If music criticism isn’t dead, its extinction is certainly closer than we’ve ever thought. Slowly but surely, critics have been losing their edge, not to people with better ideas or more talent, but to their own inability to say no. In a word – poptimism.
Much like our planet’s warming climate, the world of music “criticism” has been dying a slow death for quite some time. As the average listener’s access to music has increased, so too has the role of the critic eroded, diminished to an early opinion on an easily-accessible product. The acceptance of music streaming was the ultimate nail in the coffin, but one need not look back any further than Napster to pinpoint the first death-blow the music review suffered, as much as Lester Bands recognized the beginning of its end decades ago.
The installation of Napster (and a high-speed connection) in my family home was the beginning of my own musical taste. No longer was I limited to the selections made by the radio stations within range, or the compact discs my parents bought. Instead, I was free to spend my free time searching for songs that were more suitable to my ears (and my teenage angst). I was the master of my own musical domain, and for the majority of high school (my Metallica phase) it was St. Anger, not Master Of Puppets, that dominated my headphones.
I remember the day I realized St. Anger wasn’t a success outside of my own mind, and that the critics may not appreciate some of my musical choices. I was in a McDonald’s drive-thru during my lunch break with the radio on when a local DJ referred to St. Anger with disdain. Free from the confines of the FM dial, I plugged in my tape deck MP3 adapter, queued up ‘Some Kind Of Monster’ and grabbed my hot garbage of a meal through the driver’s window.
“What the fuck do you know?” I responded to the radio as I switched on Metallica at a destructive volume, throwing down fries in between air-drum fills on the steering wheel. I would sooner pay attention to the nutritional information on the drive-thru wall than I listen to the musical opinions of some guy on the other side of the radio dial.
When I think of how quickly I disposed of this supposed voice of authority of the time, I can’t help but think that armies of readers and listeners could be reacting the same way today.
Or, at least, they should be.
We are over-saturated with media to the point that consumers are best equipped with an aggressive bullshit filter to save themselves from being caught up in the buzz. While there are strong critical voices out there (Anthony Fantano, Laura Snapes and Ian Cohen to name a few) they are unicorns in a media landscape overrun with wild horses frantically working to stay out of the reach of the media industry glue factory. And while it’s hard to fault writers for simply doing their job, it’s equally difficult to reward them for contributing to the slow decline of music criticism, one toothless, pun-laden Justin Bieber “review” at a time.
I choose Justin Bieber not because I enjoy defeating the straw boy, but because he ultimately provided the straw that broke this camel’s back when it came to my trust in Vancouver’s arts and entertainment section, or whatever they’re calling it these days.
— Francois Marchand (@FMarchandVS) March 12, 2016
When Justin Bieber’s Purpose Tour came to Vancouver last month, the wave of content regarding Canada’s Most Embarrassing Export was impossible to miss. Media outlets at every level rushed to get the word “Bieber” in their headlines, and they all looked equally bad doing so. But the above “review” managed to transcend the others, elevating the bullshit and cognitive dissonance to a level that has driven me to write about Justin Bieber, which should only underscore how infuriating it was to read such garbage from the most prominent arts and entertainment editor in Vancouver.
While I do not recommend anyone follow the link above, I cite it as necessary evidence in the case of R. versus Marchand. What I will cite directly, however, is an earlier review of Miley Cyrus’ performance in Vancouver, written by the same editor, in order to prove that it is at least possible to write critically while also gathering those sweet, sweet clicks.
“The problem is that she seems to treat her audience as if they wouldn’t listen if she presented the material without having to hype it as “stuff to get f—ed up” to. Like her fans are just dumb kids. It’s ultimately pointless and exploitative.”
Here the writer engaged in the material and even offered analysis regarding how the music felt when performed live. It was an enlightening thought regarding a less-than-stellar performance, and it offered some value to readers.
When Justin Bieber came to Vancouver, however, the reviewer cowered in the face of the SEO-train, allowing it pass through town without inspection. Instead, the poptimism playbook was followed to a tee, recounting the night’s events with little mention of the negatives, including a ticket scam that cost a few fans.
Seems a little exploitative when you consider the cost of a Justin Bieber ticket, doesn’t it?
When Noisey’s Dan Ozzi asked the Deep-Ass-Question: “Is The Album Review Dead” I first reacted defensively, having of course written a few of my own over the years. Upon reflection, however, I would be hard-pressed to recognize the majority of music reviews as anything more than a body of content designed to deliver advertisements to consumers.
A review isn’t about the number in the review box anymore, it’s about the number of clicks it generates. Which is why I hate to admit the role of the music critic is about as dead as Lou Reed these days.
I reference Lou Reed not just for my own credibility, but also to remind you of a time when musical reviews were honest and objective. As an artist, Reed was no friend to music journalists, however he understood the value of critically engaging with music. When Reed reviewed Kanye West’s Yeezus, it was his objective approach to the material that allowed the punk rock legend to easily explain and interpret a hip hop genius. There’s value in that discussion, and we’re missing out on it with every pun-laden “review” of pop performances.
And while some writers seem content to refer to a celebrity bouncing on a trampoline as music, I know my readers are more than just a few dumb kids skimming their parents newspaper.