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Critics justify their existence.
November 17, 2008 5:08 AM   Subscribe

Squarepusher takes on the Guardian's pop critics.
posted by minifigs (99 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Rock Critics: people who can't answer the question "so you think you could do better?" with a yes.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:22 AM on November 17, 2008


I'd like to see the John B. and Dave Tipper variations.
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:43 AM on November 17, 2008


All the critics you can hang 'em, Chuck D'll hold the rope.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:48 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Those critics got artists to talk to them. They achieved their goal
posted by srboisvert at 5:55 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


John Fordham: The fact that a review is a subjective assessment by the critic should be understood by the reader.

Years of reading Internet arguments on matters of taste have convinced me that such readers are the exception, not the rule.
posted by Prospero at 6:01 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Has meeting and talking to a composer ever changed your mind about his/her work?

AP: Not positively. Every artist I've met who I've reviewed badly has either been chippy and defensive or aggressive. There was no opportunity to have any kind of meaningful discussion about their work. I've met people whose music I liked and thought they were complete cocks, which you can't stop from having a negative effect on the way you think about their work.
Hmmm. Alexis, who is the common denominator in all these conversations? Hmm.
posted by device55 at 6:02 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Huh. I thought that both the questions and the answers were fairly thoughtful. Certainly didn't make me think that the critics were unfeeling or not self aware. Thanks for posting this.
posted by josher71 at 6:12 AM on November 17, 2008


Most people can't even read a non-fiction book and come away with an accurate portrayal of the facts therein. Now multiply that the extreme subjectivity of music and factor in the perfunctory listen and short deadlines.

This is why I don't even bother to read what critics think of music.
posted by DU at 6:14 AM on November 17, 2008


Josher71, I didn't find it particularly thoughtful. The following exchange for example (emphasis mine):
If you pan a piece of music, are you registering anything beyond your personal distaste? If so, what is it?

AP: Difficult question. Mostly it's about personal distaste. Occasionally, I've found myself pointing out what you might call inconsistencies in an artist's argument (see the last Primal Scream album).
What does that phrase "inconsistencies in artist's argument" even mean? How is an album of songs an argument? Music is an essay? Is "Abuse" down the hall?

That's one of those pseudo-intellectual non-premises that are dashed out by critics without any support.
posted by device55 at 6:28 AM on November 17, 2008


This is why I don't even bother to read what critics think of music.

Alright, but most music is bad, and most commercially successful music is bad. Without criticism, how do we find good music without spending much of our life sitting through bad music?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 6:39 AM on November 17, 2008


^
I read that comment, and even though I hadn't read the review or heard the album, I had a rough idea what the reviewer was going to say - it would be something to do with inconsistencies in Primal Scream's 'revolutionary' stance, a theme that's been a constant in their lyrics. (A second guess is that he might have been focused on the contradiction between PS being hailed as futuristic and innovative, and at the same time drawing so heavily and blatantly on rock history).

And here's the review:

"[Bobby Gillespie]has a tendency to address listeners as the lobotomised drones of the capitalist system. That sort of thing got a bit wearying coming from Crass, who were at least committed anarchists, squatting in an open house commune and apparently unable to play live without attracting unwanted police attention. Coming from Primal Scream, who are none of those things, but have been heard advertising everything from cars to clothes to Carphone Warehouse, it sounds, at best, pathetic."

Link.
posted by Infinite Jest at 6:41 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


(Should have previewed, I was responding to device55 not EMRJKC94).
posted by Infinite Jest at 6:42 AM on November 17, 2008


Oddly enough i've come around on music critics, but only as an afterthought to albums i digest for a good long time. It's become some sort of hobby of mine to go to metacritic at the end of the day, type in a few album titles i had been really impressed with and just see what the (pseudo?) intellectos thought on the matter.

Of course, i'm just trying to validate my own tastes, and somehow i always wander back to the 'critics are scum' side of the tracks eventually. But those few moments of consensus appeal make my inner loner less frightened of the world.

Also: i wholeheartedly approve of the Squarepusher takeover at Guardian... he's one of my favorite artists. Good show, gents.
posted by phylum sinter at 6:44 AM on November 17, 2008


Without criticism, how do we find good music without spending much of our life sitting through bad music?

Go by the cover art.
posted by Manhasset at 6:44 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hmmm. Alexis, who is the common denominator in all these conversations? Hmm.

Alexis wrote an article recently detailing his attempts to gain some kind of appreciation for jazz. It's the usual rock-fan-out-of-his-comfort-zone, but the following stood out for me:

The implication seems to be that you need to know your music theory to truly appreciate jazz - and if you need to know your music theory, I'm stuffed.

It's a shame that you can become a successful music critic without any knowledge of music theory.
posted by daveje at 6:54 AM on November 17, 2008


This post coincidently appeared just as I had received my neighbor's review of Squarepusher.

"Too loud."
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:55 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Alright, but most music is bad, and most commercially successful music is bad. Without criticism, how do we find good music without spending much of our life sitting through bad music?

I agree, the main things critics save people from now is time. With the internet, you can listen to massive amounts of music at no cost (even without illegal file sharing). The problem is that if you randomly listen to all music, even limiting yourself to a certain genre, you're bound to end up listening to a lot of stuff that isn't really your cup of tea. Listening to a few songs you don't like is not a big deal considering the real gems that can be found in my opinion though.

Back in the day, music reviews meant a lot more. The only way to preview a record was to listen to the radio (which only plays singles), find a friend who already bought it, etc. Even as late as the 90s, you could easily be duped into dropping your hard-earned money on a Nada Surf CD because you saw the video for Popular on MTV, and then be dissapointed that the rest of the songs on the album sound nothing like it and you should have bought a King Missile album instead.

A lot of critics try to justify their role as somehow being vangaurds of the artform, but really they only exist because people want to know about an album before dropping some cash on it.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:59 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Without criticism, how do we find good music without spending much of our life sitting through bad music?
Recommendations?

With music so easy to access these days I honestly don't get the point in "professional" music criticism. Why would I want to read a review of a shitty album? Just ignore it and point me at some stuff I might like.
posted by frenetic at 7:00 AM on November 17, 2008


What does that phrase "inconsistencies in artist's argument" even mean? How is an album of songs an argument? Music is an essay? Is "Abuse" down the hall?

This always got me with regard to Beethoven. My entire life I've heard people explaining that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony means this or that, that it's about this or that, and every time I hear it I want to know if they have a lyric sheet that I don't know about.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:07 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


The implication seems to be that you need to know your music theory to truly appreciate jazz - and if you need to know your music theory, I'm stuffed.

I'll concede that one doesn't need to be able to know how to build a house to judge whether a door is hung crookedly, but that quote hits bang on on why pop music critics are for the most part completely worthless, and why most of them, whether pro or am, retreat into facile wankery like "pointing out inconsistencies in an artist's arguments".
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:09 AM on November 17, 2008


I've got a couple of friends who have a running argument. He likes punk rock (as do I, of course) and she claims that her music degree enables her to evaluate music for quality. To say that punk rock is good, she claims, invalidates her degree.

It's bizarre to listen to them.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:20 AM on November 17, 2008


Thanks for the background, IJ.

I don't know Primal Scream's work, so I couldn't argue whether the criticism is valid or not.

That particular bit of crit sounds like he's really saying "these guys are not authentic" which is a whole 'nother kettle of canned worms. (if the experience of the music and lyrics is 'real' enough to the listener, does it matter what the musician drives to work? if so why?).

If he's arguing that when an artist expresses a point of view they must live that point of view 100% for it to be valid, I would argue he's being silly. They are performers. You don't think Steven Tyler dresses like that around the house do you?* It's called a "stage act".

* well he probably does
posted by device55 at 7:33 AM on November 17, 2008


Also daveje, he's overlooking the stupidly obvious.

Jazz was popular music for a the better part of the 20th century.

All those fans who went to the Blue Note to jump, jive, and wail were probably not music theory minors.
posted by device55 at 7:37 AM on November 17, 2008


... like dancing about architecture.
posted by Xere at 7:43 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


> If he's arguing that when an artist expresses a point of view they must live that point of view 100% for it to be valid, I would argue he's being silly. They are performers. You don't think Steven Tyler dresses like that around the house do you?* It's called a "stage act".

That's the dilemma, isn't it? If Primal Scream's putting on a show, are they tweaking their audience for their incessant crave for authenticity and getting away with it, or are they crassly (heh) exploiting that desire for something intrinsically moving by disavowing the capitalist associations that, off-stage, helps the band thrive?

Not particularly intellectual questions, but if authenticity is going to be considered seriously, either as relevant or irrelevant to current pop, follow those lines of thought somewhere and see if you find something interesting.
posted by ardgedee at 8:01 AM on November 17, 2008


Squarepusher would be a fucking genius if he'd get his just sit down for five minutes and work on his ideas rather than rushing them out and zooming off to the next thing. That is my review of everything by Squarepusher ever.
posted by Artw at 8:12 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've been watching this thread and waiting for certain arguments to pop out or to be referenced and I haven't had to wait too long. As someone who makes music as a profession and who occasionally writes about music there are a few things that annoy me when it comes to music criticism. Firstly this phrase:

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture"

No, no it isn't. Since time immemorial people have been trying to put into words what music, the most abstract of arts but yet in many ways the most fundamental to human existence, says or makes one feel etc. It actually strikes me that talking about music is almost as natural as listening to music itself so there's nothing inherently wrong about wanting to write about it.

This is the second:

"To say that punk rock is good, she claims, invalidates her degree."

I've heard this so many times from people with music degrees. Hell, I know I said it myself when I was an undergrad (it probably didn't help that I was really into metal as a teenager...) but it is bollocks. Complete and utter bollocks. If one can't treat music on its own terms then one shouldn't bother to deal with it at all. Of course punk looks amateurish compared to Beethoven, but then Beethoven can't do any of the things that punk does. Apples and oranges. The thing about music is that you don't have to be trained to perform it, to enjoy it or to have an opinion about it. Sometimes that annoys us music folk who have gone through eons of training, but that's just the nature of the beast. I'd rather have to deal with someone telling me at a party that classical music is boring (this being based on them hearing the Pachabel Cannon once at a wedding) than to actually have to have a proper job.

Having said all of that, I'll get back to the theme of the thread: I still don't like critics.
posted by ob at 8:15 AM on November 17, 2008 [6 favorites]


Um, have you heard his drum programming? I wouldn't consider any of it a rush job.
posted by naju at 8:16 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


The scenarios you describe are the same, except the second one includes "exploiting" - "giving the fans what they want" and "laughing all the way to the bank" are the same thing.

You could throw in a third point of view. Maybe they mostly believe in what they're saying, but realize that a hardline view is impractical in the real world. Maybe they believe that by talking about their subject in evocative, extreme terms helps raise consciousness of their fans and casual listeners, and if they get paid handsomely for it, that enables them to continue raising that consciousness.

Or maybe not.

All of these assume the intention of the artist, who is paid to put on a show. So even in a "candid and frank" interview could you ever really discern how 'authentic' they were being? How would you know? (short of interrogating everyone who ever knew the artists. and that's just weird.)

Artistic 'authenticity' is an angels-on-pin-heads argument.
posted by device55 at 8:16 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's a shame that you can become a successful music critic without any knowledge of music theory.

I've noticed that most of them seem to be well versed in literary criticism, though. Most reviews these days (hello pitchfork) seem to be excuses for lit crit dorks to show their dicks to each other in analyzing lyrics, psychiatric diagnoses of lead singers, etc.

Anyway, my opinion of rock critics was formulated as a music director for our college radio station. One of my jobs was to run a weekly review of all new music that had come in. It was my job to give a one to two line summary of what the album was about, and then 10 to 15 people would fight over who got to take it home and write a four or five paragraph review to get stickered on the front of the album for our djs. Several things came out of that:

1. I could pretty much give only 10 to 15 seconds of time to one side of every album or maybe the first 6 songs of a CD. How much time can a critic really give to picking the albums they are going to review and then actually listening enough to let it make a real impression?

2. The fights that would ensue over the subsequent reviews that got stickered on albums were monumental. "That doesn't sound like the Mekons, dude..what are you retarded? It sounds like Yo La Tengo crossed with [insert obscure old blues dude no one has ever heard of] plus Captain Beefheart". "No fuck you it sounds like Derrida playing John Cage's piano at Thurston Moore's house!". This isn't criticism, this is dick waving.

3. Anything that had any whiff of mainstream or non-total obscurity or pop overtones was immediately scorned, reviled and spat upon and god help anyone who maybe thought it would be a nice album to bop around the house cleaning to. Again, this isn't love of music, this is a contest.

That to me is the mind set most critics come from so I give their opinions pretty short shrift.
posted by spicynuts at 8:21 AM on November 17, 2008


Dancing as architecture

(not really, but it's funny)
posted by device55 at 8:23 AM on November 17, 2008


naju - It’s intricate, but it goes off in so many directions that after a while all the variety just sounds like a samey hectic mess. Not every track needs to be hyper-speed drum and bass that ends with snare drums running into each to other so they end up sounding like a big rippling fart.

When he’s reigned it in a little he’s created some great music. But never a whole album of it, and not usually whole tracks worth of it.
posted by Artw at 8:27 AM on November 17, 2008


I like it when people argue that you need advanced degrees to understand avant-garde and free jazz. I was enjoying that stuff when I was in high school and had no more musical experience than one gets playing in a marching band.
posted by ardgedee at 8:32 AM on November 17, 2008


ahh..now that i've read the article, here is exactly what i meant:

eg me circa 1986, unable to tell whether NME's review of Run DMC's Raising Hell essentially said "buy it", because the reviewer wanted to show off his knowledge of Marx's theory of commodity fetishism
posted by spicynuts at 8:33 AM on November 17, 2008


most commercially successful music is bad.

Yeah, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Motown, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley, bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Nirvana, Cream, ...rubbish, all of it.
posted by jonmc at 8:41 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Steven Wells on why serious music journalism is shit.

I miss Wells. Before unsuccesfully googling something he wrote about how journalists actually work and finding that the last thing I read by him was a review of cancer.
posted by Artw at 8:45 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


I will add that even though I spend a lot of time writing about music, most of today's music writing is utter tripe written by people who don't even seem to like music much.
posted by jonmc at 8:50 AM on November 17, 2008


Ah, the search for "more good music" - it all depends on what is good for you. Are you looking for something that moves you? Something that demands your full attention? Or simply pleasing to the ear?

In short, some works take a while to appreciate, or even understand. Others are visible from the first few notes. A good reviewer should be able to listen to a full album a few times, and take all of that into consideration for you, giving you an idea of what you're getting into if you do buy the album. But because everyone starts from their own set of ideals, you might find a reviewer or two who you agree with on the most part. Of course, that reviewer could be your friend or neighbor, and then you can avoid the prattling on when you understand their point.

I was a college radio music director for a year - one of the two "taste masters" for a large chunk of our little station. Our duty was to sift through the ~200 CDs (and odd bits of vinyl) we received each week and choose the best for the station. We had to try and set aside personal preferences, because neither of us would like everything we picked each week. We heard a LOT of crap in the span of a year, and towards the end, we personally liked more chaotic noise, after hearing so much sound-alike indie rock (that was the main bent of the station, after years of various DJs shifting the sound this way and that). The one drawback to being full-time students while being full-time music directors is that we could never give any one item a full listen, because there was so much to get through.

We based the majority of our selections on a brief listen of the music, and I'd imagine most people do, too. We also had preconceived notions based on the promoters, labels, artists' past work, and the case artwork. Sometimes we were surprised that something that was pointing towards utter shiite ended up being fantastic, but I'm sure we also missed a few gems because the first 3 tracks all started poorly.

Re: Squarepusher - see Iambic 5 Poetry for sheer beauty. If you're into more chaotic stuff, you might already like him.

On preview: I've always thought Pitchfork was staffed by ex-college DJs, but that's probably because the reviews just sound like stuff that would come from the more pretentious kids at my station.

And reviewers don't need to have a music theory background, but it could help to understand and digest the path an album took - "Clearly, this is influenced by that old blues guy, a bit of Dylan's later years, and some dark moments of Sly and the Family Stone" But if you can't write, your ideas don't come across.

I think avant garde and free jazz stuff takes more focus to listen to, or some musical background. It seems much like the perceptual insight, where some understanding of the "rules" (or lack of rules) helps to hear the music in the chaos. That, or you were just a weird kid.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:50 AM on November 17, 2008


Without criticism, how do we find good music without spending much of our life sitting through bad music?

That's what friends are for. They just play the tunes for you and let you make the decision.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:51 AM on November 17, 2008


It's a shame that you can become a successful music critic without any knowledge of music theory.

No, it isn't, unless the audience they are writing for has a deep interest in music theory. You could make the same argument for music critics having a deep knowledge of production techniques (I'd say that's a better argument these days, but still invalid). That sort of knowledge is as likely to produce boring, missing-the-point reviews as it is going to provide the occasional nugget of useful info.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:52 AM on November 17, 2008


Jon, how do those guys represent "most" of what came out during that era? Check the billboard charts for 1991, and then look at Led Zepplins career earnings and list of #1 Hits. These are minor exceptions to the rule.

The problem with that sentence is the "commercially sucessful" bit. Most music (as has been pointed out upthread) is shite. So, then, are most reviews, but this is a good thing because it means reviews are an art, and I and my fellow Christgau and Meltzer wannabes can struggle on trying to expand people's understanding of their own taste and capture a little of the "why" in musical experience.

Another point: ardgedee: It's not that one has to have a technical understanding of music in order to appreciate it, but if one is going to write about one should really understand how it works, don't you think?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:55 AM on November 17, 2008


Bookhouse: I totally disagree in every possible way. I think most music critics who understand music theory (at least as much as the musicians that they are covering mind you!) produce thoughtful and coherent writing a lot more often than those who have the right record collections and that's their only qualification. Of course the only real qualification one needs is to be a good writer, but I'm often talking to young critics I work with who don't even know what a bar chord is, or 3/4 time...I tell them they don't have to have a degree, just a basic understanding of how noise becomes song and what a band is doing up there with the strings and such.

If they put just a fraction of the effort into that study that they do into trolling blogs to determine what the next big thing is they should be fine.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:00 AM on November 17, 2008


Potomac Avenue: my point is that the artists I mentioned were wildly popular and artistically brilliant. It's the whole "people actually like this? then it sucks." attitude that bugs me. I'm as big a music geek as anyone here (albeit in different diretions than many), but I am also an unabashed fan of the art of the hit single. Liking Captain Beefheart and Einsturzede Neubauten does not preclude digging "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes" or Night Ranger. It's all music and it's all good.
posted by jonmc at 9:02 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


> It's not that one has to have a technical understanding of music in order to appreciate it, but if one is going to write about one should really understand how it works, don't you think?

I agree completely and cut short a comment I was writing to that effect. I should have said that the expectation of needing advanced degrees (well, an advanced education of any kind) to appreciate difficult music is silly.

The ability to articulate why somebody likes something is a skill worth developing, but the ability to appreciate something regardless of how well they can explain why is the real sign of an open mind.
posted by ardgedee at 9:03 AM on November 17, 2008


Personally I look to music journalist to indicate whether or not I’ll like something, and be entertaining about it. So obviously anyone with a degree in music theory is useless to me on both counts.
posted by Artw at 9:07 AM on November 17, 2008


If they put just a fraction of the effort into that study that they do into trolling blogs to determine what the next big thing is

I sock 'em everywhere that I sing
coz you know baby
I'm the NEXT BIG THING!
posted by jonmc at 9:09 AM on November 17, 2008


You know what I wish more music critics would write about? Music they like. Is that too much to ask?
posted by symbollocks at 9:10 AM on November 17, 2008


[this is good]

Especially this.
posted by Freen at 9:13 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


You know what I wish more music critics would write about? Music they like.

*cough* [self-link]
posted by jonmc at 9:13 AM on November 17, 2008


Yeah, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Motown, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley, bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Nirvana, Cream, ...rubbish, all of it.

You're like one of those people who thinks that pop radio in the 60's and 70's sounds like AOR stations now.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:14 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wish Aphex Twin would stop fucking about and do proper music again.
posted by Artw at 9:14 AM on November 17, 2008


You're like one of those people who thinks that pop radio in the 60's and 70's sounds like AOR stations now.

Heh. Or people who talk about the 80s as if it wasn't the worst decade for music ever, just because of a few notable exceptions.
posted by Artw at 9:16 AM on November 17, 2008


As someone with a PhD devoted to the philosophy of music, I think this gives me genuine authority to comment on the nature and purpose of music in the same way as a medical doctor has authority to comment on my health. But I would never argue that somehow you weren't entitled to enjoy a piece of music. Mostly I prefer to live and let live. What annoys me sometimes is when people impressed by the subjective nature of art appreciation start making stupid statements like 'the Spice Girls are better than Beethoven'. Naturally in every case where someone makes this kind of argument, they don't really believe that the Spice Girls are better. They just think that potentially someone could validly say that, and that I wouldn't be justified in calling them an idiot.

Now, I would hope that anyone who was a genuine expert in music would know enough to situate their criticism within the performance context, the musician's intentions etc. So obviously, obviously, if your desire as a listener was for some music to dance to in a club, then of course the Spice Girls are going to suit this role better. But we must consider a case where all things are equal as much as possible, e.g. someone just listening to it for no other purpose than just to listen to it. In this case, if someone were to tell me that the Spice Girls were better (overall, or for any given work) than Beethoven, I would just say that they are wrong. They have totally failed to appreciate the passion, complexity etc. that has made people consistently appreciate Beethoven's works some 200 years later, whilst the Spice Girls have pretty much disappeared from view within 10 years. If I had the time, I would hopefully try to get them hear what I mean. This is not about claiming that classical is better than jazz or rock or whatever. It's not about making detailed lists. Those are just uninteresting questions. It's about appreciating how music manages to generate, capture and reflect upon life experience, and realising that in general, some works are unequivocally better at doing this than others.

And so it really is possible for someone to be ignorant of the possibilities of music, the various forms that it has taken over the centuries and different cultures, the range of expressive qualities that it can achieve. There are many listeners who are insensitive to the cliches or the fakeness of attitude expressed. They literally cannot hear the details that other, more experienced, and more sensitive listeners can hear. These people are ignorant, and we should not trust their judgment regarding the quality of music. Meanwhile, there really are experts in music, and the ability of these experts to make us sensitive to the nuances of a work, to provide additional reflections upon its context and meaning, genuinely enhance our experience of both the music and life in general.

These Guardian critics don't sound much like those kinds of experts however.
posted by leibniz at 9:21 AM on November 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


You're like one of those people who thinks that pop radio in the 60's and 70's sounds like AOR stations now.

and you're like those people who bitch about amorphous 'those people' who exist only in his own mind.
posted by jonmc at 9:21 AM on November 17, 2008


Three things:

1. The minute a critic can say that he can do better, he ceases being a critic and starts being a competitor. Then he has a dog in the fight and, loses some of his credibility, in my book.

2. A competent critic can let you know what to expect: See Petridis on Beyonce. A really great critic can illuminate a piece of work, and generally add to the sum of human happiness: see Lester Bangs on Astral Weeks.

3. Why all the critic hate? What do you think we're doing around here all the time?
posted by tiny crocodile at 9:23 AM on November 17, 2008


The minute a critic can say that he can do better, he ceases being a critic and starts being a competitor. Then he has a dog in the fight and, loses some of his credibility, in my book.

and

Why all the critic hate? What do you think we're doing around here all the time?

...may not be entirely seperate points.
posted by Artw at 9:28 AM on November 17, 2008


Some of the attacks on music criticism here, I tend to think, belong to a subset of a more general criticism of mass-media journalism that you encounter from time to time as a professional journalist. Some people honestly seem to believe that there's something scandalous about a rock critic writing about music with no knowledge of music theory, or for me to write a profile of a scientist despite having no graduate degree in science, etcetera. But the core skill of a newspaper feature writer/columnist etc -- it's a little different for hard news reporters -- lies in being able to communicate, in an engaging and chatty and readable and possibly humorous way, from the perspective of a non-specialist. Believe me, I've read freelance pitches in which university music experts attempt to write newspaper articles about music. Usually, they can't.

The problem is that almost everybody thinks they can write in this engaging, informal style. For evidence that this is not the case, please see 99% of the blogosphere.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:40 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


jonmc, perhaps you misunderstood. I'm not saying that the more successful music is, the worse it is. I'm saying that if you spend your days listening to the Billboard Hot 100, at least half of what you hear is bland, derivative, boring. This truth I hold to be self-evident.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:41 AM on November 17, 2008


It alarms me slightly how apt this pictures for sad children strip is.
posted by heeeraldo at 9:43 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm saying that if you spend your days listening to the Billboard Hot 100,

Depends on when. These days, sure. In the mid-sixties, not so much.
posted by jonmc at 9:43 AM on November 17, 2008


I totally disagree in every possible way. I think most music critics who understand music theory (at least as much as the musicians that they are covering mind you!) produce thoughtful and coherent writing a lot more often than those who have the right record collections and that's their only qualification.

Yeah, I guess we just disagree about this. I've seen far too many articles in which one music theory nerd interviews another with no thought given to the reader. I'd argue music history (ie "the right record collection") is far more valuable an asset to a critic. After all, the reader is more likely to have heard other music than they are likely to have a working knowledge of music theory. A little bit of theory used to illuminate a point is fine, but plenty of critics get by without it.

On preview: game warden says it well
posted by Bookhouse at 9:44 AM on November 17, 2008


Artw: I miss Wells. Before unsuccesfully googling something he wrote about how journalists actually work and finding that the last thing I read by him was a review of cancer.

I was expecting something more like this:

Pancreatic 6/10

Lesser known than the justly celebrated lung and colon varieties, this cheeky little cancer can still surprise with astonishing amounts of pain, and the occasional explosive ejection of bodily fluids. Has been shunning the spotlight for a number of years, but the 21st century may well prove to be its finest hour. A quirky, evocative disease, showing moments of real complexity and maturity. One to watch for...

... which if written by a critic dying of cancer, would be awesome.
posted by leibniz at 9:46 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


A little bit of theory used to illuminate a point is fine, but plenty of critics get by without it.

For me the point is less that the theory will actually be useful, and more that if you dedicate your life's work to a field, you should at least get some X For Dummies level knowledge about the theory behind it.

I spend my days writing code, and I use very little of my Computer Science theory that I spent so much time writing proofs about in college. But at the same time, I feel like knowing how a computer works, from the hardware level up, as well as the history behind the different achievements that have been made in the field over the years, helps me put things into perspective. Even if I never used any of the theory, it's nice to work with something I have deep and well-rounded knowledge about rather than some mysterious contraption.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:54 AM on November 17, 2008


I spend my days writing code, and I use very little of my Computer Science theory that I spent so much time writing proofs about in college. But at the same time, I feel like knowing how a computer works, from the hardware level up, as well as the history behind the different achievements that have been made in the field over the years, helps me put things into perspective.

Not the greatest analogy. Music writing is like food writing as far as I'm concerned, and while I can't cook at all, I know what I think tastes good. So all you need to write about music is ears, really.
posted by jonmc at 9:59 AM on November 17, 2008


Bookhouse: Sounds like we mostly agree actually didn't mean to jump down your tonsils. Critics are writers primarily, not scientists. As long as the music history doesn't become needless name-dropping.

Jonmc: What's wrong, got something in your throat?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:01 AM on November 17, 2008


Jonmc: What's wrong, got something in your throat?

No. Do you?
posted by jonmc at 10:07 AM on November 17, 2008


Of course punk looks amateurish compared to Beethoven, but then Beethoven can't do any of the things that punk does.

You can always scream "Rock over London, Rock on Chicago!" after finishing a sonata.
posted by kid ichorous at 10:22 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Not the greatest analogy. Music writing is like food writing as far as I'm concerned, and while I can't cook at all, I know what I think tastes good. So all you need to write about music is ears, really.

I see where you're coming from, but if I was a food critic I would probably get some Alton Brown-style knowledge about how food works on a fundamental level and what sorts of changes the culinary arts have experienced over time. To me it makes sense to research anything I'm closely involved with to death, to less nerdy people that probably makes less sense.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:26 AM on November 17, 2008


if I was a food critic I would probably get some Alton Brown-style knowledge about how food works on a fundamental level and what sorts of changes the culinary arts have experienced over time.

Nah. I'd just keep eating so I'd have a wider range of things to compare what I'm writing about to. I'd leave cooking to the cooks. And music criticism written by musicians is always going to be sauced with a dollop of sour grapes.
posted by jonmc at 10:32 AM on November 17, 2008


Even worse, many musicians have no knowledge of music theory.
posted by Artw at 10:35 AM on November 17, 2008


What does that phrase "inconsistencies in artist's argument" even mean? How is an album of songs an argument?

Even setting lyrics aside, if a musician puts together a bunch of songs and releases an album, it is an argument, an aesthetic one. I mean, I'm sure you can find some experimental/avant-garde wacko exceptions where the musician is purposely trying to make songs that they think sound awful, but generally the musician is saying "these songs sound good." That's the argument.
posted by juv3nal at 10:46 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Even setting lyrics aside

The other day, I was talking music with a younger guy I know and he said that he hated "Cat Scratch Fever" because it had 'stupid lyrics.' This is a bit like going to a barbecue restaurant and complaining about the coleslaw.
posted by jonmc at 10:54 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


"... like dancing about architecture."

This is always thrown around like you couldn't dedicate a perfectly nice dance to a building that someone designed and expect that there was any potential whatsoever to convey a subjective opinion therein.

That being said, the only types of review I find helpful are the, "If you like this then you'll like that" type of review.
posted by jon_kill at 10:56 AM on November 17, 2008


holy crap. brightest young things and a nanowrimo tag—Heyneman?
posted by felix grundy at 11:22 AM on November 17, 2008


Caveat emptor: I am a music theorist as well as a songwriter/rock musician/electronic composer, so I am COMPLETELY biased. (Thanks to post-modernism for that blindingly irritating intro.)

Although there are critics who do a perfectly adequately job of entertaining us with their witticisms regarding (mostly) popular music, there are deeper relationships in great music that someone without an adequate knowledge of music theory can never expose. This example immediately springs to mind (because I taught this in a music theory for non-majors class this morning):

In the epically beautiful song "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen, the first verse actually tells you about the harmonic content of the song, though he uses the terms a bit clumsily. (That doesn't affect the awesomeness of the content, though.) "It goes like this: the 4th (IV chord), the 5th (V chord), the minor fall (minor triad) and the major lift (major triad)..."

When he sings "major lift," the melody changes the chord from the major IV chord to a minor ii7 chord in first inversion. So, Cohen has bolstered the paradox inherent in the song with a clever trick.

Do you need to understand this in order to get the song? No. Does it make for entertaining and witty writing? Probably not. But if a person picks up on things like this, it's a lot easier to elucidate what makes a song suck or rock in terms of the musical structure itself, instead of relying on metaphors and cross-domain mapping for everything. (See the link to the Pictures for Sad Children comic above.)
posted by nosila at 11:33 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Pretty cool idea, letting an artist guest edit. I wish we saw this more. But, I suspect most musicians are particularly apt at it, any more than most writers/editors would be good at a tune. It's interesting to me how musicians always get interviewed as if they're bound to say something insightful or meaningful-- in reality, they're often inarticulate or dull, but that's cos they speak through their music! It's a different talent then pure conversation or writing. Not to say there aren't many hip hop artists / songwriters / djs who do have abilities in both realms (dj /rupture, dylan, even lil' wayne's blog for espn was pretty decent) but I tend to assume not unless demonstrated otherwise.

Anyway, I enjoyed it, thanks for posting.
posted by jcruelty at 12:23 PM on November 17, 2008


s/are/aren't
posted by jcruelty at 12:24 PM on November 17, 2008


"I totally disagree in every possible way. I think most music critics who understand music theory (at least as much as the musicians that they are covering mind you!) produce thoughtful and coherent writing a lot more often than those who have the right record collections and that's their only qualification. Of course the only real qualification one needs is to be a good writer, but I'm often talking to young critics I work with who don't even know what a bar chord is, or 3/4 time...I tell them they don't have to have a degree, just a basic understanding of how noise becomes song and what a band is doing up there with the strings and such."

Look, I've worked as a music critic, and maybe will again (God, I dunno, I mailed him the clips like, Wednesday and still haven't heard back! It's nerve-racking!) and what I'd say to this is as follows:

First, I'd mention that not every critic approaches their texts the same way, and one approach isn't necessarily more valuable than another (though I'd argue that it's somewhat like matching media and technique to communicating ideas—similar, in fact, to the way that both The Archies and Beethoven can write about love, but the difference in technique is related to their aims and audience). But, that caveat given, the way that I usually think about it is that there are two main skills of a (music) critic: listening and articulating. Both skills can be enhanced by a knowledge of music theory or production; learning what to listen for so that you can describe it is helpful, just as having a common language to communicate in aids readers. Wire's Pink Flag is full of staccatos. Betty Davis's funk is usually syncopated.

But does that mean that formal music theory knowledge is necessary? No, not really. It just can make things easier, especially when trying to talk about music. I can hear the intricate patterns involved in a late-period Coltrane piece, but I'm often at a loss when I try to describe them both accurately and evocatively. If I had a better grounding in the formal language of jazz, I could probably do a better job of writing about jazz.

On the other hand, extensive music theory knowledge doesn't guarantee that your writing will be compelling or even that it will have anything to say about why anyone should listen to the music (or not). That a band relies on diminished fifths doesn't necessarily predict what kind of songs they'll make from those chords. And certainly, there's a lot that can be written about Sonic Youth without trying to articulate their alternate tunings—those tunings are in the service of a sound that they want, and if a writer can talk about that sound, that's more valuable (especially for a general audience) than simply entreating the reader to imagine the dish based upon the recipe.
posted by klangklangston at 12:33 PM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Psst, Artw, Leibniz. Steven Wells appears to be alive and working: here he writing is in the Guardian on High School Musical 3.
posted by tiny crocodile at 12:50 PM on November 17, 2008


Sorry if I gave the impression I thought he was dead or anything, he’s just not been a regular presence in my reading life of late, mostly because he went of to be a sports columnist for a bit (which sounds worse than death to me, but which is easier to recover from)

“As you may know, the release of High School Musical 3 in the US prompted a number of viciously negative reviews from critics. Apparently these reviewers were shocked and sickened that the film didn't focus more on the grim reality of being a boring indie kid.”

Heh. He’s still got it.
posted by Artw at 1:18 PM on November 17, 2008


Artw: that's an amazing quote.
posted by nosila at 1:22 PM on November 17, 2008


Wow, American interpretations of English culture are really fucked up.
posted by Artw at 1:22 PM on November 17, 2008


That sort of thing is par for the course at the Khyber. Shudder.
posted by nosila at 1:27 PM on November 17, 2008


> American interpretations of English culture are really fucked up.

Are you kidding? That's hilarious. I mean, that's fantastic. It's proof that you can pretty nearly nail any two musical tribes together and find a way to make them stay stuck.
posted by ardgedee at 1:46 PM on November 17, 2008


Wow, American interpretations of English culture are really fucked up.

I read that whole thing and I have no idea what it's about. Is it because I'm English? Can someone explain it to me?
posted by ob at 2:12 PM on November 17, 2008


Caveat: I do know who Raffles the Gentleman Thug is, and admire his lexicon.
posted by ob at 2:13 PM on November 17, 2008


I think it’s on the kind of the enthusiastic but underinformed and hugely distorted cultural appropriation that leads westerners to get tattoos that says “fishpaste – 2.99” in Japanese, only instead of it being some far off mysterious foreign types who deserve it they are aping OUR near past. I’m not sure I care for being on the wrong end of this sort of thing – at leats when they thought we all wore tophats and watched Benny Hill it didn’t involve Belle and bloody Sebastian.
posted by Artw at 2:28 PM on November 17, 2008


a friend of mine sent me this pic as his review of squarepusher's new album. he meant it in a good way.
posted by shmegegge at 2:28 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Cheers, device55. I would agree that his original quote wasn't too clear (possibly the fault of subeditors?) and they could have made it easy by linking to the review. But to people familiar with the band, I'd say it was a fairly clear comment.

Whether he's right or not is another question; I'd say that if you're marketing yourself on some kind of authenticity angle, you should be expected to follow through on it. If you're Steve Tyler, everyone knows you're just having fun; people presumably realise that the Steve Tyler on stage is, in part, a character.
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:36 PM on November 17, 2008


Thanks Artw, I sort of get it now. It's reminds me of when well-meaning Yanks say to me:
"The cops... you call them Bobbies don't you?"
to which I want to reply:
"Yes, and every single one of my chimney-sweep children has rickets."
posted by ob at 2:52 PM on November 17, 2008


Wow, American interpretations of English culture are really fucked up.

Assuming Swells didn't invent the whole thing. Which I'd say is at least a 30% probability.
posted by Infinite Jest at 3:06 PM on November 17, 2008


ob - That's pretty much it, except in this case they'd be dressing up as chimney-sweeps and doing the rickets dance.

Infinite Jest - Horribly the links in the comments seem to suggest overwise.
posted by Artw at 3:08 PM on November 17, 2008


Alright, but most music is bad

This is one theory. I'm not at all sure it's a good one.
posted by Casuistry at 3:46 PM on November 17, 2008


It's a shame that you can become a successful music critic without any knowledge of music theory.

Uh, why?

A lot of musicians don't know anything about music theory.

And even if you did have to know music theory in order to make music, it still doesn't follow that you have to know music theory in order to review music. The job of the critic is not to perform a technical, musicological analysis on the work in question; his job is to interpret it from the perspective of an informed audience member, so other people can decide whether the CD is worth their attention. Theory is just a means to an end; the listener is primarily concerned with the end product. You might as well bitch that art critics don't know anything about paint chemistry.

When a friend with similar musical interests recommends an album to me, I don't ask him what time signature or what key the tracks are in.
posted by greenie2600 at 5:02 PM on November 17, 2008


Greenie, I'm not talking about like, serious years of theories and degrees, I mean like "why are the 1, 4, 5s called that" or "What does a distortion pedal do?" or the difference between an analog keyboard and a digital one. Of course you don't need that if you're writing short pithy "thissoundlikethat" reviews like the ones in the AV Club or something. But to write a feature, do an interview, or write a somewhat meaningful extended album review, (or god forbid, a book) you're just being lazy if you don't try to figure out what the heck it is you are talking about.

You don't need to talk about highfalutin theories in a review. But it's there like the fundamental drawing skills behind all really good abstract artists. Should movie critics have gone to film school? No. Should they at least know what a film camera sounds like when it's on? I think so. Is answering your own rhetorical questions a sign of creeping insanity? Maybe. Should I stop ranting and have another beer? Look who you're askin!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:54 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


God I hate film critics who throw out bullshit hollywoodese terms they learnt from their crappy screenwriting degrees.
posted by Artw at 7:13 PM on November 17, 2008


Greenie, I'm not talking about like, serious years of theories and degrees, I mean like "why are the 1, 4, 5s called that" or "What does a distortion pedal do?" or the difference between an analog keyboard and a digital one.

Those things are not examples of music theory, although you could make a tenuous relation to the 1, 4, 5s. But in all honesty, knowing why they're called that is tangential to writing a review of whether or not the intended audience might enjoy their music.
posted by shmegegge at 8:40 AM on November 18, 2008


"Yet RUN DMC's self-directed gaze is more than mere narcissism. They see in themselves an end to passive consumerism." - NME's review of Run DMC's "Raising Hell"
posted by Pronoiac at 10:01 AM on November 18, 2008


"I bet neither they nor any member of Public Enemy will be doing crass sell-out TV shows in twenty years time!"
posted by Artw at 11:05 AM on November 18, 2008


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