Music Critics, Who Needs ‘Em?
A couple weeks ago, author and one-time music critic Steve Almond published an op-ed in The Boston Globe entitled “Love Music, Hold the Criticism.” Given the title, you can probably guess its central aim: provocation. Now, I’m no fool. I get it. This is what writers do when they have a new book to promote: They raise a ruckus, ruffle some feathers. The book in this case would be “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life”—a memoir of how Almond learned to give up the criticism racket and just love the music—due out on Tuesday.
So I can’t fault the guy for his tactics—even if they seem trifling and irresponsible—particularly when he’s produced such memorable fiction. (See Almond’s debut short story collection, “My Life in Heavy Metal,” for heartbreaking and hilarious vignettes on the perils of young lust.) What I can fault him for is being dead wrong.
In his Globe column, Almond describes a minor epiphany he had during an MC Hammer concert while fresh out of college and working as a music critic for a small El Paso paper:
“I dutifully spent the evening scribbling witty insults in my reporter’s notebook. But at a certain point (after I’d fulfilled my quota of witty insults) I turned my attention to the folks all around me. They were enthralled. And what I realized as I gazed at them was this: I was totally missing the point. The very idea of music criticism — of applying some objective standard to the experience of listening to music — suddenly struck me as petty and irrelevant.”
Why? Because criticism, or at least the wretched, ill-informed kind Almond readily admits to producing, dismisses pop’s primary goal: pleasure.
“Criticizing a particular band or song might make you, and some of your readers, feel smart or sophisticated. But it rarely does anything to advance the cause of art. After all, you can’t rescind the pleasure someone derives from a particular piece of music. All you can do is deride that pleasure, which strikes me as a fairly stingy way to make a living.”
Music criticism, or really any art criticism, is a “pointless exercise” because it doesn’t engage with the form on an emotional level. When all Lady Gaga wants to do is make us “dance or weep or laugh,” all we do is point out the ridiculousness of her sunglasses—the ones made of lit cigarettes—or talk about the debt she owes to Madonna or Prince or Betty Boop. Critics are just beer-swilling, self-loathing, talentless “parasite[s],” to quote one of the op-ed’s commenters, sucking the life out of an art form they purport to love. (See Carl Wilson’s 2007 book “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste” for a more convincing, more nuanced version of a similar argument.)
Clearly, there is scads wrong with Almond’s reasoning, as many others have pointed out, not the least of which is his reliance on his own brief career as a terrible critic. (And yes, I realize I’m taking the bait here.) Not only was he ignorant (“I knew next to nothing about music … To the best of my knowledge ‘arpeggio’ was a variety of pasta”), he was an ignorant hack (“As might be expected, I produced a great many bad reviews. My standard template was to start off with a bad pun then proceed to the concert set list, with each song title modified by at least three adjectives.”) Now, there’s nothing wrong with being bad at your job, particularly at that age. Lots of us were. Just don’t go publishing a hit piece on your former profession in a national newspaper. It looks silly, and a little desperate.
More disturbing, though, is Almond’s anti-intellectualism. The idea that an authentic reaction to music shouldn’t involve our minds—only our hearts and groins—is frankly ridiculous. So much so that I don’t quiet believe the guy. I know he’s smarter than that. Why else would Almond’s book include a “reluctant exegesis” (yes, that’s how he describes it) on the vagaries of Toto’s regrettable 80’s synth anthem, “(I Bless the Rains Down in) Africa,” if he doesn’t understand the pleasures of engaging with the music, of breaking it down—of doing criticism—even with a wink and a nudge. The best music—from Radiohead to Otis Redding to Nick Drake to Wire—touches us everywhere at once.
Almond’s column and his book (which, it should be said, is often quite funny) tap into the idea that a child’s reaction to culture is the most authentic because it values sensual pleasure above all else, and does so without a hint of irony. It’s an axiom of twee culture, an idea indirectly espoused in the work of other fiction writers like Joe Meno and Michael Chabon. I’m only half-way through Almond’s book, and I’m already inundated by youthful anecdotes: The mystic thrills Almond got playing vinyl LPs as a kid, his towering obsession with a local musician—the now obscure Nil Lara—as a 20-something journalist in Miami, the way his wife’s Metallica records kept her sane through high school.
It isn’t, of course, that these stories aren’t worthwhile—in fact, they get at the very heart of what it means to love pop music. It’s simply that recognizing their power doesn’t discredit a music critic’s work, even if one might tell you (god forbid) that the band that got you through high school sucks. It’s all just part of the conversation. Don’t take it personally.
Almond’s notion of the “Music Critic Paradox”—that because critics use one medium (prose) to describe an entirely different medium (music), they “can’t begin to capture what it feels like to listen to music”—shouldn’t, as Almond thinks, be a reason to throw in the pen. Critics should take pride that they struggle, and quite often succeed, with the deck so stacked against them. It’s almost ennobling. And here I was thinking musicians had the tougher job.
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