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14 Arguments for the Elimination of Pop Music Critics

There may, once, have been a good reason to be a popular music critic. But those reasons have vanished with the rise of the internet music scene.

From the start here on Fingertips, I have made it clear that I am not a music "critic"; I have always, instead, seen my role as similar to that of a disc jockey--at least the sort of disc jockey who was on the air when rock'n'roll was getting established on FM radio.

These were disc jockeys who were as passionate about music as they were knowledgeable. When they loved a song--for wonderful, uncanny, intuitive reasons--they played it. At their best, these disc jockeys on their own (no research! no focus groups!) possessed an ability to identify songs that could resonate with a wide audience of interested music fans.

And no, in the scheme of things, the reign of this sort of disc jockey on commercial radio did not last too long--from the late '60s through perhaps the mid '70s. Ancient history in many ways. But the model--having a passionate, well-informed music aficionado share his or her favorite songs or albums with you--remains, in my mind, the most inspiring and effective way to find great music, bar none.

And that's what it's like on the web these days. Sort of. Except for the fact that a few too many people writing about music on the net think that they're actually supposed to be pop music critics rather than disc jockeys.

This, I believe, is a terrible idea. As far as I'm concerned, pop music critics have little reason for existing in the first place, and no reason to exist as role models for music bloggers or anyone else writing about music online.

This may be an unusual point of view, but it's not unconsidered. To better explain myself, I present "14 Arguments for the Elimination of Pop Music Critics" (with apologies to Jerry Mander). This was originally posted in the Commentary section here on Fingertips. But because this one sticks, and underscores everything this web site is about, here it is on its own permanent page. And now, the arguments:

1. There are few if any objective and/or useful standards by which to judge popular music.*

* The 20th-century more or less took care of that. In the past one might have pointed to some basic benchmarks such as the ability to sing in tune, to play an instrument with mastery, or to write a song with depth of structure and an engaging melody. It has been shown, and not necessarily to the detriment of music, that none of these factors need be present for music to succeed at some level with at least some listeners.

2. As such there is no authoritative way to be trained as a pop music critic.*

* Without an accepted set of standards to guide this ostensible profession, there is no real training that can happen. The only training working critics can point to is what they consider on-the-job training: the fact that they end up doing it for a certain amount of time gives them the confidence that they know how to do it. But if there is no agreed-upon way to do the job, if they more or less simply wing it from day one, guided by their own personal sense of musical worthiness, then this isn't "training" in any meaningful sense of the word; it might just as easily lead to the slow, steady hardening of bad habits, and in any case grants the critic no far-reaching authority.

3. Therefore when pop music critics make pronouncements and judgements they are really, and only, proclaiming their own opinions--which is in fact a subversion of the actual role of criticism.*

* This may be a difficult point to understand here on this opinion-crazed medium in this opinion-crazed decade, but here goes: a useful, well-trained, insightful critic is--ideally--doing more than simply "expressing his or her opinion" in the first place. A useful, well-trained, insightful critic is bringing a consummate knowledge of form, structure, and artistic standards to his or her writing. As this is pretty much impossible in pop music, as previously argued, pop music critics are left with nothing but their opinions. This is a tenuous position at best; it's made worse by the blustery, vainglorious language too many pop music critics employ--language that rarely if ever hints at how purely subjective it is. The typical pop music critic, instead, will state opinion as presumptive fact whenever possible: "This album has several failings," "He has never been more inspired," etc. I am not asking pop music critics to begin every sentence with a reminder that they are merely stating their opinions; I am however reminding readers that, unlike critics in other areas of the arts, pop music critics have little but their own opinions in which to ground themselves.

4. Until very recently, the difficulty of gaining access to a public forum for one's opinion served as its own sort of authority*; and, in fact, one of the only ways pop music critics could be judged was by the merits of their publication.**

* The thinking was: "If this worthy publication sees fit to pay me to be its music critic then I must know what I'm talking about." Yes, actual living breathing critics have been known to offer this as rationale for their existence--for a long time, in fact, I was able to refer you here to an article written by a pop music critic in Oklahoma that asserted this very idea. Unfortunately, that article is no longer available online.

** This meant that the New York Times pop music critic was de facto "better" than the Cincinnati Enquirer pop music critic because the Times was clearly recognized as a better publication than the Enquirer, etc.

5. But it is no longer difficult to gain access to a public forum for one's opinion. Just about anyone can have a web site, and almost literally everyone already has a blog.*

* This is a revolution that we are still very much in the middle of, still are we bewildered in the midst of a massive reorientation of human interaction. Everything will make sense in retrospect. In the meantime, this is extremely significant: each of us, now, if we are lucky enough to have our basic needs met (roofs over heads, food in bellies, clothing for warmth) can speak--at least in theory--to the wide world.

6. While not every blog is about music and not every music blog is written by someone who is insightful and well-informed, a surprising number of people writing about music online are, in fact, engaged and passionate music aficionados, and therefore, quite often, insightful and well-informed.*

* Sure there's a whole sub-universe of cranks, crackpots, and thick-headed sorts who've set up shop on the web. Our job is pretty much to ignore them because our true task is to encourage the worthy, as the late Italo Calvino so eloquently stated.

7. Meaning that: the opinions of an annointed pop music critic in an established publication are no more (or less) credible than the opinions of a great number of engaged and passionate music aficionados writing about music online.*

* Thus we have arrived at the great secret that pop music critics are highly defended against. (Shoot, this whole web thing snuck up on them too.)

8. At best, therefore, most pop music critics are superfluous.* But I suspect they may be worse than superfluous. I've come to believe that the pop music critic model of presenting music to interested music fans is needlessly harmful, as it perpetuates a pointlessly mean-spirited approach to music dissemination and discussion.**

* Sure, if you happen to know of some you like, go right ahead and keep them around. I for one will gladly hang onto Alex Ross's excursions into pop music criticism (but note that most of the time he writes about classical music; I suspect he knows what I know deep down). But by and large I contend that the services of pop music critics are no longer required.

** What? Pop music critics mean-spirited? You don't say!

9. Pop music critics are often mean-spirited* precisely because they are very likely to feel defensive (however unconsciously) about the underlying tenuousness of their position in the first place.**

* I use mean-spirited as an umbrella word to indicate the typically arrogant, often snide, sometimes outright nasty tone commonly displayed by too many (but, I know, not all) pop music critics.

** See arguments 1 through 7. This defensiveness is easy enough to understand. There's perhaps no surer way protect the inner knowledge that your own opinions are no more or less valid than your readers than by projecting a high and mighty attitude, designed to intimidate readers into submission.

10. But critiquing pop music does not require a writer to be arrogant, snide, or in any way nasty.*

* It doesn't help that music critics over time become very detached from the experience of the very people they are trying to talk to--music fans. Consider it an inescapable difference between someone who is paid to listen to music that they don't pay for and someone who listens for free to music that they do have to pay for. (Illegal downloading has added a new category of non-professional listener: someone who listens for free to music they did not pay for. For the record I don't think these people should have any say in the matter at all.) It also doesn't help that a goodly number of music critics are themselves musicians, which complicates their views of and feelings about other musicians doing either the same thing or different things.

11. Unfortunately, this is the way we are pretty much used to pop music critics being, and as a result many web writers--who in actuality have no particular need to be arrogant or jaded--continue to emulate this.*

* Look around you. (Try, maybe, here.) You'll see.

12. But here in this new century, here within this new medium, I believe we can lean in a different direction. We will be well served to reject the pop music critic model of arrogance and negativity.*

* This model was, after all, based on an underlying defensiveness that no longer applies. All we are here on the internet are a bunch of people with opinions and web sites. So, okay, if you were writing in the Village Voice in the '70s maybe you needed to pretend you were more just one guy with an opinion but you never really were. And it's okay.

13. So, look: there is nothing wrong with saying "I like"--it's all there is, really, when it comes to a subjective experience such as listening to music. Being a so-called "music critic" has proven to be a crummy model for presenting "I like." A much better model is being a disc jockey, as in the early free-form days of rock'n'roll radio.*

* And here's why this can and should happen first and foremost on the web: because the web is not just about words. Back when writers could only write in print publications, being DJ-like was pretty pointless. But here on the web, where you can offer music to listen to with the words you are writing, we really can be DJs. We don't have to be critics.

14. In this model, an engaged and passionate music aficionado tells people about music he or she likes, in the interest of spreading the word and the good vibes, and also, essentially, plays it for them, so they can hear it themselves. There is no need for a disc jockey to talk about (or play!) music he or she doesn't like; what's the point? There is so much good music to play. The less-good music is simply put to the side.*

* And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.**

** In my opinion.

Originally posted in February 2005 as a Fingertips Commentary. Point number three was updated in July 2007, in response to this. The latest Commentary essay was posted in March 2007, here.


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