At the National Writers’ Conference at this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival, four of Australia’s best emerging arts critics appeared on a panel, ostensibly representing the critical analysis of four major art forms: film, theatre, literature, and television (though in fact all four critics have each written about multiple forms). Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Jane Howard, James Tierney and Chad Parkhill were brought together on a panel to discuss “Why do we like what we like, and should we even care? Why do we dissect things, and what value is there in examining the merits of the latest band, book, or show?”. The conversation was wide-ranging and showcased just why the Emerging Writers’ Festival is leading the way.
For the panel, each of these four critics was asked to prepare a five-minute introductory provocation. Such is the quality of these short pieces—and their overlappingness is also excellent—that The Lifted Brow asked if we could publish them all, one a day, this week.
LIVE-STREAMING OUR MUSIC CRITICISM?by Chad Parkhill
In 1969, an aspiring music journalist named Lester Bangs replied to a notice in Rolling Stone magazine seeking freelance music writers by sending in a review of MC5’s album Kick Out the Jams. The review would be Bangs’s first publication in a brief but storied career—and, as anyone who has suffered the presence of a certain kind of middle-aged male music nerd will know, Bangs is now seen as the sine qua non of rock music criticism: without Bangs, nothing. I don’t open this paper with this anecdote to further enshrine Bangs as (to purloin a phrase from Bill Callahan) a rock ’n’ roll saint—indeed, one of the more exciting developments in recent music critical history has been a re-evaluation of Bangs’s legacy and the championing of female contemporaries of his such as Sylvie Simmons, Lilian Roxon and Ellen Willis[i]. But Bangs’s review of MC5 reveals much about the assumptions that once pervaded music criticism, and how much the passage of time and developments in technology have rendered those assumptions untenable.
“Well, the album is out now and we can all judge for ourselves,” Bangs writes of the pre-release hype associated with MC5. “For my money they come on more like Blue Cheer than [John Coltrane] and [Pharaoh] Sanders but then my money has already gone for a copy of this ridiculous, overbearing, pretentious album; and maybe that’s the idea, isn’t it?” Undergirding Bangs’s critique of the album lies the assumption that the critic’s role is essentially that of a consumer guide: is this album worth spending your money on? It also assumes that the critic has an epistemological privilege over the reader by virtue not only of his (and rock criticism was mostly a male province in 1969) superior knowledge of music and, concomitantly, taste[ii], but also in terms of access to the music. Finally, it assumes that both critic and reader broadly agree on matters of taste. Lester Bangs has listened to Kick Out the Jams; you have not; he’s here to tell you whether it’s any good. (In the case of Kick Out the Jams, Lester says it’s no good; posterity has been much kinder, and the album is now regarded as one of the key documents of the protopunk movement.) If you’re tempted to see this understanding of the critic’s role and the associated assumptions as a unique case, bear in mind that Robert Christgau—who calls himself the ‘Dean of American Rock Critics’—earned his reputation from short capsule reviews published between 1969 and 2013 in the Village Voice under the heading ‘Consumer Guide’.[iii]
In retrospect it’s amazing that Christgau’s ‘Consumer Guide’ approach lasted into 2013. By the mid-noughties the assumptions that the audience would consider buying an album, that the audience had less knowledge of music than the critic, that the critic has accessed the music before the listener, and that the listener was likely to care about a critic’s opinion had already started to crumble in the face of leaks, piracy, and the splintering and recombination of musical taste enabled by the internet; in 2015 those assumptions seem almost charmingly quaint. Who amongst us buys music any more? Why would you, when you can stream almost anything you can buy from iTunes on Spotify for the price of having to put up with an annoying ad every so often? (Who even pirates it?) While only a fool would dare suggest they have a more encyclopaedic knowledge of music than Christgau, who worked full-time from 1969 to 2013 listening to new-release albums, who would want to suggest that Christgau has better insights into their favourite micro-genre than they do? Why would you care about what a critic says about an album when their review appears two weeks or a month after you first listened to the album thanks to a prerelease leak[iv]? And why would you listen to a critic labouring under the pretense that their voice matters when critics themselves seem to have abdicated the role of adjudicating matters of taste in favour of what some dismissively call ‘poptimism’?[v]
The question for music critics right now seems to boil down to this: what does it mean to be a music critic when our audiences can be listening to the song or album we’re discussing at the same time as they read our take on it? What happens when we no longer function as a filter between the audience and the ever-larger deluge of new music but instead take part in a three-way conversation between musicians, audiences, and ourselves?
I suspect that there are no easy answers to these questions, because the state of music criticism reflects the current state of the music industry: a state of profound flux. Streaming services dominated music-critical discourse in 2013 and 2014; in 2015 alone we’ve seen the launch of a new artist-led streaming service, Tidal, that practically tanked within weeks, the closure of Grooveshark owing to legal issues, and some embarrassing revelations about Spotify’s contracts that may render its position among the major labels untenable. CD and digital sales continue to decline, while demand for vinyl is higher than ever—although nowhere near the level that would be required to supplant CDs as the music industry’s staple. Thanks to a confluence of technology and consumer demand, music has become as ubiquitous as tap water—and just about as valuable.[vi]
In such a landscape, the role of the music critic will have to be re-evaluated, and I don’t think there are many music critics out there who are not currently rethinking their critical practice. (Perhaps this explains critics’ eagerness to write about reissues and compilations—amateur historiography is an easier and more pleasant prospect than being pressed to pass some sort of judgement on new-release music.) If we have not already done so, we will have to jettison the assumption that we can ever achieve the kind of encyclopaedic knowledge of the contemporary music scene that critics such as Christgau claimed to possess of the music scenes of their own times. The conversation will have to become more intimate, something akin to what used to happen when a friend would press a mixtape into your hand: Here. Listen to this. I think you’ll like it, and here’s why.
Chad Parkhill is a cultural critic who writes about sex, booze, music, history, and books - but not necessarily in that order.
[i]For example, see Anwen Crawford’s excellent New Yorker piece ‘The World Needs Female Rock Critics’, or Joel McIver’s recent interview with Sylvie Simmons in The Quietus.
[ii] Bangs would later go on to mourn the death of what we might call a public sphere or a common language of taste in his coverage of Elvis Presley’s death for The Village Voice in 1977: “[N]ot for everyone was Elvis the still-reigning King of Rock ’n’ Roll, in fact not for everyone is rock ’n’ roll the still-reigning music. By now, each citizen has found his own little obsessive corner to blast his brain in: as the sixties were supremely narcissistic, solipsism’s what the seventies have been about, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the world of ‘pop’ music. … [S]olipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.” Needless to say the development of music streaming services has further shattered the concept of a musical demos.
[iii]Of course, Christgau’s column was more than a mere consumer guide, owing to the quality of his densely-packed prose. Douglas Wolk has argued that “The title of the ‘Consumer Guide’ was a serious joke—it was probably a little unfashionable in 1969 for a music critic to present his work as market-based service journalism.” That may be the case, but Christgau’s own introduction to his archive of ‘Consumer Guide’ reviews on the web makes plain just how serious he was about the joke: he argues it lasted so long because people found it useful when making purchasing decisions
[iv]. As artists often put their new release albums for streaming online as soon as a leak happens—one way to mitigate the loss of sales that occur when a curious fan downloads a prerelease leak and neglects to follow up with a purchase once it’s legally available—even virtuous music fans benefit from the actions of the not-so-virtuous
[v]. See Saul Austerlitz’s New York Times piece ‘The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism’, which corrals a number of complaints about the supposedly un-critical nature of contemporary music criticism. Although Ted Gioia’s incendiary article ‘Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting’ doesn’t use the term ‘poptimism’, it too can be read as a screed against the supposedly too-permissive nature of modern music criticism
[vi].This is a metaphor I’ve used in the past in relation to streaming services, so it was heartening to see Jay Z use a similar analogy when launching Tidal. That water industry executives have reacted poorly to Jay Z’s comments indicates that both the music and water industries are suffering from a problem of value perception—neither music nor water is actually free, but consumers act as though neither is particularly valuable.