Three years later, more than 100 critiques penned, and more edited, a founding B-Sider reflects on what compels her to write what she does.
Critics — especially art critics — get a bad rap. They dabble (or worse, they become immersed) in a form of journalism that is inherently destructive to a form of constructive expression. In the past, a critique could make or break an artist; popular news media constructed the mainstream. This no longer the case. Critique (and art itself) in the 21st century are catapulting through space, shuttled by technology-driven changes in access to and evaluation of information. These days, more and more creators are chiseling away at the old status quo. Still others are saying,
Hush, just listen.
But if you’re an artist wanting to rise above, you may still need to win over some of the big players. Tough, when the big players now are constantly shifting. The growth of web publishing platforms and the medium’s credibility have made sites like ours, and countless others, including major players Pitchfork and The FADER, possible. Predict enough hits, and you’re in the big leagues. As Dwight Garner put it in The New York Times Magazine,
“It’s an interesting time to be a critic. There aren’t so many of us left, and we’re being squeezed from all sides at the exact same moment that new mediums like Twitter and Yelp have become all opinion, all the time, with little in their digitized streams of yak that a critic might recognize as real criticism.”
Back in 2013, SPIN attempted @SPINreviews. To save on characters, each tweet is propped up on metaphorical conclusions, niche genre-titles, and musical jargon — key ingredients of the long-form review — but without the fourth leg (or if you’re musically inclined, the Bass of the SATB) to support the others. And if you are musically inclined, you’ll know bass is perhaps the most important of all four voice types in harmony. In other words, SPIN’s short-lived experiment read like a collection of inside jokes; a white paper with too much jargon. Albeit entertaining, it was poor distillation.
A good review (like a good vocal quartet) is built upon a basis(st) — an explanation of a work’s perceived quality; it should justify a positive or negative reception and make terminology accessible to readers of any musical inclination. But this key ingredient tends to bore — a slow-moving progression of notes sung/played in the bass range — when isolated. To give an example, here’s a tweet that uses a series of observations to justify a number score:
“Kanye West/Life of Pablo/8: Kendrick’s the best verse. Chance’s 2nd. Yeezy had some funny and stupid lines. And lots about being rich. –BHR”
HR’s was actually quite entertaining in this instance, but too many similarly constructed tweets in a feed would get old fast, the way @weatherreportcrd did some 3000 reports ago. We layer on soprano, alto, and tenor — metaphors atop genres atop terms, and the resulting seventh chord from these four parts (ie. the one that strikes) can be dominant or diminished. The shortening of critique as a form in light of recent cuts to arts funding as well as changes in the way we access and accumulate information has the same limiting effect @SPINreviews discovered, to a lesser extreme.
The first voice to go is often the tenor. Nowadays, you don’t need years upon years of music theory. You also don’t need a journalism degree. Not one of this semester’s B-Side correspondents is part of Berkeley’s music department or a J-school student. “Trills” and “appoggiaturas” become the work of the soprano, the musical equivalent of purple prose. Excessive ornamentation can break a piece. But strong ornamentation can break an audience (in favour of or away from a work).
Striking critiques are powerful, and artists have cause to dislike them. (Insert New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’ thinkpiece on Jean Sibelius’ famous quote.) The way I see it, you can be a bucket-wheel excavator or a poet. Art is often a personal creation; in that way, a harsh, unfounded critique is akin to telling a parent their child is ugly.
Can such a briny comment be mitigated by offering improvements? Maybe not, but there is something about knowing why or what one can do to gain better acceptance (or oppose it). You obstruct the ugliness of the comment with a metaphor, a comparison, and then you justify it. The process — of harmonizing, of adding the S, A, and T, but only after you lay down the B — is much like portfolio diversification.
Critique is nuanced. Artists and critics are mutually dismissive; both roles require hard shells, but to the public eye, the critic is nearly always the bad guy. Or he’s superfluous.
In answering the existentialist “is critique useful,” The Hollywood Reporter’s Emily Zemler makes a good point. From even my brief experience (here, three simultaneous years elsewhere, and seven before that), a critic’s audience falls neatly into three categories: creators and stakeholders, industry and devotees, and the average reader (and your great-aunt, but it’s not clear by which camp she’s best captured). The former is comprised of the artists themselves and affiliated businesspeople. The first two read for reaffirmation, entertainment, development, and marketing purposes — after all, a positive review is an ego boost. The latter, however, may have the highest marginal gain, but this still is not utility if the reader does not value the text.
And yet this question has been asked again and again. There has always been, and will continue to be, critique. Peer review platform The Talkhouse is not a new concept; some of the most critical critics in history were the greats (Robert Schumann, César Cui, E.T.A. Hoffman, and — I daresay — Steven Tyler). It takes some knowledge (dedicated personal study counts) to critique credibly: the San Francisco Chronicle’s 28-year veteran classical music critic Joshua Kosman graduated from Yale, then UC Berkeley with degrees in music. The New York Times’ Ben Ratliff is going on 20 years and teaches journalism at NYU.
What critique looks like, however, has shifted. It ranges from short blurbs to long features, crowdsourcing to monopolistic musings. Critique is choosing to review (and in turn, publicize) certain art and neglecting others. In the past five semesters, our writers have consistently named friends, digital algorithms, blogs, and blog aggregators as music discovery tools. They’ve named Pitchfork, but they’ve also named the Hype Machine, Pandora, Spotify, Soundcloud, Pigeons and Planes, and Album of the Year.
The latter assigns two separate scores based on established and user critiques; sometimes, the difference is small enough to be rounding error. Other times, it’s more substantial. Regardless, each popular release receives a few stellar(ly written) reviews from both groups, and this is the case outside of AOTY, too. Less-known releases, in fact, benefit from a broader camp of critics: webloggers, word-of-mouth, social media. On multiple occasions, saturation of this lower tier market is the key to the upper circles.
Technology has made access to critique platforms greater. An artist’s access to critics is greater. And, as Ratliff puts it in his recently published Every Song Ever, artistic music is more accessible now than ever:
“Culture is built on ready availability, and we have suddenly switched from being a species that needed to recognized only a few kinds of songs [via radio or record stores] to a species with direct and instant access to hundreds…”
Despite the rise in access, we middlemen remain of equal importance given the need to document this ready availability. Whether we’re of equal use, again, depends on the user. Today, we have ready (and sometimes involuntary) access to algorithmic recommendations. Ratliff warns against the threat of technology replacement, which is as real in this field as it is in others. And based on what you personally believe, that threat is either very large or miniscule.
“Infinite access, unused or misused, can lead to an atrophy of the desire to seek out new songs ourselves, and a hardening of taste, such that all you want to do is confirm what you already know. But […] There is a possibility that hearing so much music without specifically asking for it develops in the listener a fresh kind of aural perception…”
Many of us are proof that infinite access has spawned critics with a fluidity of taste. We’re not music majors. Some of us don’t have musical backgrounds. Many of us can’t identify Bach from Beethoven (I myself have the inverse problem — a knowledge and exposure gap between Strauss and Depeche Mode). But the next technological challenge critics face is mutual among the trained and the self-taught.
Ratliff outlines it nicely, “Sounds are running ahead of our vocabularies for describing them.” Here, in the faithful bounds we stretch to describe un-onomatopoeia-able sounds, I commend today’s critics. Oftentimes we fall short, but these stretches separate us from the crowd; they make critiques valuable to average listeners. “The riches remain dumb unless we have an engaged relationship with them.” It was never easy to translate sound to text. Now we’re translating sounds that cannot be scored.
Now hush and listen.
Article by Joanna Jiang
Design by Conner Smith