LOUDER FEATURES: Understanding the Noise: Why Music Criticism is Important
There’s a famous joke about art criticism: “What’s your opinion on my work?” an artist asks a critic. “It’s worthless.” comes the reply. “I know, but let’s hear it anyway,” replies the artist. Although this portrays critics as arrogant, it’s revealing that the artist still wants to hear the critic's opinion.
Individuals' opinions might be worth little in the art world, but they can still be interesting for imparting different perspectives. Music critics do get stuff wrong – reading old reviews often serves to reflect the fallibility of human opinion. There’s an infamous review of the Queen album 'Jazz', which reads “Queen hasn’t the imagination to play Jazz. Queen hasn’t the imagination, for that matter, to play rock n’ roll”. Though that review has aged terribly, it’s an interesting snapshot of how some reviewers felt.
Still, criticism must adapt. The ability to readily access music means we don’t need critics to tell us whether a record is worth buying, but reviewers like The Needle Drop still hold vast amount of sway, with word of mouth proving a powerful tool. The digital world has rendered ‘the music critic’ both more and less relevant. And yet, I still think music criticism makes a positive contribution to the world.
Promotion and ‘Spotlighting’:
'Spotlighting' – the way critics amplify certain artists - is incredibly important. Moron Police, Rina Sawayama, Genesis Owusu – just some of the artists who have recently benefited from positive critical reviews. While people have more access to music than before, the music critic still serves to let people know what to listen to.
Do critics have a responsibility then? It’s one thing to lambast a huge artist for a bad album, and another to do the same for a small artist. This calls into question the usefulness of score systems and star ratings which can remove nuance. Timothy Gabrielle, writing for Pop Matters, asks why there is so much positivity in music journalism, arguing that: “Every review contains a bit of fantasy at best and a bit of bullshit at worst. The author is expected not only to justify the albums existence but justify the need to write about it in the first place”.
Achieving complete lack of bias in what we choose to review is impossible. Critics may feel obliged, economically or emotionally, to pay attention to releases by bigger artists. This is despite the fact that independent music criticism is an important tool for small artists, but not such a useful tool for 'superstar' acts, who can rely on hype created by their own advertising. It’s also worth noting that critics listen to each other – take the recent popularity of the Spanish Love Songs album ‘Brave Faces Everyone’ amongst independent critics, or the dislike directed toward AJR’s 'The Click'. These might have their own factors making them strong or weak albums, but it’s the conversations about them which make them ‘acclaimed’ or ‘reviled’. Criticism is vulnerable to error - personal bias, herd mentality, outside pressure. Although criticism tries to avoid bias getting in the way, as with all art, review pieces are a reflection of the creator's strengths and weaknesses.
The Joy of Music Reviewing:
“The world is made by the singer for the dreamer” - Oscar Wilde
I mainly review because I enjoy writing about music. Still, what is art criticism but the critic bearing their soul for us and expressing their emotions? In his script 'The Critic as Artist', Oscar Wilde argued that critical pieces are art in that they record human emotion, have flaws which cause debates to ensue, and exist for the fulfilment of the creator. Unfortunately, he also took the view that only the view of the audience matters in assessing art, in a theory that became known as 'Death of the author'.
By contrast, the argument I want to make is that the context in which art is made does matter. The job of the critic is to shine a light on acts reflecting and influencing changes in culture, as well as reflecting on the music of the past. These activities serve as a means to drive forward those evolutions in culture and art, as well as helping others to see music as more than 'just noise': rather, as something which evolves and changes, influencing and mirroring the social landscape of the time.
I should stress that, although music criticism might be thought of as something cynical, one of the factors that gets overlooked in all of this is how much fun reviewing music can be. Don’t get me wrong, there are positive and negative approaches to criticism – it’s important to remember to criticise the art, not necessarily the artist and certainly not the people who enjoy that art, especially if you're being negative. However, we should never let peoples assumptions about critics take away from how much we enjoy writing.
The Challenge of Music Criticism:
In April 2019, pop-artist Lizzo released her album ‘Cuz I Love You’, to positive reviews. Days after though, she tweeted this:
In response, artists like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande lambasted critics who had given them negative reviews. And, although we can look back on this as an absurd moment in pop culture, it’s an interesting case study.
Lizzo said later that she wished the people harshly criticising her work could know how it feels to work hard on something, only to have people denigrate that, ignoring the fact that critics work hard on their reviews. However, it’s worth remembering that music critiques are subjective, and factors like how long you sit with a record matter. While I try and listen to a record at least three times before reviewing, we all have a review that we look back on and say ‘What was I thinking?’ (I once gave a negative review to the last Raven Age album, for some baffling reason). Amanda Petruisch, writing in the New York Times, says that: “Good art often takes time to make, and it often takes time to understand. It doesn’t feel unreasonable to suggest that perhaps the very first thing a person should do when faced with some nascent creation is not frantically and qualitatively assess its value.”
One egregious example of this occurred in 2015, when Yahoo accidentally published a ‘review’ for Rhianna’s ‘Anti’, months before the record was finished, with spaces for the writer to fill in the gaps with the information we didn’t know yet. I’m not joking. By contrast, although the writer of this piece will remain nameless for the purpose of not wanting to promote their less respectable work, there’s a famous review for Van Morrison’s album ‘Astral Weeks’, penned a decade after the album’s release. The idea was that a record about growing old might be best observed over the course of years and commented on after experience had given the writer time to fully appreciate it’s contemplations.
One of my favourite albums is 'The Black Market' by Rise Against. I remember being disappointed when this was initially released as it lacked the intensity of previous releases, but I’ve come to appreciate the piece for its sentimentality. At the time their frontman, Tim McIlrath, was struggling with his mental health, owing to his burnout from being constantly ‘awake’ to environmental and political problems. Having been through something similar, I now find comfort in that album. I’m not suggesting we abandon timely reviews, but one of my favourite things about music criticism is that it offers opportunities for reflective consideration and allows the audience and the writer to consider how art looks through different lenses. That doesn’t mean always being positive, but the pensive review that gives you a new of looking at a record showcases music criticism at its best.
There's a temptation to divide the audience from the artist, and see the critic as a ‘recommender’. However, if punk taught us anything, it’s that artists can be audience members, and vice-versa. I prefer to think of music as an ecosystem where anyone can learn from each other. That said, critical analysis can serve as a means to help us understand what we’re hearing. This goes beyond helping consumers decide if a record is worth their money. How do we remember that albums like 'American Idiot' and 'The Black Parade' arose in the context of a political climate defined by fear of the unknown? How do we remember the violent history of early Scandinavian Black Metal? How do we remember that a huge part of early rock n’ roll and blues developed by people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe grew out of a struggle for black liberation at a time when segregation was still very much present? Music is influenced by the context in which it’s made, and music writing can provide a valuable insight into that. However, interpretations are equally as influenced by the opinion and circumstances of the writer; just as you get conflicting historical accounts, reviews can provide differing views on musical movements. That's why I urge anyone to listen to multiple critics, and not rely on us to form your opinion. Remember, the word review simply means “to view again”.
This is why I respectfully disagree with writers like Joseph Schafer when they say that “Critics are useless as recommendation engines.”, and that the writer's opinion doesn’t matter. What a critic chooses to recommend, what opinions they give, is vital in understanding music. Part of the reason we enjoy Chuck Berry and The Stranglers is due to knowledge that they helped inspire a sense of rebellion. Genesis and Pink Floyd alienated some and inspired others, and that conflict is a vital part of how we understand prog. As music is inherently emotional, trying to separate how people feel about music from its context seems strange.
Where next for the critic?
Briefly returning to the question of music critics' relationships to artists, Guardian journalist Alexis Petridis places the point where that changed as being around the release of Radiohead’s seventh full-length, ‘In Rainbows’. Far more than the 'pay what you want’ scheme, what had the most influential effect was that the album was released without any early releases sent to reviewers or “any of that bollocks”, as Thom Yorke summarised. Since then, the music world has seen many surprise releases from acts like Eminem, Kanye West, and Rhianna. This presents some intriguing questions around how we in the critical world respond. Reviewing will always be a promotional game, especially when it comes to smaller artists. However, we should not see ourselves as in service to the music industry to the extent that we pre-draft positive ‘fill-in-the-blank’ reviews.
To me, this cuts to the heart of what I think the point of the music critic is. Our job, in my view, is to identify and amplify radical, revolutionary and intriguing acts within the music industry and place them in a tradition of change – explain why a band's music is important and what their ideas represent within the history of music. Conversely, our job also aims to keep the tradition of those defining acts alive by explaining why they had an impact in the time they did, and how that resonates to this day. Today’s music titles are doing this by refining their core specialisms and emphasising quality, long-form journalism.
The rise of the niche publications presents opportunities for our writing to touch new areas of the music world. Independent artists can appear in columns next to platinum selling ones and there’s support for that. After rock music publisher Team Rock collapsed in 2016, metal fans raised £78,000 for laid-off staff. Independent titles like Crack can be picked up for free at record shops, and venues but are able to stay afloat through their niche audience.
They're doing some great pieces as well! In 2018, DIY Magazine were the first to feature a comeback interview with Paul McCartney, allowing him to speak to a younger audience. Outlets like The Quietus do fascinating long-form pieces on issues like Black Lives Matter and mental health, and have advanced the careers of artists like Sons of Kemet and Shame.
That’s not to say that music journalism doesn’t have problems. It still suffers from lack of diversity. In response, magazines like Classic Rock and Metal Hammer have started employing women section editors and Loud and Quiet frequently put people of colour on their cover. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that as power over journalism shifts from huge publications to independent start-ups, part of our job as journalists and critics has to be giving power to marginalised voices within music, as well as ensuring diversity in our own newsrooms and among our contributors.
Frank Zappa is credited as saying that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. His point was that music on its own is something that has to be experienced and can’t be put into words. While that might be true, what writing about music can do is allow us to see the music we listen to as something larger than ordered sound. It can give us a sense of music’s significance to our lives, to the world around us, and to history. In doing so, it gets us to ask questions about what we want from artists, makes us fall in love with our favourite song all over again, or inspires us to support acts who will shape the music of decades to come.
Owing partly to my autism, and music being my 'special interest', I see writing like solving a puzzle - as I write a review I begin to see the connections between the music, society politics, and even my own personal circumstances. It’s not all that easy to do, and for what it’s worth I’m conscious of my faults – my writing often veers towards the sentimental and the abstract. Still, we are all of us products of our time and circumstances, as are our views. Our opinions will circulate and settle like dust upon a record collection. They might not be worth much on their own, but we live for the hope that what we create will help others understand and shape their world. The possibility that my work will have some positive effect whether on someone’s emotions or the world at large – that’s why I write about music!