Regarding Bad Music Criticism

I recently revisited a review on pitchforkmedia.com, the preeminent source of music criticism for the enlightened man, that consisted simply of a YouTube video depicting a monkey drinking its own urine (the subject, of course, was Jet’s 2006 release Shine On).

Entertaining as it may be, the review poses a fundamental problem common to so many music critics: They’re more concerned with entertaining readers than discerning the redeeming qualities of a work of art. These critics are a big problem: they tend to create factions among the listening public that ultimately determine how people define their culture. Misguided taste leads to unabashed ignorance leads to Nazism leads to nuclear fallout… But seriously folks, the bastardization of the art of criticism can potentially hurt the careers of serious artists, which makes unfounded criticism no laughing matter and, actually, a form of slander.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite books, Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective, which compiles biased and unfair criticisms of the greatest works of musical art from the times of Beethoven to Bartok. (Quick disclaimer: I am in no way comparing the comparatively boring and generic work of Jet to that of the pantheon of great composers; instead, I’m provoked by the perpetually cynical nature of critical culture.) Slonimsky’s Lexicon illustrates the ease with which the unfamiliar is reviled. Some (most, all?) music critics turn that easy condemnation into quick, cheap punch lines to entertain a contingent of like-minded “playa haters.” But these cheap punch lines victimize a lot more than the unfamiliar; some critics will skew the integrity of any and every creative aspect of a piece just to turn a clever phrase.

I like to pick on Pitchfork because I’ve found almost every single one of their reviews to be unfounded and aesthetically cluelesshowever well written. I laughed out loud to a review of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The critic complains about the difficulty of listening to the album sequentially due to stylistic inconsistency and ultimately alludes to the idea of the album’s achievement of biggest seller of all-time as being a “fluke.” The writer states that Thriller, even though it is a group of “brilliant singles,” doesn’t quite succeed in “working as an album.” [It should be noted that the critic was referring to the original
album in saying this, not the remixes that are included with the 25th Anniversary Edition]. “Working as an album,” we’re left to presume, is defined solely by white 70s rock, its followers, and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Oh, and if you buy into that, throw away all of your Rhino compilations and Jeff Buckley’s Grace.

But that tasty morsel of idiocy is too easy. Let’s examine a more controversial review of The Mars Volta’s typically ambitious new release, The Bedlam in Goliath. Now, I don’t swill at their artistic trough, but I’ve got to hand it to The Mars Volta: their albums are consistently ambitious, carefully crafted, proficiently executed, and interestingall in all a general wealth of listening rewards, and the new one’s no exception. Pitchfork skewers the album as a “tribute to their [MV] own excess.” The review proceeds to nitpick about immaterial details with fun quotables like “recently done drugs with Lil’ Wayne” and “soundtrack to Katamari Damacy” and “squander any WTF impact” and, and, and  whereas the Battles “actually sound like the future.” BOOM! It took a thousand words to get to the only real point: my New York beeps and boops are better than your Texas beeps and boops. When, in reality, both groups’ beeps and boops are truly worth a listen.

But it’s not just the bad opinions that are useless. Empty praise is just as bad, and, in my opinion, even worse. The critic who roasts for entertainment is also the charlatan’s bootlicker. “The next Bob Dylan” puts out a hundred records every year under a hundred different pseudonyms. And these boutique taste-mongers like most of the critics at Pitchfork sing their praises until you’re left with a giant collection of forgettable, sycophantic art.

Frank Zappa, in an interview with MOJO magazine in 1993, said, “Rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, in order to provide articles for people who can’t read.” This viewpoint, however narrow and cynical, undoubtedly resonates in the arena of music criticism. So many reviews and scores on pages and pages of so many magazines and websites amount to a bunch of smattering babble. To truly gauge quality, the most fundamental principle for a critic is to enter into a sincere, objective dialogue with the subject.

The March issue of Maxim published one of the most egregious examples of artistic denigration in recent memory. The critic panned the new Black Crowes album, complete with a 2.5 out of 5 star rating, without even listening to the album (the band hadn’t made advance CDs available, and the critic only had access to a single). Like it or not, Maxim is a ubiquitous periodical that yields mass cultural assimilation. When the venue is so great, the irresponsible act of a stupid writer can severely damage an artist’s reputation. But music criticism is an abstract art form, and its missteps are not always so easy to indict accurately.

So, whom can you trust? Well, nobody, that’s who. Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself whether you like something or not. If you’re looking for something new (and you don’t wanna test drive every car on the lot), it’s always a good idea to check out several different perspectives. I like metacritic.com for a start because it compiles virtually all of the relevant critical sources into one convenient web stop. It’s a great way to find out what the professional critics are generally favoring and panning. It also shows a blurb of each review and normally a link to the full review. But try to ignore the tabloid-y sources, because, in the spirit of useless invective: Reading a bad critic is about as insightful as watching a monkey drink its own urine.

Leave a Reply