Are Music Critics Pointless? (Opinion)

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“Everyone hears music different, so I don’t understand how music critics have jobs,” Tyler, the Creator recently wrote on Twitter. “Whether good or bad, it really baffles me.” He later added, “What if the way I see blue is the way you see yellow?”

The Odd Future frontman’s missive is only one of many in a recent onslaught on musicians bemoaning the role of music critics on Twitter. Rock band UMO’s Ruban Neilson noted earlier this month, “Warning: what music blogs and magazines say is bad or good has no particular relationship to reality.” Even Trent Renzor chimed in, spurred by a review of How To Destroy Angels’ debut album. “Mandatory bad Pitchfork review alert!” the Nine Inch Nails frontman tweeted. “Comforting to know some things are a constant and entirely predictable in these confusing times.”

The war between musicians and their critics has been fought almost as long as so-called “rock journalism” has existed. There is an extensive list of songs penned specifically about how much musicians detest their critics (Taylor Swift’s “Mean,” believed to be aimed at music industry pundit Bob Lefsetz, references a critic who “crossed the line over and over again”) but the omnipresent state of online social media has presented musicians with a no-barrier outlet that could effectively dismantle the role of the music critic.

M.I.A.’s Twitter battle with New York Times writer Lynn Hirschberg is now infamous and a highly-cited example of this direct interface -- one that can be used both defensively and offensively. After NME reported in Dec. 2012 that Jack White had called Lady Gaga “all artifice,” White employed his Third Man Records’ website as a forum to deconstruct the unverified news.

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“If you're going to try to cause drama, at least get the quotes right,” White wrote. “I think journalists should also be held accountable for what they say. Especially publications like the NME who put whatever words they feel like between two quotation marks and play it off as a quote. Maybe somebody with more lawyers can take them to task, but I'll just use the Internet and Twitter instead.”

Has the role of the music critic changed in the era of Twitter, or is it just now easier for musicians to offer rebuttals to articles they dislike? And who, in the era of the Internet, where anyone can be a critic, is qualified to “review” music? As the age-old multi-use saying goes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture -- the essence of a song or a melody is unknowable in words and will inevitably be lost in translation.

Veteran music journalist Michael Azerrad, author of Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991 and Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, recently unveiled a new music criticism website The Talkhouse to offer a theoretical solution to the above issue. The site, edited by Azerrad, will feature one post on an album per day -- and each piece is written by a musician.

“Naturally, no one knows more about music than musicians,” Azerrad wrote in a mission statement. “They talk about their own work all the time, but they rarely get to talk about other people's music. That's what The Talkhouse is all about: smart, distinguished musicians from all genres and generations writing about the latest releases. And there's a twist: there will be comments for each piece -- but only from the artist who's being written about. The idea is promote dialogue between musicians who may never have interacted otherwise, and for Talkhouse readers to have a ringside seat to this unique exchange.”

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The site so far boasts pieces from Andrew W.K. (on Robert Pollard’s latest effort) and Duff McKagan (on Kiss’ Monster), among others. The format addresses one of the biggest issues in music criticism -- that those writing it are not qualified to comment on how music is made. It’s a viable experiment in the medium, one that has so far generated compelling, if not long-winded, reflections on notable albums from recent years. But it’s still people with subjective views writing about something that can’t exactly be pinned down with language.

Music criticism, whether written by a musician or a blogger or a skilled teacher who reads sheet music and plays four instruments, is not about what’s good or bad. It’s not about categorizing the creative experience into a letter grade. The role of the critic is to contextualize, to generate an understanding of how our world is being reflected in popular culture and how that reflection compares to what came before. The critic helps the listener understand what they’re listening to and how it fits into music’s big picture. Is everyone currently writing for a blog qualified to offer this context? Maybe not, but it’s still a discourse worth pursuing, and Azerrad’s site, for one, allows musicians an equal voice in this conversation.

Artists like Tyler, the Creator and UMO’s Neilson could perhaps make better use of their online followings by engaging in this discourse, rather than rejecting it outright. They don’t necessarily need to review the albums of others in order to do so, but it could be worthwhile to understand the role of the critic before dismissing it entirely. My yellow may be your blue, but what does that tell us about the culture we’re creating together -- musician, listener and media?

Albert Murray famously wrote, “Perhaps the very first function of criticism is to mediate between the work of art and the uninitiated reader, viewer, or listener. As mediator, the critic decodes and explains the elements of the game of stylization and makes the aesthetic statement more accessible. Then, having indicated what is being stylized and how it is being stylized, the critic may also give a ‘professional observers’ opinion as to how effectively it has been stylized and perhaps to what personal and social end. In doing all of this, criticism proceeds in terms of taste, which is to say a highly or specially developed sense of the optimum proportion of the basic elements involved and of the relative suitability of the processing.”

Murray published this in 1976, long before the era of Twitter and Pitchfork and the idea of anyone can be a critic because everyone has Internet access and an opinion. But it resonates even now. Those who review still have a responsibility to “decode” artistic creations for the public at large and to undertake the role of “professional observer.” There is no limit on who can do this, and it should be done. There should be music critics, just as there should be historians and scientists and teachers. Without critics, all the future can know of Justin Bieber will be his music. And without a contextual understanding of the pop artist and his role in our contemporary culture, how will we explain that?

Twitter: @emilyzemler