The Year the Music Critics Died

Another Mayan apocalypse come and gone, and here we still are, writing end-of-year recaps.  Searching for an overarching metaphor for the most annoying year in the history of music criticism proved difficult, as no comparison seemed worth of encapsulating the unique blend of lazy and self-righteous that characterized 2012.  Was this the year that the chickens came home to roost, only to have their heads bitten off by the carny geeks that now pass for journalists?  Was this the year that cultural criticism finally disappeared up its own ass, only to find the space hopelessly crowded by music bloggers, who find the stench tolerable given how cheap rent?  Was this yet another Year of the Woman?

Let’s call it the Year the Music Critics Died.  Let’s remember how we drove our Chevy to the levee but the levee was crammed full of anonymous comments-section trolls arguing about authenticity.  Let’s admit that music can save your mortal soul, but half-assed bloviating about music can get you plenty of retweets.  Forearmed with the knowledge that we are fully aware of the irony of making a critical list on the Internet to complain about list-based Internet criticism, let’s clench our hands in fists of rage and take a look at ten of the most noxious trends in music ‘writing’, before something even worse comes along.

1.  THE REALNESS.

Anyone dreading that the slow fade of hip-hop’s pop-culture dominance might signal an invigoration of the critical discourse surrounding it will be relieved to know that, by and large, critics are still fighting the same pointless battles they were fifteen years ago.  Even as the music itself goes through a rap-without-all-that-rap phase, the Snoop Lion’s share of writing about hip-hop either looks back wistfully at the long-vanished past or engages in achy hand-wringing about the death of the medium.  (Hip-hop may be the only musical form that went from crazy new thing with these kids today to straight-up museum piece with no interval of just being an actual thing people could enjoy while it was happening.)  Public Enemy’s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is championed as a long-overdue correction of course instead of an injury added to an insult; critics decry developments of their own making, like the primacy of blog-hyping and the need for a video to make a song break; and endless amounts of fret-beading over personalities and the ‘problematic’ spares us from having to actually talk about the music.  We’re still plagued with dozens of white critics arguing over whether some aspect of rap is too black or not black enough.  And the #1 hip-hop site on the internet is Rap Genius, a piece of career leverage built around the idea (based on a joke that was already feeling tired in 1992) that the best way to appreciate rap is to ignore all the elements that make it so darn rappy.

2.  BELIEVING THE HYPE.

The relationship between critics and publicists has never been a comfortable one, but it’s become a pretty lazy one.  Publicists, whose jobs depend on robust profits for the music industry, are getting increasingly nervous and desperate, while critics, whose jobs depend on newspapers and websites making money off of advertising, are sharing Lexapro with them.  This makes both groups especially vulnerable to the machinations of media companies, with the result that endless millions of words, of no possible interest to anyone but critics and publicists, get written about the year’s big upcoming releases.  The result of this incestuous feedback loop is to suck every bit of surprise out of the process of writing about – or reading about – music.  Predicting which albums will wind up on the year-end Top Ten lists of most magazines and websites has become so easy that Vegas wouldn’t give you odds on it; and the need for publicists to earn their keep – and for writers to fill up the day’s blank space – has led to an unprecedented disappearance of music journalism up its own ass.  It would be bad enough if music ‘news’ was merely the art of rewording press releases, but now it’s not even that challenging:  it’s the art of thinking of a clever way of phrasing your link to someone else’s reworded press release.  When a publication swallows its own tongue to the point where it’s predicting what its own opinion about a raft of as-yet-unreleased albums will be – in April, no less – what they’re doing isn’t criticism, or even journalism; it’s advertising.

3.  THINKPIECES OF SHIT.

When you get right down to it, being a pop music writer is a pretty ridiculous job.  Getting paid to tell someone what music they should listen to is great work if you can get it, and maybe even worth the cost of having to interview some vapid bass player who just woke up at 4PM about why his band’s new album rocks harder than ever, but it’s a dying profession, and one that even at its best you’d have a hard time explaining to your grandparents.  Still, it is a form of criticism, and criticism, at its finest, deserves at seat at the table with any other kind of art.  The best critics use music as a springboard to tell us something profound, something savage, something vital about the human condition, so you’d think the current trend towards thinkpieces would be a welcome thing – a chance for deep reads, bold insights, and the making transcendent out of what was only beautiful.  Unfortunately, in practice, it’s turned into the worst kind of navel-gazing, largely because most writers don’t have anything insightful to say, and think that they can turn their frivolous enthusiasms into something meaningful through the power of personal anecdotes.  Which is fine if your life is more interesting than the thing that you’re talking about, but instead, we get articles about how iPods are Hitler, or how Saturday Night Live is our nation’s most sacred shared cultural space, or whatever this ungodly piece of crap is supposed to be.  A great mind can make a three-minute pop song into something vast and strange; a small mind make a 2000-word essay into millions of dead brain cells.

4.  RISE OF THE RAD DADS.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with getting older.  It happens to almost everybody.  And if you’re not a complete lowlife like me, you’ll want to grow as you age by finding someone to settle down with, having some kids, and turning into a responsible adult.  This is totally fine and desirable.  It’s also boring.  Nobody but a few boorish college kids are going to make fun of you for having better things to do than listen to every album that Jagjaguwar releases.  But it’s time to stop pretending that it’s the music that left you and not you that left the music.  The sorry state of indie rock, plagued as it is with nurturing thirtysomethings in bands named for woodland creatures who act like they can’t turn up their amplifiers lest they wake the baby, is entirely creditable to the graying of the last generation of hip kids; they’re the ones responsible for thinking that the qualities that make you a good parent are also the qualities that make you a good rock star.  You can talk all you want about the generational havoc wreaked by the self-absorbed Boomers, but at least at a certain point most of them gave up and realized their kids weren’t going to be impressed by their Grateful Dead stories.  The children of the Boomers are engaging in worse cultural nostalgia than their parents ever did, exhuming every last band that got played on their college rock stations and thinking their toddlers won’t roll their eyes 15 years from now when they see pictures of the Ramones onesie dad bought them.  It’s okay, fellas:  you’re old, you’re dads, you’re lame.  Nobody hates you for that.  But retarding music criticism to suit the needs of your neighborhood association is the cultural equivalent of buying a red convertible sports car.

5.  REDEEMING THE IRREDEEMABLE. 

If there’s one sure-fire, can’t miss method of getting some attention for your terrible writing, it’s engaging in what is politely called ‘contrarianism’.  Do you have no particular insight, a prose style as dull as a butter knife, and an inability to articulate what you like or dislike about music?  None of this will bar you from a non-lucrative career in music writing as long as you can take some universally despised album or performer and write a ‘reassessment’.  The game once had different rules, but the days when you could make a name for yourself by despising a record everyone else loved are long gone, driven to disreputable corners of the internet due to overcrowding.  Now, “nothing sucks” is the way to go.  There’s almost no performer, however lengthy their rap sheet of insipid, boring, grating, or forgettable releases, that some critic hasn’t taken to heart and defended with a passionate re-evaluation.  There’s no need to even name names:  if you’re reading this, just think of any musician you find utterly worthless, then head to Google, and on the first page of results you’ll discover some hot-headed young critic gunning you down in the street, out to polish that badge and make his name.  It’s not even that these critics are insincere; many of them may genuinely love whatever hapless dud they’ve chosen to champion, or are at least engaging in some kind of impenetrable performance art a la Armond White, who pioneered this kind of behavior in his film writing.  But at a certain point, it has to occur to you that if you’re afraid to call anything bad, then you’re useless for determining whether anything is good, and you’ve thus failed at the only possible function of a critic.

6.  POP WARS.

Ever since the balkanization of popular music starting in the mid-1980s, and especially since the rise of the internet, the decline of the music industry, and the digital revolution, critics have completely lost their shit over how to deal with popular music.  Though there was always an underground scene, it was once possible to contemplate music that was commercially popular and music that was critically praised as occupying the same aesthetic space.  Music today, however, with its infinite micro-genres, increasingly amateur critical establishment, and much smaller commercial arena, is no longer reconcilable in this manner, and that’s caused even some of the best music writers to flail around helplessly.  As can be seen in the reaction to popular music as divergent as Carly Rae Jepsen, PSY, and Taylor Swift, there seem only to be two possible approaches to what the kids like:  either you denigrate it all as degraded, unlistenable pabulum that makes a mockery of music as defined by the sort of thing you prefer to listen to, or you champion it as the best thing that has ever happened to music and vilify its detractors as haters who have forgotten what pop is supposed to be all about.  The more moderate approach, that most hit pop songs are generally well-crafted and enjoyable pieces of music that effectively appeal to the people they’re supposed to appeal to even if they don’t shatter any paradigms or rewire the way our brains connect to our ears, seems to be off the table.  There’s nothing brave – at least not at this stage of our cultural development – about hating a top 10 single, any more than there’s something courageous about liking what 50 million other people like; the fight, like far too much criticism today, isn’t about music, it’s about self-image.

7.  THE FUTURE OF MUSIC.

There are three groups of people who will determine the future of music:  the people who make music, the people who buy music, and the people who sell the work of the former to the latter.  The group who does the most whining and stressing about the future of music are the ones who will have absolutely nothing to do with it whatsoever, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it, all the time, without cease, no matter how ridiculous and wrong their predictions tend to be.  Whether optimists or doomsayers, these pop prognosticators seem always to find a venue for their speculations about What We Are Going To Be Talking About When We Talk About Music Five Years From Now.  Which is odd, because pretty much none of them have ever correctly predicted any of the major cultural trends, demographic shifts, or industry developments in pop music, well, ever.  They never form an opinion about where music is going until it has already gotten there, and even then, they often do so in the most ham-handed, incompetent way imaginable.  The pessimists are probably the worst, with their doomsaying about how every important development in music has already happened and it’s all downhill from here, but the optimists can be just as annoying, predicting great things from some far-off development that they hope no one will remember they mentioned in a year’s time.  Let’s save the agonizing over the future of music for after we figure out a way to write intelligently about the present of music.

8.  THE DEATH OF THE MP3 BLOG.

This isn’t a development that can be blamed on critics and writers, but it’s one that’s definitely made criticism and writing worse.  The golden age of mp3 blogs – websites that hosted obscure and often unavailable music for download by the public, and which usually specialized in a particular genre or style – has passed us by, for a variety of reasons which are ably discussed here.  Even those with the knowledge and patience to seek out these materials themselves are becoming increasingly frustrated, as even reliable search engines like FilesTube and hosting services like MediaFire fall victim to pressure from the music industry, the government, and new media delivery vectors.  (This latter development is also taking its toll elsewhere, as the rise of services like Spotify and the increasing tendency of record companies to release music previews in a streaming format encourages critics to listen to music only once.  Not owning music, and making it more difficult to re-listen to an album, discourages thoughtful criticism and gradually eats away at our ability to place music in a historical context.)  Debates can be had about the legal, economic and ethical issues behind file-sharing – this year alone, we’ve had a nausea-inducing number of them – but the slow disappearance of mp3 blogs, especially ones who dealt with out-of-print, obscure music that would be hard or impossible to buy legally even if you wanted to – has been damaging to fans and critics alike, and has derailed the kind of exploration, curiosity and inquiry that helps critics gain depth and perspective and break out of the cycle of hype.

9.  TWITTER.

I am not, as a rule, a hater of Twitter.  It’s fun, it’s free, and it lends itself extremely well to certain types of communication – it’s a great marketing tool, it’s terrific at breaking news, and it’s a great format for a particularly stylized type of written humor.  As a medium of criticism, however, it’s a fucking disaster, and as a means of developing any kind of coherent sense of the culture or business of music, it’s absolutely horrible.  And that’s too bad, because music writers and critics use it like made for just those purposes.  Far from focusing and refining the language of criticism, the character limit just makes for glib, thoughtless, and reductive judgments, leaving no room or patience for exception or nuance.  The phrase “echo chamber” is worn to death in our hyper-mediated society, but Twitter fits the bill like nothing else:  tempests in musical teapots arise every single day, and are bounced around endlessly until they fill up all the available space, making some meaningless industry development take on unseemly significance.  Petty beefs between writers and critics become lines in the sand; comments that would be forgotten within a few days in the pre-Twitter era assume the significance of the Communist Manifesto.  It’s even created phenomena that are unthinkable in their utter lack of interest:  Twitter ‘feuds’ have suddenly become something thought worthy of writing an article about, and not only is it considered a good use of time to live-tweet something, it’s now commonplace to live-tweet something you aren’t interested in or actively hate.  And that’s why we still have the Grammy Awards.

10.  THAT, AND A PAIR OF LISTICLES.

Let’s get this straight:  I understand that the urge to make hierarchal lists of music and pretend that they have some definitive value is deeply ingrained in our cultural consciousness, and I realize that I’m on the losing end of history in my objection to them.  I also appreciate that folks gotta eat, and gross as it may be, the link-baiting list is particularly well-suited towards the current revenue models of the kind of publications that employ music writers.  But do they have to be so relentlessly awful?  Bad enough that, and here I refer you to the irony awareness disclaimer at the beginning of this piece, lists have begun to replace actual content rather than enhance it – hence, “listicle”; but now, it’s proven so effective that it’s scuttling the whole notion of intelligent writing (the word count necessary to provoke a dismissive “tl;dr” has shrunk to around 500).  Listicles aren’t just stupid; they make us stupid, and they’re bringing the whole art of criticism down with them.  This piece from the heinous Complex is not only 25 pages of ad-soaked click-throughs, but features not a single interesting observation about hip-hop, preferring instead to earn its pennies with non-shocking truths about how rap music often glorifies drugs (!) and some MCs are better at self-promotion than rapping (!!).  And not since the East Coast/West Coast beef of the 1990s has there been a rivalry as bloody as the race between the Village Voice and the L.A. Weekly to produce the most painfully stupid examples of the genre; the once-respectable Voice music section, which, in its post-Maura Johnston era sank so low that it gave us Michael Musto griping about the young people today and their crazy music, were nonetheless outpaced by the Weekly and witless fare like this and this.  Not to be outdone, the Voice brought in Ben Westhoff – the very man responsible for those moronic L.A. Weekly pieces – to replace Johnston, and the result was tripe like this (a list of five “drumless rap” songs, three of which, as this publication’s article pointed out, feature drums), and this, which may be the absolute worst piece of music writing I have seen in a decade.   I could easily have made this whole article a list of the top ten worst music lists of the year, if the irony of that wasn’t too mordant even for me.  List-making is bar none the easiest kind of music ‘writing’ there is; if you can’t even do that right, why do it at all?

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