Monday, October 5, 2009

Pity the Rock Critic

I am going to go ahead and sabotage any future chance of being asked to guest blog for a music magazine and say what’s on my mind: I think the job of the rock critic is kind of bullshit. Let me explain.

First, I understand that music criticism once served a valuable purpose in helping the consumer decide where to spend their hard earned money. There are a lot of choices out there and guidance is good; album reviews give listeners a quick synopsis of the flavor and emotion of the sound, instruments used, and to liken it to other familiar music.

Let me also say that there are excellent music critics out there, critics who understand that their most valuable role is to articulate what a listener can expect to hear once they purchase music. The problem is that far too many critics overstep this role and feel that it is their responsibility to label an album good or bad, better or worse, a success or a failure. This is where the bullshit part comes in to play - because music, like any art, is largely subjective.

Music can be analyzed to some extent. A trained ear will hear subtleties in the melodies and complexities in arrangements that the lay listener may overlook. An experienced listener may identify whether a sound is original and unique. It is on these qualities that a critic can judge an album. A critical analysis should not be based on a reaction to the artist’s image. Nor should it be based on the perceived intent of the artist in creating the music, and whether the critic believes the artist achieved that intent. Too often, I see those factors dominate an album review.

Albums carry meaning and value to the listener, not because they are immaculately crafted, but because they evoke feeling, provoke thought, and are pleasing to the subjective ear. They are commentary - both social and personal - for a particular time and place, and that is why connection to an album is formed. To over-intellectualize music defeats its purpose and ability to speak to us on an emotional level. When I read a scathing review, I can’t help but wonder if the job of a rock critic drives away any of the original joy one once had in listening. Can you ever appreciate music the same way once you are trained to listen so critically and so cynically?

Perhaps album reviews are valuable to music industry insiders (after all, the commercial fate of an album can rest on its reviews). But reviews are nearly inconsequential to music fans. Today, there are many ways for a fan to sample music before they buy it, and individuals can now judge for themselves what music is worth the investment. It is an increasingly populist music environment – and with that, the rock critic’s opinion is becoming more obsolete. I believe that somewhere, from the great beyond, Lester Bangs is smiling.


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