I’ve been writing – or trying to write – about music in a critical manner for over ten years now.
I never went to music critic school, I learnt by doing. The only ‘training’ I received was at university when I discovered that I could get my degree by writing a thesis about music I liked, as long as I abided by the rules of academia. After that I was on my own. Being an autodidact is great but has its downsides, one of which was that it took years for me to question what I was doing and why.
A couple days ago a friend, who also happens to be an artist, flagged up an article about some of the issues modern music criticism faces. Nothing new, as such, but it triggered a fairly interesting conversation with other artists – and after reading it today I can see the author’s point, as well as that of the artists who discussed it, and who are best placed to do so, being on the receiving end of so much critical thinking on a regular basis.
I’m not here to rehash the piece’s focus, though. I read Reynolds’ Retromania and I think it’s a good book. His points are valid as are that of the article’s authors. Too much music criticism today is a game of comparison, of ‘this sounds like x, y, z’ or historical framing instead of discussing the art itself. One solution to this ‘problem’ is admitting that critics need to (re)evaluate what their contributions are on a regular basis.
Hence we go back to my first point – checking yourself as a critic. Any critic. It took me years. It wasn’t until about five years into what is now admittedly a career that I began to wonder if my reviewing style and approach actually carried any sort of significance. The truth was a resounding no. It just took me moving to the other side of the world and giving up on music writing for a while to admit that. Worse, I didn’t have a solution to my problem. And I still don’t.
I went back to writing a couple years later, and soon enough fell back into old habits – but this time at least, I was able to catch myself when it happened. One way to combat the issue was to scale back the amount of reviews I wrote. I decided to only write about things I truly felt excited about and where I felt I could say something worth saying. That sort of worked, not always. Then I got offered a review job that paid fairly well considering the industry had changed violently, and there was little money left for writers outside certain established content silos. The internal logic went something like this: ‘well, if I’m getting paid, it matters less what I think/feel about the music, it’s just a job, like any other.’ That lasted less than a year. Yes, I was making money but I was also not saying anything again – I was merely being a part of the promotional machine.
In light of these experiences, spread over a period of about 11 years, I decided to stop reviewing music in 2013. Instead, I wanted to focus on writing about music critically via long form and other formats. That’s where I feel I’m best able to make a valuable contribution. I’ve no regrets – like so many things in life taking a break is the best way to come back to a subject or practice with refreshed perspective. I did write one review in 2013, for Jonwayne’s debut, and it was more an essay than a review. I feel that has its place, perhaps more than reviews as we understand them today. Thing is, it’s difficult for a publication to find money for this kind of writing and the readership is also limited. Regardless, I maintain that when it comes to music reviews, essay formats where someone truly engages with an album over a period of time, forming ideas that go beyond historical framing or lazy comparisons is the most worthy.
Truth is the music industry isn’t what it used to be. So, why should the music criticism industry be? We live in an age where criticism is no longer something that only a certain group of people can do or enjoy. Almost anyone can be a critic just like almost anyone can be an artist. And almost anyone can access critical content and consume it – having access to information technology being the ultimate divider.
Lazy criticism falls into the promotional side of things – it’s now part of the promotional machine of any artistic industry. It’s rehashing press releases, writing reviews that say nothing of the art, conducting interviews that ask the same tired questions and so on. It’s churnalism. Which is an awesome word because it sounds exactly like what it describes.
Good criticism is the same as it’s always been in form. It’s eloquent, thoughtful, passionate, it makes you think and feel about art in new ways, in ways that bother, in ways that excite. But it is different in function. Good criticism today, particularly on the internet where most of it takes place and is consumed, should act as an integral part of what we’ve come to understand as the stream. I’d like to take a cue from a great article on The Atlantic at this point, and quote the last few paragraphs:
The great irony is that we got what we wanted from the stream: a way to read and watch outside the editorial control of editors, old Yahoo-style cataloging, and Google bots. But when the order of the media cosmos was annihilated, freedom did not rush into the vacuum, but an emergent order with its own logic. We discovered that the stream introduced its own kinds of compulsions and controls. Faster! More! Faster! More! Faster! More!
And now, who can keep up? There is a melancholy to the infinite scroll.
Wouldn’t it be better if we just said … Let’s do something else? Let’s have the web be a museum or a curio box or an important information filter or an organizing platform.
Or maybe let’s just let the web be the web again, a network of many times, not just now.
Good criticism should belong to that web, I believe. And it should be conducted by people who are passionate and who remember to check themselves every once in a while.