Can Criticism Stand Scrutiny?

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Can Criticism Stand Scrutiny?

About a year ago, a co-worker of mine at a job I no longer possess said to me that all critics were bastards who contributed nothing and dared to task people who really did something artistically with their lives. Then, after a moment of silence, he realized I was a critic and, with a pronounced grumble, added on “unless, of course, they can bring out a meaning in the art that no one noticed before and render it in a way that was useful or more easily understood by society. Then a critic could be a compliment to the art itself.” I nodded in agreement and changed the subject to either the weather or any of the various local sports teams.

Truth is that I had heard that argument before several times in college, having majored in English and thus being exposed to all the famous poets and critics. One of the most prominent defenses of criticism I’ve heard (and there’s been much of it, since critics have been labeled dirty, leachy hacks ever since the first cave drawing was made and the guy standing behind the artist grunted in disapproval) is that a good critic will wring absolute euphoria from a piece of art that enables it to be seen in a light perhaps not intended by the artist, maybe with some undercurrents too obscure for many to recognize.

So often, critical reviews of music are the same empty buzzwords, parroted over and over again, more the Greek chorus than a celebration of art or a body of dissent. That accepted, so much music is just the same ol’ chords, same ol’ slogans, same ol’ vocal mannerisms, same ol’ posturing that quite frankly anyone committed to looking for deeper meaning in all of it would likely be driven insane by the banality, the contradictions, the little details, and the plethora of static cover art and MySpace pages. But when you get a good critic that really likes (or conversely dislikes, but that’s a different issue) something and can articulate it’s beauty or ugliness in a way that causes genuine thought or excitement, then you uncover that euphoria craved by the critic’s masters.

Those masters are threefold by the way: the audience, the artists, and the shadow government known as the recording industry. All three potentially benefit from one of those great reviews and all three are essential to the critic’s existence as a media entity. After all, the audience needs to be there to read the reviews and hold them in esteem, the band needs to make the music and choose which images to project, and the industry, and that’s including all your little Mom & Pop DIY outfits, is needed for mass distributed, heavily promoted recorded music to be a reality. Otherwise, you just get what you hear on MySpace, the radio, and in bars.

Somewhere in this monolith lies the role of the critic. For the audience, the critic is at the very least a buyer’s guide. Throughout the history of rock and roll, there have been many bands all across the land with many albums and many tour dates. Given that most of us live off a fairly stagnant, extremely finite income (and some of us, none at all), lord knows, we the consumers can’t go spending all our money on blind buys. Certainly, people writing press releases for the artist’s label can’t be trusted; they’re trying to sell their product after all and thus are required to frame it in the best possible light. Hence we have the critic; a supposedly objective observer and reporter, one who screens the bad music for us so we don’t have to buy it. Someone who can tell us what the product sounds like, give pertinent reasons for either recommending or rejecting the item for potential purpose, and, if possible, provide the reader with an insightful and/or entertaining piece of writing in the process.

Rock stars and musicians are people, too. Not everything they do is perfect. Better off to keep them human and fallible than to keep them above us as deities.

Ideally anyway. Much criticism is groundless opinion, hyperbole hype, scathing hate screeds, dry music snobbery, thinly veiled biased idiocy, you name it. Some of it majorly wastes your time and the worst of it might momentarily kill your love for music in general. Still, its virtues far outstrip its vices, at least in terms of selling the audience on music they might not otherwise investigate. I certainly wouldn’t have touched Wilco for years later than I did if I hadn’t read a beautiful write up in Rolling Stone (yes, they do have quality articles now and then) of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Also, I have the legendary (sorta) Brian Burks from the long defunct Creative Noise to thank for introducing me to current favorites like The Kinks, Marshall Crenshaw, Gang of Four, and the House of Freaks. The best positive reviews make you excited about hearing music you knew nothing about five minutes before.

To the musician, critics are a double edged sword. On one hand, it’s tough enough trying to make a go at playing in a rock band these days and certainly the last thing you need is some brat who can’t even tune an instrument or some bitter ex-metal drummer telling your potential audience that your band sucks beyond belief. Likewise, even the bands that are so called “critical darlings” will tell you that such praise is a long, long ways off from success. On the other hand, good critical reviews are an important part in the skyrocketing of many careers, even if the success of, say, Led Zeppelin and the nu-metal genre proved that critical love is hardly essential. Still, why did Husker Du get signed to a major label? Because Zen Arcade was a huge critical sensation that got the group noticed. Why were the Strokes such a big deal even back before they had a record out? Because a plethora of certifiable critics were hailing them as the best rock band since the ’70s, one that was going to save us from the dragon of nu-metal. The hard work of the group should never be slighted, but very many musicians wouldn’t get their time in the sun if it wasn’t for the critical community spilling ink and using blog space to praise them as newly forged musical messiahs.

In addition, records that have critical darling status tend to have more legs. For instance, Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville and Velvet Crush’s Teenage Symphonies To God both came out in 1993. Which one got reissued last year for their 15th anniversary? Which one made the Pitchfork Top 100 Albums of the ’90s list? Is there a correlation? Both were certainly college radio status albums back in their day and I’m sure some would hold Velvet Crush up as the superior record, but one you don’t hear about so much anymore. Thus, one album remains out of print and available for $3 in the bargain bin, whilst the other goes $13.99 for a fancy new edition with bonus tracks. Might prestige have something to do with it?

To this end, the music industry finds critics a useful, if not always necessary tool. If they didn’t, I don’t think they’d be giving away promo copies of all their albums for free. Aside from the best possible ends that can be reached (i.e. the breaking of a new group, turning an unknown into a profitable commodity), published criticism is a solid branch of publicity, one all the more valuable in the realm of popular music. Genres like rock and rap that have a rebellious edge are going to lose face when band profiles are written by corporate shills. An independent go-between and a critical eye, even if the verdict is lukewarm at best, go a lot further than the standard “[insert band name] is a thrilling new artist” tripe.

Notice that I’ve only been arguing practical reasons for the music critic’s existence and continued role in modern music media. On a sentimental level, critics are meaningful in the sense that they further involve you with musical happenings, whether it be a Gold selling album that’s taking the nation by storm or a small town scene in lower New England. Furthermore, criticism goes a long way towards legitimizing popular music as an artistic entity, perpetuating the idea that a three minute record can enrich people’s lives with a pointed message, a beautiful description, or an off-kilter vibe. The idea is that “No Surrender” ought to be described in the same way that “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” ought to be discussed; short narratives that touch on a plethora of social issues. In short, music is made and somebody ought to discuss it professionally.

Not only should great works of art be praised, but musicians should not be immune to criticism. Granted, many journalists take their verbal crucifixions too far and the world won’t go a day without a countless number of unfair reviews, but when Neil Young puts out another album of high-minded, fiery political rhetoric, when Iggy Pop decides to homage French culture so he can sound deep, when Sonic Youth coast on by just being Sonic Youth, and when R.E.M. rip off the chords to “Sweet Jane” to churn out a half-assed comeback single, then there should be a voice of dissent. Rock stars and musicians are people, too. Not everything they do is perfect. Better off to keep them human and fallible than to keep them above us as deities. Ideally, well constructed criticism should keep them down to earth.

Still, if anyone can write a review and have it seen by thousands (conservatively), does that not devalue a field? Some might say it does, but I’ll go with a pretty flat “no.”

Like the Internet introduced the world to musicians they wouldn’t have been heard otherwise, so too did it make things easier for the modern rock critic. Whereas earlier decades restricted the field to professional journalists and kids savvy enough to print their own fanzines, the Internet has enabled mopes with opinions greater exposure and has thankfully allowed some talented observers (the aforementioned Brian Burks, the infamous Mark Prindle, the oft overlooked Guy Peters, and many others) the opportunity to create their own sites, whereas their work would likely never be published by SPIN. This has allowed more free reign and different reviewing styles from Prindle’s mix of personal anecdote and scatology references with actual insight to Peters’ uber-detailed, even-handed analytical style. Neither man’s style would fly in a professional publication that expects its writers to work clean, concise, and, honestly, with a somewhat empty, vapid style. The Internet does for music criticism what independent labels did for music; a newfound ability for a writer to call their own shots and work outside the box in a style that suits them.

If things keep going as they currently are, notwithstanding a nuclear holocaust or the ultimate collapse of Western Civilization that would thus thrust the world back into the feudal system, I dare declare that we will one day be criticizing things in space.

Yes, space.

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