The Joys and Pains of Music Criticism
I suppose there are some perks to being a music critic. Lord knows the list has been greatly reduced. The primary perk is, or was, of course, swag. Mountains of swag. Truly. It piles up in mounds on our floors. It turns out that the type of person who makes the decision to become a music critic is rarely the same type of person who decides to lead a sanitary and immaculate lifestyle. Not to besmirch all music critics, but the few I’ve known almost seemed to like the look of CDs piled on the floor. I understand the appeal. There’s something gratifying about a pile of free stuff no matter where you place it.
Obviously, this was before the days of the digital download, which has made receiving an actual hard copy of an album in the mail a disappointingly rare occurrence. Similarly, illegal file sharing and early album leaks has made the novelty of receiving an album prior to its release almost completely barren. Shit, it’s been that way since I first started writing about music, which, admittedly, was not that long ago. I’d been heavily anticipating Dangerdoom’s The Mouse and the Mask and was thrilled when my new (first) editor gave me the hard copy to review a week prior to it’s release. I wasn’t just excited about the music: I was mostly pumped about showing it off to my DOOM-obsessed and not too easily impressed roommate. My excitement and undeserved pride was quickly and soundly deflated when my roommate casually responded with, “Oh, cool. I should download that,” and promptly proceeded to do so. I stopped him and forced him to burn my copy into his computer, despondently failing to assure myself that it was indeed cool that I had received the album before it was released. I mean, at least I had the hard copy. Can’t get the liner notes on a torrent site.
But, like I said, the days of the hard copy are all but gone, so no more tangible swag. I’m actually okay with that. I’ve reviewed some pretty terrible albums that I don‘t relish owning, and the part of my DNA that wants to be a music critic is the same part of me that won’t allow myself to sell these albums at any local music stores, lest the person behind the counter think these albums are reflective of my taste. While this may make me despicably vain and irrational… I don’t have a second half of this sentence.
This speaks to the obvious misplaced, outlandish pride in one’s music collection that convinces certain people that their thoughts on a subject as subjective as music are somehow more valid than others and need to be heard. Yet the better music critics know that when this job is done right, it can be invaluably informative and even, god forgive me, kind of artful. Describing music is more difficult than it seems, and describing it well is legitimately challenging.
That’s why it really pisses me off when musicians piss and moan about critics tearing their work down without contributing anything. First of all, a great deal of music critics actually do perform their own music, and secondly, some critics really take the time to truly listen to the albums they’re assigned to review. To lump all critics together as one mass, unified by the purpose of taking cheap shots at musicians (a great deal of whom we adore) is plainly stupid. Sure, there are a great deal of critics who are out for nothing more than to demonstrate how clever they believe themselves to be, and just how much snarkiness can actually be packed into one sentence. Then there are the other critics, who started doing this because they need as many excuses on hand as possible to have music playing at all times, and who are aware that discussing really good music requires heightening one’s analytical abilities and a certain creativity with language. Furthermore, the best music deserves its (if you’ll allow the term) professional champions.
And yes, shitty music deserves its professional detractors. If you release an album and want attention for it, then people who know what to listen for should analyze it. If you don’t like the results of running your album through that ringer, then record the songs for yourself and never show them to people who might review them honestly. I take no joy in giving an album a poor review (I used to, I‘ll admit), as I know that a great deal of time and effort go in to making even the most slapdash and unlistenable of records. A pissy mood has led me to be unfairly rude to any number of bands that didn’t deserve the condescension that filled some of my early reviews. I didn’t have much criticism of value to offer, so I opted for snide haughtiness. I may have a lot to learn about this job, but I’ve learned to keep the self-satisfied tone to a minimum.
It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we're talking about when we talk about music.
So yes, no matter how smug music critics can seem at times, they are not impervious to regret nor admitting when they’ve been wrong. In our defense, it is so much easier to review an album you dislike as opposed to an album you like. Listing the elements of an album that don’t work for you is the easiest part of this job. What’s really difficult is describing an album that’s filled with new and innovative ideas. Usually, there’s an easy out for this. It’s the most basic formula that exists: “So and so album sounds like (semi-obscure band) meets (less obscure band).” You’ve surely read many reviews that rely on some variation of that sentence. I remember overhearing someone telling a friend that a band he’d just seen sounds like “Husker Du meets Guided By Voices, if they sucked,” and thinking, “I have no idea what that sounds like.” I mean, I knew that both bands have a fondness for pop hooks buried in lo-fi recordings, but then why say both bands? Why not just say the band he’d seen sounds like Guided By Voices if they sucked? Or Husker Du if they sucked? The cynical guess is that he wanted to drop two esteemed yet semi-obscure bands into his description, thus upping the impressiveness of his reference.
Yet as unhelpful and embarrassingly elementary as I know this formula can be, I fall back on it from time to time. What’s more, some bands can be easily reduced to one band meets another. Hell, some bands can be reduced to one influence, and on those occasions it’s almost absolutely necessary (as far as any element of music criticism is necessary) to call those bands out on it. Conveniently, that is also music criticism at its most undemanding. Like I said, bad albums are much easier to review.
And while I’m repeating myself, challenging albums are on the other end of the difficulty spectrum. Here’s an example: I am currently putting off reviewing the new Sunset Rubdown album, which is awesome, as my review will hopefully argue more articulately. While it is an album that warrants a lot of time and repeated listens, I’ve definitely had the album a lot longer than I should. In fact, if this article reaches my editor prior to that review, consider this an apology for taking too long. But I have to believe that Matt (Stereo Subversion’s esteemed editor in chief) has experienced a similar phenomenon. It’s not exactly writer’s block, because I can turn something passable in. It’s more a matter of not feeling completely clear about the album, and assuming that clarity is on the horizon. If a couple more days go by, then we’ll go with the B-level review.
However, I will happily write a thousand average reviews before I do more interviews. Prior to writing here at Stereo Subversion, I did any number of interviews for a truly terrible Ohio State University-geared newspaper whose name I prefer not to mention. Since coming to Stereo Subversion, I’ve interviewed exactly one artist. I haven’t been offered more, not do I intend to ask for more, because I hate interviewing musicians, particularly over the phone. Of course, I completely realize that seeming unwilling to interview musicians is going to stifle my progress as a music critic and I accept that.
It’s not that I have problems with all musicians: I’ve done several interviews that have gone exceptionally. In fact, the one interview I’ve done for Stereo Subversion was with the exceedingly cheerful Marnie Stern. She was beyond polite, even during reception problems. Even more unbelievably, she tolerated my singular interviewing style, which involves overly scripted questions delivered in a painfully stilted and unnatural tone. Seriously, I actually include digressions and planned pauses in my prepared question, as though I were David Mamet, and it still doesn’t come out fluidly. Questions like “What are your plans after this tour?“ end up as incomprehensible, long-winded monologues with no actual clear line of inquiry. God bless every poor soul who has suffered through the sheer unadulterated anguish of being interviewed by me.
There have certainly been instances where I’ve known that no matter how insightful or charming I was, the person I was talking to had clearly lost all tolerance for being interviewed. I don’t hold any kind of grudge about this. If I were to talking to every critic at every local newspaper or magazine in every town that my tour happened to pass through, not to mention all of the nationally syndicated magazines and newspapers that require interviews, my attitude toward each interviewer would probably fall short of one hundred percent polite. It must be exhausting answering roughly the same series of questions over and over again.
A few years ago, I interviewed a clearly exhausted Andrew Bird who, it must be said, gave it the old college try at answering my fairly uninspired list of questions about the novelty of being an excellent violinist and whistler. The interview was thoroughly inconsequential, so much so that he called me two days later, having completely forgotten that he had already been interviewed by me. Of course, I reminded him that we had done the interview. Bird, amusingly enough, responded with a clearly relieved, “Thank god. This was my last one for the week.” I told him to enjoy his free time, and we hung up our phones. And though it’s completely irrational, I was slightly offended by this encounter, unwilling to accept the completely understandable reasons that Bird would not remember me. Sure, he talks tens of interviewers and hundreds fans a week, but was our brief phone encounter so drab that he had completely forgotten it two days later?
The answer, of course, is, yes it was, and I’ve grown to be comforted by the fact that most of the musicians I’ve interviewed probably could not recall any detail about our conversation within minutes of its conclusion. The only reason it bothered me was due to my obsessive need to feel that I was cool in the eyes of a musician that I admired, and when I look back at the interviews I’ve done that went well, coming off as cool had nothing to do with it. It was just good conversation, plain and simple. Nick Zammuto of the Books was a pure pleasure to talk to. I was, and am, well schooled in the world of the Books and I had a lot of questions born out of complete curiosity. I wasn’t trying catch him off guard, nor surprise him with my insight, nor did I let the fact that I believe that he and band mate Paul De Jong are at the pinnacle of musical innovation cloud my ability to have a meaningful, lengthy discussion. I just wanted to know a few things about the work they do, and he couldn’t be happier to oblige, because he’s a passionate, dorky dude.
That’s the one wonderfully symmetrical thing about a music critic’s relation to the subject he/she chronicles: musicians and music critics alike are, typically, shamefully socially inept, and our respective forums of choice allow us opportunities to both cover that sad fact up and frequently revel in it.