Monday, October 06, 2008

golden age

ok, this post is waaaay overdue, but ... on september 24 at USC's annenberg school, i participated in this panel called "death of the critic?" it's not the sort of thing i usually do -- mainly b/c i don't get asked -- but this time i was invited by l.a. times pop music critic ann powers, so i had to say yes. i was kind of freaked out by the thought of doing it. as much as i like to talk, i am not that big a fan of talking to a room full of people. but it turned out to be not so bad -- although i definitely felt like a lightweight amid that bunch of academics, book writers, big-time critics, and a pulitzer prize-winner.

the panel went on for two hours, and the room was packed. afterward there was a lot of conversation, and then 00soul and i and some other friends adjourned to coiledsoul's neighborhood dive frank n hanks to discuss things all over again (and to get into a weird situation with a drunk who claimed to be from norman, oklahoma ... but that's another story). then, when i woke up at 6:30 the next morning, i started thinking about the panel stuff again ... and after 00soul woke up and had his coffee, we started talking about the panel some more.

so it feels a little overwhelming to try to recapture everything that came up during the panel and the ensuing convos. there were 10 people on the panel alone, so it took a fair amount of time just for each person to say their views on the state of music criticism today, and where it might be going.

i managed to make a couple of points and not sound too much like an idiot, but for me what was really exciting about the panel was the meeting of the minds. just that many people in a room, all pondering these questions of what being a critic means, what's our role, how is it changing, how can we adapt -- plus larger points about the state of the culture, the cycles that pop music goes through as an emblem of "youth culture," the role of an authoritative critical voice in today's tower-of-babel marketplace. the music world is more fragmented and niche-driven than ever, but there are certainly still milestone albums or big acts ... even if best-sellers aren't what they used to be.

i liked hearing people's ideas and insights -- ironically, since i actually said, when asked what critics i read regularly, that i don't really care about other people's opinions (which is true, but not universally) -- and discussing things like the hive-mind of every major outlet reviewing the same album as the lead on the week it comes out (the example used was the fine new dear science by tv on the radio (pictured above), mainly b/c it's happening right now). there was some discussion of critical egos (a point brought up by ernest hardy) and how the feeling of not wanting to be out of the loop fuels the hive mentality (not that he exactly put it that way).

ernest also pointed out that the contracting of the marketplace for paid jobs for critics has constricted things even further for writers of color, and how that takes certain viewpoints or concerns out of the public conversation -- although blogs do give anyone with a notion to say something a way to say it, one of the issues we kept returning to was actually being able to make a living as a critic. anyway, ernest also noted the paradigm shift in the culture in general -- the sense, which is not only technology-driven, that we are at a crossroads, nobody knows what's going to happen next, and we're all sort of simultaneously trying to find our footing in that and trying to anticipate where we're headed. while keeping our heads above water.

i think a lot of the critics had a broader view of all that and expressed it in their opening statements, where for me i saw the question of where's rock criticism at right now as a personal one. i think that's because my career has been more subject to whim than some -- in that, (a) i spent so much of my early days doing whatever i wanted and deciding what got covered based on what i liked, and (b) after i started writing for a mainstream publication, i really became a generalist who was most comfortable being told, "ok, go there, cover that." in fact i liked it that way b/c it was so different from how i started out. it was a challenge to learn to write intelligently and fairly about things i didn't have a natural affinity for, and covering whatever for the l.a. times broadened my critical horizons in ways i probably never would have done on my own.

sure, that meant having to cover NSYNC along with getting to see erykah badu, but even the horrible/excruciating experiences added to my knowledge base. and one of the things that came up was the question of what's the use of expertise in this blog-eat-blog world. i think for readers, it depends on what they want out of a review. are you looking for someone to say whether the record is any good, or do you want to learn more about what you're listening to? some might find themselves intrigued by what a critic tells them, even if they didn't know they wanted to know whatever info's been imparted.

that said, it's doubtless at least in part snobbery that i don't really believe in the democratization of criticism. just b/c there's more people blogging about music, doesn't mean they're saying anything worthwhile or good -- and, just to be clear, i'm certainly not saying all music blogs or any given ones are worthless, b/c a lot of what i find to be really awful music criticism these days is in the mainstream publications. but more is not necessarily better ... and a lot of music blogging is along the lines of it rocked/it sucked, or how this record changed my life, rather than saying anything especially insightful. but consensus isn't that important to me ... i've never cared about being in step or thinking in line with other critics. it might be as simple as not being a baby boomer or boomlet-er -- i'm used to being outnumbered. also, when i was younger, louder, and snottier, i used to tear down boomer icons just for sport, b/c i like to argue and it was fun to enrage people with pure immature snark like saying i hate bob dylan.

hmmm ... but maybe my dylan thing is a good illustration of why critical knowledge is useful. i really didn't get his deal, and to a certain extent i still respect and admire him more than i actually like him (if that makes sense), but (mostly due to repeated beatings from my betters) my youthful knee-jerk against dylan was slowly replaced by a better understanding of him and a real appreciation for his singular contributions. ironically, i never understood some of my punker-than-thou pals who hated the beatles (hello, the ramones loved them!) ... i guess the impulse isn't much different. anyway, so, as both a fan of music and a critic of same, knowing more about a subject can be enlightening in unexpected ways. and learning about something tends to enrich one's opinion -- even if you're just a casual fan and NOT a writer.

but criticism is more than just is this record/concert good or not? it's also about placing things in the broader context of the culture and assessing What It All Means. which is also the place where shit can get pretentious as all hell, oftentimes, but i think there are ways to do it w/o sounding like a total egghead asshole. and wtf, even if you do, it's still important.

anyway, just b/c a certain number of people want to go with the consensus a la rotten tomatoes, doesn't mean criticism shouldn't aim for loftier or even more practical goals. one of my pet peeves when reading reviews is when a critic will go on about how the record isn't so great, but two songs are the bomb, and then give the thing three stars or whatever. b/c most critics don't have to pay for the album, so too often they don't think about the 18 bucks or 11 bucks or whatever someone's gonna drop on a CD with two good songs on it. anyway ... there are fans with opinions, and lord knows they are legion, but criticism isn't just about an opinion. there's also a sense of historical perspective, an inkling of where this stuff is coming from, what else is like it, where its roots might be, and how things fit together.

but none of this is to say that only print publications can provide that. i think good writing about music can be found anywhere -- maybe even in the comments on it's more about the writer than the venue.

speaking of star ratings, the subject came up, and we all agreed we hate them b/c they're so reductive and meaningless. i guess the argument for them is they provide a "service" to readers -- like, the consumer reports version of criticism. on one hand i don't see criticism as a service: it's an art form in itself, a way of interpreting something, just as music is a way of interpreting life or love or brand-new cadillacs or what have you. music criticism is a way of interpreting work that's not strictly verbal, since it has the musical component as well. i'm not saying i see my work as art (ahaha -- funny idea), but i don't think of myself as a consumer reporter. and i HATE ratings. hate them. we never used them at citybeat, and i wouldn't put ratings on my times reviews, except that if i didn't some editor would, and that would be even more excruciating. music isn't a restaurant or a term paper, and putting grades on albums is just stupid.

otoh, in terms of consumer service, i do see criticism as a form of journalism, which is a public trust. it's definitely not as life-or-death as, say, war reporting or writing about social ills, etc. but i do think criticism can and should look at how art reflects, sorry for the cliche, the human condition. and also critics have a responsibility to the truth. they have to assess the quality of something using the sum total of their experience and perceptions and understanding. and NOT, say, whether they'll sound really cool by comparing fall out boy to nina simone, or if they'll really be pissing off some publicist, or if they'll lose an interview with a band b/c they trashed the album. b/c, to use ANOTHER cliche, at the end of the day, i have to look at myself in the mirror, and i don't wanna be telling myself, damn, you really kissed ASS today!

what can be harder for me is to assess something w/o feeling like i am selling out my own principles. what i dislike the most about reviewing something as mainstream as, say, the jonas brothers, is that i really have a hard time just coloring inside the lines of the dominant culture.

the status-quo boy/girl crap, for example, that an act like the jonases (the jonasi?) embrace really bugs me, especially with their stuff, where the girl is seen as somewhat passive and the boy is the actor. (like that line in the song "bb good": "i don't wanna hurt you/i wanna kiss you!" ... which jim derogatis jokingly said sounded like dialogue from a date rape, much to the dismay of some, but i don't see why that's such an inappropriate comment. for one thing, it was funny. for another thing, i also found that line creepy and stalkerish. it's just the same old crap of boy has to talk girl into doing stuff she doesn't wanna do -- b/c everybody knows girls never initiate sex, don't like it anyway, and have to be "convinced" into it. yeah, or maybe she's just not that into you, creepy christian freak.) it's the worst kind of mainstream perpetuating-the-patriarchy b.s., b/c it seems sort of innocuous and plastic, but it just reinforces ideas that i hate. i usually try to say SOMETHING about the ingrained sexism of this sorta stuff, but usually i end up feeling like i'm not saying enough about the underlying propagandistic nature of it all, b/c i only have 200-300 words and have to do the job i'm expected to do (ie, say whether the album is good or bad and put some fuckin' stars on it). yeah -- sellout!

uhm ... anyway. another central point about the death of the critic was the pretty basic survival issue of how to make a living at it these days. it was never a highly paid profession, but lately, as 00soul said, it's hard to compete with free. if rock criticism is devalued now, maybe it's b/c people aren't used to paying for it -- same as music itself. i guess people who have music blogs can put ads on them, and maybe that brings in a few bucks, but i'm guessing it's not much. i refuse to work for free and always have -- one of the things that bugs me the most are the hipster bohemian indie mags that cry poverty and don't pay their writers (while, say, boosting their own brand name by putting on festivals). we want your professional opinion, but we're not willing to pay you for it! whatevs. yet, in the case of people who DO pay, some of them are lowering their already low rates: i got paid less per word for that jonas bros. review in the times than i've EVER been paid for anything i've ever done for them in 12 years.

(hilarious aside: while i was tapping away at this entry, this line ad popped up in my google mail: - Freelance Writers Needed. We pay $3 per 250 words. Start Now! yeah.)

on the subject of word count, another thing that came up was the shrinking copy hole -- how reviews grow ever shorter, and complaints that one cannot assess an album in 75 words or less, or that readers can't get to know how a critic thinks by reading only short pieces. idk. i agree that in-depth analysis can be important, but, frankly, i don't think the jonas brothers is worth 400 words. and i don't get why, at a time when there's less space to review something that might be artistically interesting, choices are made to devote space to, say, the new rick springfield album. well, actually, i do get why: because increasingly editors don't have the same depth of critical knowledge about the subject they're assigning as the writers do.

anyway, i think long-form criticism has its place, but sometimes you CAN dispatch something in 75 words or less. and even though the internet provides a place for critics to go on for as many words as they want, or feel is necessary, i think it's a special breed of reader who can tolerate that. internet-savvy folks know the shorthand TL/DR (too long, didn't read) -- lord knows this blog is a shining example of that at times, ahaha.

the irony of all this infinite unlimited space is that it's like inversely proportional to the attention span of most people. i know i can't stand to read painfully long reviews. i can certainly WRITE them, however. ahaha.

then came another serious question of, why should someone read a review when they can just hear the track and decide for themselves? well, i think that for a lot of people, that IS what they want: to just decide if they like something and buy or steal it. but others, people who are really engaged with the music and want to know more, will find value in reading someone's assessment of it or more info about the group or whatever (see above, about 5,000 words back). but, i mean, just b/c we have more access to images and sounds and moving pictures doesn't mean the presence of the written word is diminishing. to me it seems like there are more words than ever.

finally, we were asked what places we look (besides our own main publications, of which i don't have one) for great criticism. and, like i said up there somewhere, to be honest, i don't read much criticism. i think a lot of rock criticism is terrible writing, and also i just don't care about other people's opinions. and, since i am copy editing for a living right now, i'm doing a LOT of reading for work. so i tend to troll myspace for bands my friends have told me about, or spend time talking to them about what they like or to 00soul about whatever obscure soul 45s he's bidding for or has just won on ebay. or go out to see something when one of my rock crit pals invites me out -- like seeing cold war kids play the jimmy kimmel show with bronson, good times.

all of that said, these are some writers i like and respect: richard cromelin (late of the l.a. times) is always a good read. edna gundersen and ken barnes at usa today. this cat ben rayner at the toronto star. and the aforementioned kevin bronson, whose local-music-oriented blog buzz bands keeps me caught up.

ok, phew. there's probs more i could say, but this post took me way too long to write, so i'm gonna quit while i'm ahead. i don't think there's a transcript yet, but if one happens i will post a link to it later.

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