Steve Almond wrote a little diatribe raging against music criticism for The Boston Globe a couple weeks ago. I say “little” because his argument is just that: Weak, narrow-minded, short-sighted… All of these things and more. For an author/journalist whose work I’ve enjoyed when I come across it, I was genuinely shocked to see the contempt and naiveté with which Almond views music criticism:
I’d come up against a concept I’ve since come to think of as the Music Critic Paradox: the simple fact that even the best critics — the ones, unlike me, with actual training and talent — can’t begin to capture what it feels like to listen to music.
With that sentence, Almond displayed the many weaknesses of his argument. That, somehow, critics don’t strive to capture what it “feels like” to listen to the music. That a music critic must have “actual training and talent” (musically, that is) in order to be able to observe the piece of music being critiqued.
It’s an extremely naive understanding of what music criticism should be, and it saddens me to see someone with immense writing talent – first and foremost the kind of talent that a critic (or at least one who writes for a living) must have – believes that’s the case.
A major goal that a music critic must undertake is being able to explain a medium (aka music) to a mass audience. You don’t need a master’s degree in musicology to be able to explain it: In fact, it probably helps that you don’t have one. Unless you’re writing for a musically-educated audience, dropping words like “arpeggiation” in a review can effectively turn a mass number of people away. Therein lies the challenge of music writing: Crafting words that can somehow hope to explain the sound of a guitar riff that anyone can understand.
And in the case of feeling the music – it’s also a part of the challenge. As Almond fondly looked back on his short period as a music critic in the article, it appears that he’s as close-minded on the subject now as he was then: He seemed to have agreed to an unspoken standard that criticism equals automatic hatred of all things you’re covering. Almond’s article sets up a critics vs. fans battle to the death, as if critics aren’t fans, and as if fans cannot become critics. If music criticism is your job, I don’t envy the person who has zero passion for this field. It’s the kind of work that swallows your life whole, and if you don’t care for aural art and you do this for a living, it’s got to be a dark world.
Music criticism should not be about looking down on all things music related. It shouldn’t be about holding one’s taste over another. It should be about well-written (or spoken or filmed) pieces that carve out one’s reactions to another’s art. Great music criticism is an art unto itself. It reveals the importance of an artist, a song or an album in today’s world. It explains an unknown piece of music to an audience that will get a reader/listener/viewer to perk up and say, “hey, that appeals to me.” Because, above all, anyone looking up music criticism is already a fan.
Music isn’t created in a vacuum. Neither is music criticism. It’s all a part of a conversation. At it’s best, a piece of music criticism can help a band reach the kind of audience that it never could have achieved on its own. Or it can shine a light on the contributions of a musical community.
Even at its worst, at its most vile state, negative music criticism can inspire artists in their resolve to make better music, to prove themselves, to not back down. Just ask Chuck D., who riled against critics (not just the music ones) on “Welcome to the Terrordome,” to create one of Public Enemy’s strongest and best tracks, all after nearly falling to pieces. And you can read all about Public Enemy’s comeback-from-their-near-break-up in the brilliantly written book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. It’s written by Jeff Chang, a music critic. And a music fan.
Almond incorrectly creates a war between critics and fans, as if to say their is only one opinion that matters and it’s an “either/or” statement. Well, there is only one opinion that matters: Your own. You can be the “critic” or “the fan,” but the choice is yours. Though Almond sort of understands that, his misinterpretation of the music critic’s role shows a fundamental misunderstanding in the ways that critics can be a part of a community, of a scene or of a listening experience.
One well-known writer who’s got the idea down is Roger Ebert. In his “best films of the decade” list, Ebert hit the nail on the head:
Almost the first day I started writing reviews, I found a sentence in a book by Robert Warshow that I pinned on the wall above my desk. I have quoted it so frequently that some readers must be weary of it, but it helps me stay grounded. It says:
A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.
That doesn’t make one person right and another wrong. All it means is that you know how they really felt, not how they thought they should feel.
It is, indeed, all individual. The critic that tries to force their opinion as the archetypal standard for society isn’t any better than anyone else with an opinion. But, unlike Almond’s assertion, a critic no less than anyone either.