Music Journalism: Critiquing The Critics
“Journalism is a vital asset to culture”
Music journalism. Is there any term more thrilling to the human soul? It’s a branch of the media, which comes under a large amount of criticism. Often characterised as pretentious, elitist and out-of-touch, music journalism is easy to deride and at times it kind of deserves it. Too often, reviewers with an inflated opinion of themselves either laud or attack an artist or album, powered by their own self-righteousness. However, this is one side of the coin, a necessary evil in my opinion in exchange for the benefits offered by music critics. In many ways, music journalism is one of the purest forms of enthusiasm for an album or artist who may otherwise be ignored.
One of the firmest arguments for music journalism that I can find is one critic in particular: Anthony Fantano of theneedledrop.com. Fantano has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and is always eager to embrace new music and provide his learned opinion. Moreover, Fantano acknowledges that he runs the risk of coming across as arrogant or elitist and counteracts this brilliantly by adding light moments of humour and most importantly by professing that his reviews are only opinions. Fantano’s merging of the scholarly and humble adds a great amount of character to his reviews and it is for this quality that Fantano ranks as my favourite music journalist.
Music journalism is by far one of the –if not the most– prolific fields of journalism. Magazine and newspaper racks are stacked with publications scrambling to cover as many genres as possible. Websites such as the infamous Pitchfork have taken this scramble to a new, electronic plateau. Further down the rabbit hole, you have countless blogs, vlogs and forums overflowing with almost any opinion imaginable. On the one hand, this does mean that you are spoilt for choice and in many ways, it seems almost impossible to decide which voices to trust. But on the other, it means that you can endlessly explore as many crevices as you like and develop a personal set of sources for finding new and interesting music catered to your taste.
Journalism is a vital asset to culture. Without it, we would run the risk of getting lost in the immense volumes produced by talented artists. The benefits of journalism are not merely reserved to music alone; in fact, I often find that the opinions of a critic in a field I am unfamiliar with can provide a guiding voice in other forms of art. Alastair Sooke breathes new life into art criticism, avoids the exclusivity of the art world and eloquently critiques masterpieces in terms that everyone can appreciate, rather than the select few. Stuart Hall‘s football commentary adds a poetic wit to what he describes as the “ugly” northern games, bordering on the absurd, but never the dull. The sagacious and diligent Roger Ebert has been writing film reviews for forty-five years and they show no sign of either stopping or depreciating in quality.
Fundamentally, music journalism is a reciprocal process. The reviewer is only offering their opinion and unfortunately for both the writers and readers, we often forget that we should not treat their opinion as fact and that it’s OK to disagree with it. Music is by far one of the most abstract, yet universal art forms; we can all enjoy and appreciate the sensation of listening to music, but vitally, critics offer the ability to interpret it.
“It is not an unbiased art”
In a recent issue of NME, Gavin Haynes wrote in a review of Skrillex’s new EP Bangarang that Skrillex is not a dubstep guy. “He’s just a rampaging barbarian who’ll as happily nick anything floating past in popular culture” and that he is “glass eyed, as nutritional as wood glue, and content to rapidly bash his fists against the buttons”. In fact, the only comments Haynes makes about the EP is that the tracks fail to explain Skrillex’s popularity and that the title track ‘Bangarang’ is “Justice-go-candy rave”, with little explanation as to why.
I understand that Skrillex is not for everyone and a lot of people share this destructive and somewhat monstrous image of him tearing up dubstep and stealing from popular culture, but I think that the aforementioned article highlights exactly the problem with music journalism. It is not an unbiased art. It can be highly opinionated, sometimes to the point where a particularly strong opinion such as Haynes’ of Skrillex, overrules perhaps what should have been a thorough, neutral review of the EP.
One has to question, though, whether neutrality can exist in music journalism. If the whole point of music is for people’s enjoyment, then whether or not a piece of music is good in a person’s mind will naturally and heavily depend on whether the individual likes it. They will not be thinking of that ‘wub-wub’ bass or the intricacy of the guitar riff, but of the feelings that the music evokes within them and whether it agrees with them. Haynes’ review then perhaps reflects accurately how people interact emotionally with music, but on the other hand shows that there is no right or wrong opinion, and hence no ultimate answer, when reviewing music.
“RIP Music Journalism? Hello Beige Music!”
It seems that the current state of musical journalism isn’t necessarily the problem; rather, the problem lies with the source – the music. There isn’t anything to be overly excited about, there isn’t a scene, there isn’t a change in the way we see society, politics, the law, all those things that drive music, film, television etc. This idea has surfaced recently with both Noel Gallagher and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys commenting on the death of Rock and Roll, and however frustrating it is to think about it, it’s happening. Rock and Roll music, or any kind of music at the moment, is beige, magnolia, soft pebble. It’s hard to get excited about Noah and the Whale when my 50-year-old father, who enjoys golf and falling asleep in front of the TV, says, “Oh, I like them”. I ‘liked’ The Arctic Monkeys’ most recent album, Suck it and See, and as a slightly obsessed superfan, even I can admit that it was somewhat (reflecting of the album cover) ‘beige’. This is the problem; it’s ‘likable’, but not enough to blow the minds of music journalists.
As Brit rock critic Nick Kent described back in 2010, “right now, all the formulas that drive so-called music/rock journalism have really almost been exhausted.” Interestingly, this sentiment hasn’t changed two years on. The death of music journalism? Well, the heart of it is in dire need of a defibrillator.