Collected Stories « PREV | NEXT »: Criticizing the critics at length (or because of it)

January 28, 2011

Commenters' Lament

One of the surprising positives of having converted the Consumer Guide into the less remunerative but also less laborious Expert Witness blog at MSN Music is the comments. I expected the usual why-don't-you-like-what-I-like drivel, but in fact get almost none of that. Instead I seem to have gathered my fanbase, or part of it, into an online community of music obsessives. I'm getting what I'm told is a lot of comments, many of which I learn from. Many of them are flattering, which is certainly an attraction. But I've had my fill and what I like best now is the learning part--sites I didn't know about, records I didn't know about, detailed insights that enrich and sometimes even change my view of music I already knew about.

There are also occasional comments about music journalism itself, usually more perspicacious than the usual. A few of the commenters write professionally themselves, though seldom full-time. And I was struck by this recent exchange:

NMRIYOTD: The most disheartening thing I do on a weekly basis is read the record reviews in my local papers.  Nary a one ever gives off the impression of having actually LISTENED to the record - of having gotten to know it, thought about it, made sense of it, tried to convey through good writing why the record is good, bad or neither. Many years ago I reviewed the Pogues If I Should Fall From Grace with God for the local alt weekly.  It was a 150 word review and I got pushed by the editor to get it in fast so it looked like we were keeping up on things and weren't reviewing "old" records.  I handed it in and told him I'd managed to listen to it 6 times and came up with a fairly decent appraisal of what I thought of it.  He looked at me and said "6 times??" incredulously.  About 10 minutes later on the subway home I realized he meant "why did you waste your time listening to it so often?".  Ah well..."

stanpnepa: I know someone who reviews about a dozen albums a month for a local paper.  He tells me that he listens to most only ONCE.   I was totally baffled - as it takes me at least three plays to absorb a new album - and if I have a large gap between plays - sometimes more.

Tom Walker: One thing Christgau, and some other music critics, too, have really taught me is to give music some room, give it a chance to grow.  Three plays is about right for me, too, just to get a good sense of what's going on, more if it's lyrics-heavy music. I mean, sometimes once is enough - cut your losses!  But I don't have to write anything.


Do I have to point out how sad this is--how infuriating, how true, how pervasive? I've heard several similar stories recently from people working at or at least for venues more prestigious than the local alt-weekly--yes, there are still a few. Writers' laziness is one thing, though when reviews are paid at 10 bucks a pop I guess there's a kind of justice there. But editors' demands are at least as bad. Crushing out reviews for timeliness's sake is such a trap. Seeing a movie once and writing a brief essay-review about it is possible--I used to do it myself when I was younger. Hearing a record once, especially at a "listening session," or even three-four times over a few hours at home, and writing even 300 words about it is totally foreign to the way people use recorded music--at least people who aren't just trolling MP3 sites the way people used to listen to the radio. Sorry if I've said something similar before. But those unpaid music obsessives raised my outrage level.

January 28, 2011 3:02 AM | | Comments (9)

9 Comments

One of the great things about doing my doctorate was that I went to a school that emphasized reading well over reading a lot; hence for the first time in my life I learned to really read. Taking in a book or an album--even a great movie I would argue--is a meditative experience in which one's perceptions of the piece are transformed over time by continual engagement. Sadly, such an approach seem to be a practice from an ancient era for too many people in an impatient 'experience it now' culture.

Those who do not know how to listen, how to read, how to look and watch, will be led by those who are deaf, dumb and blind in the same way. And who proclaim it a virtue. Welcome to the situation.

No arguments, but a couple of points. First, anyone doing it (meaning anything) just to get the bucks with the least effort is going to do a lousy job-- I hope that there is a process that selects this out over time, but it's an inefficient resource for music lovers/consumers in the short term. Know your scribes well enough to trust them.

Second, a good art writer can get bad quickly outside of his or her scope. The range of music available is increasing at a staggering fashion-- too many rock writers (and art writers generally) seem like they feel that they can dash off something valuable about the new box set of complete recordings by Fela (which would take a full calendar week to listen to just once, with almost certainly little if any precedent familiarity) in the same way that they would a bit about the next Pixies reissue.

Third, and this is less a point than a call to arms, I recollect Lester Bangs' admissions of knocking off sharp and wrong reviews based on quick listens under various forms of stress. Of course, many people would agree that he wrote in a fractured brilliance nonetheless but most importantly he self-corrected over time. MC5. Fun House. (Not James Taylor.) And he was forgiven, although he became a much more disciplined writer (if not human being) as the 70's ebbed. I'm not sure whether this example excuses writerly sloppiness or damns Lester. Or if it emphasizes that great writing trumps all, even opinions. Because we can't have Lester back and we need more great writers and writing.

"I'm not sure whether this example excuses writerly sloppiness or damns Lester. Or if it emphasizes that great writing trumps all, even opinions."

I think Lester Bangs is such a unique case that invoking him as a call to superior music writing is like invoking Jimi Hendrix as a call to superior guitar mastery. And like Hendrix, Bangs is a deeply dangerous role model. Imitated again and again, probably for eternity, without the essence ever being equaled.

What Bangs conveyed, better than any judgment of a particular piece of music or performer (Van Morrison maybe excepted), was how enveloping-exciting pop music could be to a fan. His paragraph in the James Taylor essay about the perfect record blowing the top of your head off is one for the ages. And that was prime nourishment back in the day -- Yes, I'm not crazy. Yes, mere three-minute songs can be this captivating.

I'd like to invoke another writer, far less famous, as a call to armed music criticism. Go look up everything you can find online by Mark Moses in the New Yorker and the Boston Phoenix. I think he's a more useful guide to inspired music writing than Lester. Reading Mark (who died of AIDS in 1989) turns you on to a delicious fusion of passion, power and elegant style. A true believer who tells you the truth and makes you believe. And who shows you the way with his words.

I always thought of Lester as more like Mick, Keith and Charlie combined than as Hendrix. Ostentatious, wild and sooo skilled everything held together just right. Though I do get your point that it's just as dangerous to emulate him as for a guitar player to aim for new-Hendrix status.

More than anything though, I love these last two posts. The absence of a recognized cadre of thoughtful and skilled rock critics has been a huge downer in the last two decades. And has not helped the music improve, as I (probably naively) think the earlier generation of writers did. Not that they (you?) aren't out there, but with the expansion of information not knowledge, that it's harder to follow who's thoughtful and skilled and who's not.

GM

Milo-- Thanks for helping me to refine my point about Lester Bangs. I wanted to dog-ear his honesty-- Bangs was honest not so much about his soul (although that came through) but about his process. My point was/is that there is much under the control of writers about how they operate that would help them illuminate their subjects. Lester was incredibly transparent in telling us what he did (or did not do) in the process of arriving at his opinions.

I conflated Lester's honesty with his genius, which was irrelevant to my point but impossible for me to resist giving a shout out to. I'll join you in forming a road crew that says "don't go where Lester went" to nascent scribes, although in a sweet and substantial way I sometimes hear Bang's riffs in the approach of Rob Sheffield, who I deeply admire and who defiantly announces his own voice.

More than anything though, I want to latch onto GMort's comments about the "recognized cadre". There are way more rock writers today than there ever was. Few (none) get paid in accordance with their work, and 95% of the time it shows. The result is too little influence over the trajectory of the art of popular music by the people who are in the best position to articulate its impact. I'm always rooting for popular music, but I also want a revolution. The writers who can make this distinction still exist, perhaps in a bounty, but their individual impact is substantially diminished. My own feeling is that there is a systematic effort to mute the effect one person can have on the translation of a musical artist to our collective consciousness. But I don't have hard data to support this cynical supposition.

"but their individual impact is substantially diminished."

Eh, never amounted to much. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but the high point of music-critic influence on the music industry came way back in 1973 when Jon Landau’s lead rave review of Maria Muldaur’s solo debut in "Rolling Stone" convinced Warner Bros. to put more muscle behind the record and they got a Top 10 hit out of it. (Even Landau decided a couple minutes later he could have more influence as a manager.)

Now, trends-in-taste influence is a bit different, and the rise-of-punk years were clearly a time when looking at what the ears on the ground were writing mattered quite a bit. But once the conglomerates found out how to market music as fashion apart from any cultural cachet (remember, the Monkees were quite a bit better than their cultural cachet and still got puny love), the influence of critics (except as window dressing back when anybody thought pretty words meant anything) was over.

Trends-in-taste influence is sort of what I'm referring to. But more like insight and understanding influence which then leads to taste which can become a trend. And not just for whole movements. Slower and more subtle influence is fine by me. Just 'cause it takes a while to turn an aircraft carrier doesn't mean that nothing is happening. What we have now in the rockcrit world is so unfocused and diffuse that its impact is random at best, but more likely just absent.

If I've heard anything from this setting, it's that the professionals who do this kind of work for both love and money are lamenting the same thing. All I wanted to say was that I remembered it happening, I liked it and I miss it now that it's gone.

And what do I mean by "it"? Something smart, focused, multi-voiced, and that lives outside the machine about covers "it".


Well for me - if a CD doesn't hit me first time - that's the end of the story. I realise, of course, that this is totally wrong. We've all done it. Bought a CD listened to it once and filed it away. Then weeks, months, maybe even years later we play it out of curiosity and think - hey this is really good!
Trouble is reviewers can't work in that timescale so first impressions have to count particularly if they have half a dozen to consider and if it doesn't do it first time around tough!

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