Criticizing the Critics

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Rubio as critic

About a month ago, a certain Daily Beast article by Ted Gioia stirred the opinion pot for alleging that criticism is now mostly “lifestyle reporting,” focused on “clothes, hook-ups, and run-ins with the law.” In short, everything other than the music. Once upon a time when I was set on becoming a critic, I would often worry about this; sometimes I’d even hit the existential impasse asking, Why write about music? Doesn’t (or shouldn’t) music speak for itself? It is, after all, a ‘universal language.’ (Irony alert: Every thinking person disagrees with this last statement.)

Let’s eschew the debate on the nature of musical language. Instead, assume that a dialogue between music creators and performers, and writers can enhance our artistic enjoyment and appreciation. I know it’s hard to swallow, but for this experiment pretend that good criticism is a necessary cog in a healthy musical environment.

I get Gioia’s grievance; I’m infinitely dazzled by the brainlessness of most major music reviewers (ahem… Pitchfork). But I can’t buy into his argument whole hog. His bone concerns the anti-intellectualism infecting our popular media à la Fox News and friends. (The musical analog to this: Harry Connick Jr. v. the confederacy of dunces after he citied the “pentatonic” scale on American Idol.)

However, my biggest gripe with the article is its tone. About halfway through, we see Memory Lane, a mirage on the horizon: “It wasn’t always like this. When I was a child…” Please stop. This charge follows a tried and true pattern: there was once a Golden Age (see Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris) but it’s long gone and things are getting worse.

Pause for this passage from Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1977 essay on Japanese aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows:

It struck me that old people everywhere have much the same complaints. The older we get the more we seem to think that everything was better in the past. Old people a century ago wanted to go back two centuries, and two centuries ago the wish it were three centuries earlier. Never has there been an age that people have been satisfied with.

Unfortunately, Gioia falls for the same hackneyed bait that fills the perennial articles proclaiming classical music DEAD. (Alex Ross has argued that “classical music” is a retroactive term and never existed as a cohesive whole.) That genre surely enjoyed a certain heyday in the 20th century with ambassadors like Bernstein patiently explaining thorny works, but even that was as an anomaly in the long tail of music history. The story of what we call Western Music, or perhaps more correctly “art music,” began and flourished in courts and the church.

Returning to the present, I notice the current pull in music journalism is toward narrative and story. We want our artists humanized; we want to relate so we might see ourselves embodied, if just for a moment, in their quotidian actions. Or at least that’s what the top editors profess. The composer and critic Kyle Gann laments how today’s publishing houses dissuade authors from using musical examples and instead ask for long prose explanations of analysis. To uphold these conventions drastically underestimates the contemporary reader’s abilities. As music writers, we shouldn’t shy from specific terminology when it serves the work at hand. We might look to investigative journalists and their careful use of numbers and statistics to keep their readers conscious.

As you might have guessed, I don’t have a recipe for the perfect critic of any genre, or for that matter, the perfect climate wherein they might thrive. Perhaps it will look like the musician/critic models of Virgil Thompson and Robert Schumann. Though I don’t doubt a perfectly capable non-musician can do the job just as well. The real alchemy of the critic is to explain big ideas effortlessly–which, I suppose, is the master teacher’s aim as well (like Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking).

Just for fun, read Owen Pallet’s response to the original Beast article. He analyzes a favorite pop song of mine with the kind of depth it deserves.

If this is the future of criticism, I’m all for it.

________________________

There is a plethora of choice critics working in the trenches. Whose opinion do you trust?

Here are a few of my favorites from all genres:

Sasha Frere-Jones

Kyle Gann

Alex Ross

Anne Midgette

Simon Reynolds

Ted Gioia (the author of this very article)

And some I’m not so found of:

Everyone at Pitchfork (or at least the editorial staff)

Most folks from NPR (except the classical peeps, sorry guys)

Robert Christgau

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