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March 22, 2010

Almond, no joy

I've never had a thoroughly worthwhile or even vaguely enjoyable reading experience on those rare occasions when I've been compelled to look at the work of Steve Almond, and his entirely inane piece in today's Boston Globe--in which he posits that "negative" music criticism maybe sorta ought to be abolished on account of the fact that it might hurt certain fans' feelings, or something--proved no exception to this rule. The sole point of interest of the piece is what it does not engage--the fact that critical practice relative to popular audience taste has been, in fact, a very hot topic among critics for some time now, ranging back to the early "anti-rockist" arguments of...well, whenever they were, and right up to and beyond Carl Wilson's 2007 consideration of Celine Dion, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste. Apparently, in Almond's philosophy--and I suppose, by extension, the Boston Globe's--none of these discussions have ever taken place. I understand that this condition mostly speaks to the fact that Almond's an uninformed moron, albeit a well-connected uninformed moron with a resourceful agent who can place uninformed and insubstantial pieces on the op-ed page of the Boston Globe. But it also speaks to many other things, such as the fact that an increasing number of self-proclaimed critics not only don't read other criticism but actually don't know what criticism is, as a form. Another, perhaps even more disturbing current it points to is the reflexive notion of criticism as a bad-faith enterprise. "Criticizing a particular band or song might make you, and some of your readers, feel smart and sophisticated," tsk-tsks Almond. (Yeah, take that, George Bernard Shaw.) In a recent review of Martin Scorsese's film Shutter Island, the much- much-smarter-than-Almond New York Times film critic A.O. Scott made an aside saying that the film's good notices, were it to get any, could be ascribed to "loyalty to Mr. Scorsese" on the part of some "otherwise hard headed critics [who] are inclined to extend [the filmmaker] the benefit of the doubt." Because clearly there's no other way anybody could find any artistic worth in this work that Scott so disdains. I don't think that Scott is necessarily entirely wrong in his speculation. But the fact that he's willing to make it at all, let alone that he's willing to make it without citing specific examples, and the imperious, above-it-all pose he strikes in making it, counts for more, in this case, than whether he's got an actual point or not. And that's troubling. 

Whereas in the case of Almond it's kind of funny, particularly if you enjoy really dumb jokes. 

With that, I ask the readership and my fellow bloggers what they think. 
March 22, 2010 8:49 AM | | Comments (22)

22 Comments

Almond's piece is so devoid of value that the only interesting things about it are that a) the Globe published it b) the clown's got a book contract (though I'd like to know his advance and consequent hourly wage, which latter I suspect would be higher than most because he writes so fast) and c) he perfectly exemplifies the indifference of arts editors to the quality of their popular music criticism. I mean, Almond actually seems to define "critic" the way hip-hoppers do, as "guy who says bad stuff about me." He's right. He should never have gotten the job in the first place. Wonder why he hasn't quit.

It's the age-old problem of what of the experience itself can be conveyed in words, and it isn't confined to criticism, let alone a particular species of it, e.g., rock criticism. Almost every piece of narrative non-fiction confronts the problem. It's not even limited to non-fiction, which is why Tolstoy's and Stephen Crane's descriptions of the chaos of battle are considered such great writing. Right now, I'm reading an old paperback edition that I got for free at our local Catskills book exchange (some shelves on the porch of the post office), a 1949 novel called The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. In two or three short phrases, Bowles conveys what it's like to ride at night through the North African desert, in a dust storm, to the next forlorn little town.

If Almond can't describe what being at an MC Hammer concert is like, he's simply not good enough a writer. ("Barking out lyrics about jewelry and torture" is a pretty good start, though; maybe he should've hunkered down and built on that.) I'm not saying that I do capture sufficiently in words what standing in front of some work of art in a Chelsea gallery is like, but I know that the problem is simply a version of the timeless one of the map (the review, the profile, the news story) never equaling the territory.

It's always fascinating when these would-be pundits serve as their own straw men; Almond was a lousy critic, hence critics are lousy. An ouroboros of self-loathing, if you will. It reminds me of the David Horowitz school of conservatism.

Re: "Almond's an uninformed moron, albeit a well-connected uninformed moron with a resourceful agent."

Almond doesn't have an agent: http://www.identitytheory.com/printme/almondprint.html.

I think Almond is merely trying to reflect on why music criticism felt insufficient for him as a writer. He's a writer (and a successful one at that—whatever you think of his work) looking back on his experiences as a fan and critic and trying to give us, the reader, a sense of what that experience has been.

I'm not sure an Op-Ed section is the best place for such an personal reflection, but whether you find it successful or not, the tone of this meta-review ("moron," "inane piece," "maybe sorta") doesn't exactly posit an articulate rebuttal.

There's an honesty in Almond's writing, as slight as his argument may be, whereas in this review I find only anger and frustration—an attack on his essay because it isn't the essay you wish it was.

Instead of "arguments of...well, whenever they were" why not write the piece you were hoping for?

Then maybe you can take Almond's job at the Boston Globe—imaginary literary agents' influence aside.

Almond may not have an agent, but he clearly has a sock puppet.

Owen Gleiberman has pulled the same stunt as AO Scott on a few occasions, notably in his review of Synecdoche, New York where he also called out defenders of Last Year at Marienbad and Inland Empire as oppressive elites. Because nobody could find value in those films that Gleiberman confesses to not understanding.

Glenn Kenny thankfully points out that Almond's self-reported style of adding adjectives to song titles and mixing with quippy insults does not amount to criticism. Neither does saying everyone else just pretends to like something in order to feel smarter (or out of name loyalty). The critic's subject is the artwork. What's it all about, and how well is it about it? Emotional reaction (e.g. the "Music Critic Paradox"), not actual criticism, is what's petty and irrelevant.

Ha ha ... When I first glimpsed the hedder, I thought it said "ARMOND, no joy."

I'm still upset your colleague no longer does his annual turkey shoot, so I'm probably the wrong person to ask, but...yikes, that's awful. In particular, if you don't see pleasure as a positive in evaluating art that's your problem, not a problem with "objective criticism."

BTW, I've been meaning to link to the revelant Some Came Running post I have saved in my tabs, but the idea that critics have uniformly praised late-period Scorsese is pretty silly. As far as I can tell, even with the Departed the consensus seemed pretty similar to my view (way superpar for a Best Picture winner, somewhere middle-second-tier for Scorsese.)

Almond is a fine writer who by his own admission was a lousy music critic. He overreaches in this piece, though. I'm fine with him writing about his own experience as a music critic, but I disagree with his conclusion that music criticism in general is invalid. Anyone who's ever tried to write a critical piece on music or any art knows just how difficult it is to do that well. But there are those who do do it well, and I am grateful that their writing is there to inform and entertain me. Almond does provide me with food for thought though. Next time I read a review by a writer I am unfamiliar with I'll be asking myself the question: "Does this person know their stuff, or are they a pretender like Almond was?"

The comments that follow Almond's piece are instructive. Mostly the usual prattle about critics not "liking" stuff the public likes, being out of step to the point of cluelessness, etc.
One Professor Wombat, though, offers clarity: "The best criticism makes connections, shows me a different or larger way to look at an artwork, gives a historical context, points out subtleties of structure and image I've missed....The critical enterprise is not of itself incorrect or wrong. But it doesn't often challenge, rather than illuminate, my initial response to a work as good or bad."

Dingdingding!

Seems to me this notion of perspective and context is key. The net is flooded with "music critics" who speak with enchanting glibness about their reactions to a work, how it links up with their personal love trauma and life narrative, etc. That approach has sorta poisoned the well: To devote space to the personal in a discussion of a work that some soul took a year or more to create is too often downright arrogant and not at all illuminating.
But that type of writing is what passes for criticism anymore. It doesn't help develop discernment, doesn't make connections, doesn't live up to Wombat's notion of "challenging" the reader's thinking.

Sigh.

"The net is flooded with 'music critics' who speak with enchanting glibness about their reactions to a work, how it links up with their personal love trauma and life narrative, etc. That approach has sorta poisoned the well: To devote space to the personal in a discussion of a work that some soul took a year or more to create is too often downright arrogant and not at all illuminating."

I'm sorry, but this is as annoying and wrongheaded as anything in the piece under discussion ("enchantingly glib" you might even say). First, the suggestion (and I'll label it a "suggestion" as I realize Moon is not necessarily setting it down as a hard and fast "rule" per se) that this sort of writing -- a writing that stresses, for instance, the writer's "personal love trauma" -- has no place in music criticism refutes volumes of great rock criticism (ever read Rob Sheffield's book?), while in a roundabout way insists that the voice of the fan be kept out of the conversation: gee, don't bother to tell us why this stuff might *move* you or what relevance it might have to *your* life.

Also, the idea that a writer, moved by a piece of music and then expressing why it matters to them personally -- relating it, perhaps, to something going on in their personal life -- is showing *disrespect* to an artist's work -- or in Moon's words, is a display of "arrogance"... well, I find that utterly mind boggling, to be honest.

I also think Moon's smart quotes around "music critics" in this case to be a bit petty -- not to mention somewhat revealing -- but I'll leave it at that.

Scott:

Please, for the sake of discourse, check the sweeping generalizations at the door. You've misrepresented my thoughts.

I never suggested that the personal reaction has "no place" in rock criticism or any criticism. (Fwiw, I have read and enjoyed Sheffield's book. Also Lester Bangs. Pitchfork too -- well I read it, can't say I always enjoy.)

Rather, my concern is simply that too often, the personal is all there is -- in this self-referential approach to writing, there's usually little effort made to help the reader become more discerning. there's scant discussion of the objective elements of a work(the nuts/bolts of structure, etc.); little attempt at situating the work within a context, be it stylistic or historical or whatever; little effort to DESCRIBE WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS in a work (as distinct from whatever emotions it stirs).

Perhaps that's because to address those things requires a bit of work, research, etc. It's certainly easier to just describe the visceral reaction, and sometimes that can be devestatingly effective. But sometimes, and maybe more than sometimes, the emotional responses wind up seeming like thin gruel.

Sorry for my crimes against the discourse, Tom, but point taken. I think, however, that neither of us are immune here to some sweeping generalizations. You say "The net is flooded with 'music critics' who speak with enchanting glibness..." That's a pretty sweeping comment, sort of the equivalent of me saying something like, "Daily newspapers are flooded with deathly, dry press releases masqueraded as 'record reviews.'" There's truth in both statements, and maybe (maybe) it reflects the larger part of the story. But neither are "truths" in and of themselves. Counter-examples, refutations, are not at all hard to find.

I obviously don't know who or what you read on the web but I come across tons of music writing online (too much to keep up with, frankly) that's loaded -- sometimes overloaded for my liking -- with context, information, structural/historical/etc. knowledge. I mean, if we really want to get into this, I can offer links, but it might just be easier to point out that a number of the recent editions of the Da Capo Best Music Writing series have contained many such thoughtful, intelligent pieces from the web. (I know -- the good stuff is in the minority. But where ISN'T that the case?)

I do find this comment interesting and I've love to hear you expand on it some time: "It's certainly easier to just describe the visceral reaction..." I'm interested because it does not match my own thoughts on this. Describing the personal stuff, the "visceral" reactions is something I find much harder to do than "nuts and bolts," as you put it.

Intro:
I had a kvetch about something on “ARTicles” that stems from this post. I tried to post a comment on it, but couldn’t because the site kept telling me I hadn’t given a name and an e-mail address, when I had. So I e-mailed Laura Collins-Hughes about it. Then it kept eating at me that I was whining to Laura and not putting my complaint where it should be, on the thread. So here’s what I said in two e-mails to Laura:
A.
I have a small problem that's both too in-house and probably a bit priggish for an actual comment on somebody's post. Actually, I tried to post a comment about it on Glenn Kenny's post on Steve Almond, but was saved from ignominy by a glitch that kept refusing it because I hadn't (but I had) included a name and e-mail address.

Here's my kvetch: Professional critics/writers, NAJPers using personal epithets such as "jerk" (Christgau in a comment) and "moron" (Kenny in his post). First, it nudges "ARTicles" downward in intellectual quality, sophistication, thoughtfulness and attention to issues, toward the sport blogs (some of which I semi-follow because I'm a sports fan). There, commenters say things like, "Retard, your f***ing Sox SUCK!!!" and "Miami's owner is a money-grubbing idiot." Second, it rubs off on the rest of us, as "ARTicles" gets a rep for being a middle-school-like flaming site. "Yeah, I'm one of the bloggers on 'ARTicles'" will start to get one a roll of the eyes instead of, "Oh really?"

Now, I'm certainly not in favor of any a priori restrictions of speech. If Christgau wants to call somebody a "jerk," and Kenny somebody a "moron," they should be entirely free to do so. And I'm certainly not in favor of even unofficially trying to tamp down insulting language; to me, it's not only legit but sometimes refreshing to see a piece of writing (but not the author, personally) called "inane," or something similar. I'm even OK with personal attacks, as long as the invective terms are relevant to the piece of writing at issue. But "jerk" and "moron" are juvenile.

I can see a rebuttal that "ARTicles" is meant to serve at least partly as a rock' em, sock' em forum among critics and that, especially in the rock' em, sock' em world of rock criticism, insults such as "moron" and "jerk" are simply part of the tradition and texture. But I'm not comfortable with it and have reservations about a site where adolescent name-calling becomes common currency.
B.
1. there's a diff between posts and comments. if anybody can comment (and even if you have a "register to comment" requirement, it's still anybody), then you can't control the language beyond libel and obscenities. and that's good, otherwise all the juice goes out of the comments.

2. but when the commenter is one of the bloggers and he/she signs with his/her name, it's a slightly different story.

3. i don't mind name-calling per se when it's relevant. it can be a little spice in otherwise tepid "thoughtful criticism." if i referred to the reactionary brit art critic brian sewell (daily telegraph, i think) as a "troglodyte," that'd be OK in my book, because it's relevant to his philistinism. but "moron" and "jerk" are of the "well, so are YOU" quality of discourse.

4. i don't know what to do about the "moron"/"jerk" problem. a no-names-mentioned post on the diff between name-calling and thoughtful criticism will come off priggish and there'll be people who go ballistic at the slightest intimation of "censorship." since a glitch saved me from labeling myself as ettiquette monitor, i'm reluctant to go against that omen. anyway, a comment on the the post where it's relevant would be lost. (it's both a good and bad thing that art critics/fans don't get as worked up over their favorite/unfavorite artists as rock critics/fans do over their favorite/unfavorite bands.)

As an active consumer of pop music for nearly 30 years, and of rock criticism for nearly as long, I would say that Almond's understanding of "fans" is pretty limited. Some of us do actually do want to read thoughtful, funny and damn right critical stuff about the music we do and might listen to - tips on what to buy or stream (even when it's free, listening to bad stuff still wastes time), insightful commentary on stuff we're trying to figure out, and, yes, jokes and personal reflections in the manner of someone you start chatting with because he's wearing a shirt of that band you like, and you find out you have more in common.
Anyway, Almond seems to be winning the no-bad-reviews cause - notice how few low numbers Metacritic/music gives out these days? I think it's because so many crits are only reviewing stuff within their fave genres - narrow your focus to only what you really like (as opposed to understand) and you're bound to like a lot of it, unless your interests transcend genre to at least some extent. Which is where real criticism comes in anyway.

Why you gotta go bring "hip-hoppers" into this?

ALMOND HAS A POINT when you consider that he is talking about 'entertainment criticism' vs. 'art criticism'. This is not a distinction he himself made, but if you look at the artists he cites (MC Hammer, Whitesnake, etc.) it is pretty clear.

Hammer is not and never has been an 'Artist'; he is an entertainer. Critiquing him from the point of view of whether he is pushing creative bounderies or moving hip hop forwards is, to quote Almond, missing the point.

Art, regardless of the medium, seeks to provoke a reaction. Art can be good or bad. Entertainments seek to distract, and can be successful or not. No one would critique a crappy reality show like an episode of the Sopranos, yet they're both on TV. Why is music any different?

Stop. Hammertime!

@ James W.: You claim that Almond has a point, yet you allow that Almond himself doesn't make the distinction that might have been central to that point. Sorry, but to me that spells "fail." And in any event, I'm not sure the extent to which I agree with YOUR point. Are you saying that "entertainment" products are somehow exempt from any serious consideration? Do you not think that MC Hammer had/has anything pertinent to do with the culture from which he sprang? If Almond had a true critical temperament, his epiphany at that concert might have spurred a somewhat deeper thought than "stop being snarky about stuff that give people pleasure;" it might have spurred him to explore just why the stuff gave people pleasure. Granted, such considerations may not be the stuff of a review in a daily newspaper...but Almond doesn't make THAT distinction. Your implication that criticism is nothing more than a vehicle for binary judgements—whether a work is "good" or "bad"—I really don't know how to respond to. Maybe Baudelaire or Manny Farber would, but not me.

@ Glenn Kenny... I would add that while I do think Almond has a point, I don't necessarily buy his whole argument. I don't think it's a fail, just a little half-baked. Also, I don't endorse binary judgements, certainly there are degrees of quality.

I submit, with only a hint of irony, that MC Hammer was a huge cultural force that helped bring hip hop to mainstream radio and MTV. I would argue this had very little to do with quality, and even less to do with criticism.

You make the point that many 'critics' do not understand criticism. In the era of Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, where game studios are guaranteed bonuses if their game hits a certain aggregate 'score', what IS the point of criticism? Do you distinguish between criticism and analysis?

And does the creator's intent matter? I'm pretty sure Hammer did not set out to make "Art" when recording Turn This Mutha Out. And I'm pretty sure DuChamp DID when he signed his name to that urinal...

Eh... who listens to critics?

Funny – always seems to me that “entertainer” refers to a performer people notably cruder and stupider than you consider an artist.

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