abundance of voices these days makes it hard to sort the good from the bad — but once you start the process, you find that there are still plenty of writers who are willing to look beyond lifestyle and provide serious, intelligent criticism.

Just off the top of my head: Nitsuh Abebe. Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz. About.com’s Anthony Carew. Luke Turner and pretty much everyone at the Quietus. Noisey’s Zachary Lipez and Ayesha Siddiqi. The musicians who write at The Talkhouse. The vaporwave grand wizards of Tiny Mix Tapes, and the boffins at Ad Hoc. One Week One Band and a host of younger writers on Tumblr. And, dare I say it, our own Jillian Mapes and Judy Berman.

And probably a load more who I haven’t heard of yet. All these people “pay close attention to the sounds,” as Gioia puts it, and all of them take the music seriously. They’re not just writing about esoteric indie music, either — I’ve expressed my suspicion of poptimism here before, but there’s no denying that a lot of today’s best music writers subscribe to its doctrine, and there’s plenty of serious analysis of the pop charts, both from a broad cultural viewpoint and from a seriously eggheaded one (for the latter, look no further than Tim Byron’s “Number Ones” column on Australian website TheVine, which is an endearingly earnest musicological examination of chart-toppers past and present).

The point is, as with pretty much every other aspect of culture these days, you have to dig through a thick crust of bullshit to get to the good stuff. But it’s there. Criticism isn’t dead — you just have to look in the right places.