Music Features

The Sorry State of Music Criticism

This article is an exorcism. A demon has been seeping into my album reviews lately and it needs to be purged from my system. You see, in my quest to be an educated consumer as well as a part time critic and dilettante, I have a tendency to pour through the scads of reviews now available online through handy portals like Probably like you, I buy my own cds and don't enjoy being ripped off. Also, I don't hang out with hip, nerdy teenagers who reliably spend all their time and money on whatever is officially cool, so I'm not plugged in to any social conduit for music info - if you're out of college, you're pretty much on your own. My problem is, time and time again I find myself being given a bum steer by not one, but a gaggle of reviewers heaping praise on fairly mediocre product. This has brewed in me a latent resentment which has started bubbling up in my own work and I find myself lashing out at the critical community as well as the artists who, just because they haven't produced Exile on Main Street, don't really deserve ridicule. So I figured I'd better address the problem, which is this: what accounts for the ritual celebration of mediocrity?

At first blush the answer would seem to be obvious. Just buy a copy of Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly and everything crystallizes. There is a powerful commercial need for hype, hype to sell toothpaste or Hillary Duff or whatever. That's to be expected, but not really the issue. The problem is, it's the independent, non-corporate sites like this one that are the real culprits. What motivates a person, probably writing reviews in her limited spare time, and out of a sincere passion for music, to wax pseudo-eloquent on the new Panda Bear, to take one recent example? Don't get me wrong, it's a decent record, with nice melodies and a joyful spirit, but it's also completely inaccessible on an emotional level. If you to take the time to go through the reviews, slowly absorbing the critical consensus declaring Person Pitch to be a modern masterpiece, you'll be hard-pressed to find many comments on where Noah Lennox is coming from or what he's trying to communicate. That's because they don't know, and that's because Noah hasn't told us. And though we are free to impute our state of mind on whatever we are listening to, it's the job of the artist to reach out to us, not the other way around (they can't hear us, remember?). This is typical, and contrasts with a failure to recognize real emotion when it actually comes out and bites you on the ass. What else can explain some prominent sites inexplicably and unforgivably trashing Patti Smith's recent album, which contains, among other things, an absolutely gut-wrenching vocal on Gimme Shelter? The blood and sweat she drips onto the microphone is easily and categorically dismissed, probably in favor of some clicks and beeps from the latest dance/trance magnum opus.

So what accounts for this tendency for adolescent enthusiasm from apparently fully grown human beings? Perhaps it's a form of underdog advocacy, ie, my band/genre/niche of choice seems to be sadly neglected by the public/blogs/critics and so what if I let my crush get away from me? The unwitting archetype for this stance was probably Lester Bangs' famous declaration that the Shaggs were better than the Beatles. But what's missing from much of today's commentary is the good-natured irony Bangs was employing to call attention to a band he correctly thought was too easily written off. This explains the current infatuation with electronic dance music, which until recently was not taken seriously as an art form. Maybe in its infancy the genre was ignored and was unjustly stuck underground, but today scores of electronic albums are reviewed, reviewed favorably, or with increasing regularity, reviewed ecstatically. As I write this in May 2007 the most favorably reviewed album of the year by a wide margin is From Here We Go Sublime by The Field, an exemplary genre piece that is scientifically guaranteed to induce orgasm under proper lab conditions, but like the robotic sex with the anonymous stranger you will inevitably have in the club's hidden alcove or in the backseat of your car after grinding to this stuff for an hour on the dancefloor, it also leaves you a bit cold. That's because it's almost impossible to hear the living, breathing person behind it all. I'm sure the artist likes it that way and I'll be the first to admit that the music presses your buttons, but we need to ask ourselves what we really are responding to. I would argue that much of the impact derives from the novelty of the sound. All of this sounds new and exciting and there's certainly nothing wrong with that, but here's another area where critics seem to get carried away, in my opinion. They often are responding to the uniqueness of the sound and neglecting the overall lasting impact of what they are hearing. Aye, there's the rub. I'll add my own mea culpa here and admit that I got carried away with the novelty of TV on the Radio's latest and regretfully overrated it along with everyone else. Listening back now I can hear how the second half of that album drags, which I knew when I reviewed it but willfully ignored. The key question is where will all these wonderful albums be in 10 years? Why do we return again and again to Astral Weeks, Highway 61 Revisited, Revolver and London Calling? Sure, they all sounded unique and new and that set them apart, but that context is gone. In the end, it's Van Morrison chanting "wayuponwayuponwayupon" and the strings responding with their own repetitive phrase at the close of Cypress Ave. that seals the deal. I'm never going to get tired of hearing those artists work off each other to create something lasting and true. This is the real job of the art critic, amateur or otherwise, to find something beautiful enough to outlive context and circumstance and tell people about it.

What I think we all need is a little perspective. We constantly need to ask ourselves if the work will withstand the test of time and if so, why? Just because something is the best thing going, doesn't mean it's a timeless classic. I don't care what anybody says but most of the highly-praised bands from the 80's to the present don't hold a candle to the best bands of the 60s and 70s. The music hasn't gotten any better, and though maybe there are more bands doing good work today than ever before, few if any are scaling the heights reached by the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, or James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Randy Newman, Van Morrison or the Clash and Elvis Costello. Is anyone seriously going to put the Replacements, or Sonic Youth, or My Bloody Valentine in that kind of company? Please. So let us strive to step back and consider how posterity will judge our effusiveness before we christen the next experimental trip hop masterwork. The internet is democratic and ever burgeoning but just because you need to shout to be heard, doesn't mean you should. Even though virtually nobody is going to care a whit about our snarky 2 cents on the latest Frog Eyes album a decade from now, we should write as if they will, while avoiding playing the odds in the prescience sweepstakes in our rush to be ahead of the curve on the next big thing.