In defense of music criticism

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.

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10 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. johngrant #

    “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.”

    I certainly hope this is not true. If it is it would betray a self-destructive dynamic of dishonesty, nullifying the legitimacy of both. At least to my sensibilities; I love much music, and I detest much music, and I enjoy reading the impressions of others regarding both.

    I don’t know anything about Steve Almond, but I think you left out the critical element of his regret, “Fans don’t just sit there (as critics do) parsing the technical merits of a song. They bring to each song their own emotional needs: their lust and sorrow, their hopes and heartbreak.” Bingo.

    When I was 15 I loved the Doors. Their music appealed to some intangible but core desire in the adolescent me. Today, the Doors strike me as vastly and hilariously ridiculous. (My impressions of Lester Bangs have a similar history.)

    While I don’t agree with Almond’s dismissal of music criticism as “a pointless exercise,” I appreciate his confession about being dishonest, unfair, and part of trend in music criticism of dishonesty and unfairness – much of it simply to satisfy the self-importance and/or self-image of individual critics, completely failing to identify his place in that relational dynamic of music and listener.

    Hopefully, most artists can read criticism (good AND bad) as something closer to pointless than to inspiration.

  2. Leor Galil #

    Hey John,

    Thank you so much for such a thoughtful and insightful comment, and I apologize for my delayed reply!

    Originally, I wanted to fit that quote into my piece, but as I wrote it, I felt that I would be repeating my points. That being that Almond doesn’t seem to consider that the critic is also a fan, that the critic also feels those same emotional needs.

    And yes, I agree that it’s great how honest Almond was… yet, I disagree with his gigantic blacklisting of criticism as a whole just because he went into the job with such a disdainful attitude. I’d say anyone with that attitude should reconsider their position much as Almond did.

    As far as the impact criticism has on music, I must simply reiterate my point that music is not made in a vacuum, and neither is music criticism. It’s great if an artist reads criticism and is unaffected by it, but, I sincerely hope that if a musician reads anything from a negative review, they’d come to create something positive out of it more than anything else (much like Chuck D did.)

    Thanks as always for reading and commenting, I really appreciate your input.

  3. savio #

    “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.”

    Extremely naive, yes. What’s next? Expecting book reviewers to be able to read? Or movie reviewers to know how films are made and marketed?

  4. Leor Galil #

    Your “argument” would work, except the analogy doesn’t bear the slightest weight. Maybe if you said “expecting music critics to be able to read” it would match up perfectly, but you didn’t because it doesn’t fit your rather unfortunate critique.

    Nice try.

  5. savio #

    Interesting “answer.”

    Ohhhh-kay. You debated the need for a music critic to possess “actual training and talent” in music. In response, I debated the need for book and movie critics to have “actual training and talent” in their fields of criticism.

    I kept it simple and sarcastic–literature (ability to read), movies (basic knowledge of how films are made–movie cameras, editing, scripts, etc.).

    No, the details aren’t exactly parallel, but that’s perfectly okay. Do you know why? Because the literary device called analogy takes the form “A is to B as C is to D.”

    Astonishing, isn’t it? Now, let’s apply that wisdom to the present situation:

    A (knowing about chords and melody) is to B (music criticism) what C (knowing how to read; knowing how movies are made) is to D (book criticism; movie criticism). See?

    I guess it all starts with knowing what an analogy is. And how it works. Maybe that’s too much like actual training?

  6. Leor Galil #

    If, say, this was the SAT and people would be given the choices between your analogy and mine, mine would be the right answer. Because it’s never about choosing the one where the details “aren’t exactly parallel,” but match up the best.

    And I didn’t “debate” whether or not a music critic needs musical training and talent: Debate would imply a conversation. Your sarcastic remarks are hardly furthering any conversation. The talent a music critic needs is to be able to write, and transcribe what it’s like listening to the music to the masses.

    Perhaps a better analogy for your case may be A (knowing how to read) is to be (book criticism) what C (actually reading the contents of a post thoughtfully) is to D (commenting.)

    Oh, but you’re right, that wouldn’t work. Otherwise, this “debate” wouldn’t be happening.

  7. savio #

    Okay, I’ll concede this pissing contest to the biggest, um… ego. After all, my initial comment was terse and sarcastic. Plus, there isn’t much point discussing a literary device like analogy in the keep-it-stupid, blogger-as-God environment of T/S.

  8. Leor Galil #

    I never meant for this to be a pissing contest: I genuinely enjoy when readers comment and point out errors in my argument. This one just happened to go a little overboard!

    And honestly, the environment at T/S is whatever you bring to it. If you wish to think of it as “keep-it-stupid” and only bring sarcasm to the conversation, it’s merely a case of self-fulfilling prophecy.

  9. keuka56 #

    Well, first of all, it’s whose, not who’s. Who’s is a short form of who is, as in “Who’s on first.”

    Second, you do not seem to know what an analogy is. The SAT question as to what is most similar tests the ability, for example, to see what category things fit into–to know that an epic is a poem, not a movie, a battle, or an historic event.

    An analogy is not a simple concept. It infers that one thing is like something else in a particular way, although not in all ways. Just now I read the title of an article which refers to Sarah Palin as the party’s Goldwater. She sure does not look like him or talk like him–but we get the point. And the title poses the question. as Sarah is to Goldwater, who is to Reagan?

    You are reducing the art critic’s role. I expect the dance critic in the New York Times to know all about dance–the history of ballet, the career of Merce Cunningham, the best young dancers with great careers ahead of them. I do not reduce the critic’s role to telling me how the dance feels. It is informed opinion I am expecting.

    A literary critic must be an intelligent and educated reader. The Amazon reviews of novels, for instance, are not literary criticism. Likewise, I assume that a music critic should know what music is. Music, not flashing lights, sexy singers, great costumes, “vibes” or whatever. Musicians should be judged, as it were, by those who know what it is to make music. That implies some training, some knowledge, some point of reference beyond one’s own feelings.

    Most artists I have known–musicians, writers, painters, dancers–are themselves very invested in studying their art. Their critics should be so as well.

  10. Leor Galil #

    To quote verbatim: “a comparison between two things, typically on the basis of their structure and for the purpose of explanation or clarification.”

    I understand what an analogy is. The previous thread was simply filled with mockery and contempt, and honestly shouldn’t be taken seriously.

    And, I’m sorry, but it seems that you are reducing an art critic’s role. For some reason, you seem to equate “not having music training and talent” with being uneducated about music history. Your point about the dance critic is filled – never mind all your points – merely references historical contexts. My only argument is that a critic need not know how to play an instrument well in order to understand the finer points of history.

    Honestly, it seems that you’re arguing the same point as I did and normally do: That a critic must be learned. But you don’t need a degree in music to be able to read up on modern pop music history, to be able to recognize melodies (or, honestly know what a melody is: Anyone can figure that out), to be able to try and understand what the musician is trying to accomplish.

    Did I ever say that music is “flashing lights, sexy singers, great costumes, “vibes” or whatever…”? No. And that’s quite an assumption to make that someone without a training in music is only able to write about that.

    You can have all the musical training in the world and not be able to string together a coherent sentence. It’s a bunk argument at best, and it’s the same type of elitist remark launched at musicians such as Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix couldn’t read or write music, so does that negate his ability to play because he didn’t train in the “proper” circles?

    And thank you for the grammar check. I don’t claim to be perfect, and I’ll fix the error.

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