Indie

Ask A Music Critic: Is Music Criticism Getting Worse?

Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at steve.hyden@uproxx.com.

I’m not that old (34), but I feel like there’s been a dramatic, across-the-board writing quality dip — regarding both prose and critical insights — in the world of music journalism. Are things getting worse? Or am I simply becoming a grouch? — Jay from Minneapolis

Hi Jay! I’m going to assume you are not subtweeting yours truly with this question. Surely, if you are seeking my opinion on these matters, you must view me as an island of brilliant insight, keen wit, and evocative prose in an otherwise arid landscape of crappy music writing. Right, Jay? Right?

Anyway, my short answer to your question is, “Actually, I don’t things are getting worse at all.” As part of my job — and also because I just like reading about music — I often go back and look at music writing from the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. I’m generally reading work that was published in the very best and most prominent music publications of those eras, including Rolling Stone, Spin, Musician, and The Village Voice. And let me tell you something: A lot of it is … not good. Some of it is fantastic, of course, but most of the time the writing simply doesn’t hold up. The prose is kind of hokey and dated, and the opinions are reductive, half-baked, and even ignorant. Also, writers back then tended to have the same sorts of backgrounds — straight white guys from the east coast, mostly — which resulted in same-y opinions.

The truth is that the first draft of history tends to read like, well, a first draft. (Hello to the person reading this 20 years from now and dragging my own dated and short-sighted ass!) Critics always have a deadline, which means that almost never have a proper amount of perspective on whatever it is they’re writing about. But the writers of today have the advantage of standing on the shoulders of those who came before. We can learn from their mistakes. Which means we’re better by default.

As a discipline, pop music criticism was invented in the ’60s and writers today have the luxury of refining and updating an ancient template. For starters, modern music criticism is more diverse than ever in practically every sort of way, but especially in terms of the types of music that are covered. Even a general interest culture website like this one, on any given day, will include articles on pop, hip-hop, rock, country, R&B, electronic, and scores of other genres. Is there a lot of bad music writing these days? Yes, but there’s also a lot more writing, period, which means there’s also more good and even great stuff.

And then there’s the matter of technology — the critic Simon Reynolds once made a great and under-appreciated point about how writers back then had an inherent disadvantage because they didn’t have access to computers, which obviously makes researching and revising your work infinitely easier. Imagine not having the ability to Google or easily delete and replace blocks of text! Of course your writing would suck! Let me put it this way: If you’re a working critic now and you’re not better than a typical working critic from 1972, you have no excuse.

Now, lest I sound too positive and not “critical” enough, I do have one big pet peeve with modern music writing. When I started my career in 2000, many young critics aspired to write with the loopy, hopped-up, conversational, and Beats-obsessed rhythms of Lester Bangs. The result was a lot of embarrassing, overstuffed prose — the literary equivalent of an endless, self-satisfied drum solo — but at least there was a premium put on a sense of humor. Today, that humor has mostly gone missing. Many music critics now aspire to write like college professors, infusing their record reviews with academic jargon that’s so incongruous with the subject matter that it becomes unintentionally hilarious. “Goop On Ya Grinch” should have been regarded as a wake-up call — the Walk Hard of the music criticism industry! — but the satire seems to have gone over many people’s heads, since so much music writing now still reads like it.

Every music critic has a different approach; for me, the goal is for the reader of my writing to feel like they’re listening to a record. Like great music, great music criticism should address the mind but rest with the heart. It should be emotionally engaging and above all fun. We’re talking about music for crying out loud! Let’s not turn it into homework! Anyway, that’s my philosophy. Not saying I always hit the mark, but it’s what I’m aiming for.

How many times do you listen to a record prior to writing a review? — Dan from St. Paul

Lots of inside baseball questions this week! I like it! It makes my job seem way more interesting than it is!

I have to tell you, Dan: This is the question I am asked the most. Every time I check the mailbag for this column, there’s always a new email asking, “How many times do you listen to a record prior to writing a review?” I have never answered it before now. But since you’re from St. Paul, I will answer it for you.

I wonder why this particular subject is so interesting to people. I suppose there’s this idea that there’s a scientific method to reviewing records, in which you must peruse the materials in question a set number of times in order to issue a proper assessment. Well Dan, my answer might be disappointing, but here it is: I have no idea. Well, actually, I have some idea. It’s definitely more than five listens, and probably not as many as 500. Sometimes, you receive an album several months in advance, which naturally allows for more spins. (That was the case with Big Thief’s New Warm Dragon I Believe In You.) Other times, you don’t get an advance at all, so you only have a handful of quick listens before filing a review. (That was the case with Frank Ocean’s Blonde, to name an example in which I made my rushed plays part of the review.)

In a perfect world, I’d be able to play an album a perfect number of times before writing anything. But what is the “perfect number of listens,” exactly? I’m not sure. Sometimes one or two listens are enough for me to know that I love or hate something. For other music, it might take years for me to finally “get it,” so to speak. Let’s say you played an album 12 times before writing a review. Twelve seems like a sufficient number, right? But let’s also say that your 13th listen occurs six months from now, during the winter, when you’re at a different juncture in your life. Maybe that 13th listen will hit differently, causing you to move away from your original opinion.

The fact is that a review is merely a snapshot of a moment in time; as I said in the previous answer, the first draft is practically designed to miss the mark in some way. What I’m saying is that this isn’t a science, which is good, because I was bad at science in school.

Why aren’t The Walkmen celebrated more? — Chris from Hanover, Minn.

Another Minnesotan! What’s going on here? Did Uproxx trade me to the Star Tribune?

Like you, Chris, I love The Walkmen. And I agree that they are overlooked in discussions about aughts-era indie rock. While they existed on the periphery of that Meet Me In The Bathroom NYC rock world, they were never as popular as The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and TV On The Radio. As someone who observed that scene from afar in real time, I feel like there was a narrative about The Walkmen that they peaked with their ferocious 2004 single “The Rat,” and then retreated to a series of mellower and less visceral (but frequently great) albums. I know so many people who only know The Walkmen for that one song, which is a shame, because they have many cool deep cuts like this one.

I also wonder to what degree The National unwittingly marginalized them. This might be a crackpot theory, but it rings true to me: The year after The Walkmen dropped “The Rat,” The National put out Alligator, which operated in a similar lane of vibe-y, late-night, drunk male urbanite indie rock. As The National ascended, The Walkmen appeared to lose some popular momentum. As far as the market was concerned, The National took their spot.

Here’s a question for you: How could you leave goddamn Britt Daniel off your best lead singers list?!? — Philip from Washington D.C.

You know Philip, I was expecting more people to give me a hard time for that one. But you’re the first one to complain about it! (It’s also possible that you’re the first person who I noticed complaining about it.)

What can I say? I don’t have a good excuse! Britt Daniel should probably be on the list. Great voice, suave as hell, fine songwriter, swagger to burn, sexy middle-aged dude energy — he ticks all the boxes. I’m sensing a running theme in this column about how easy it is commit music-critic sins. This appears to be one of mine. I will pray to St. Lester for absolution.

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