Blank Generation II: Some More Thoughts on the State of Music Criticism

Pop music criticism criticism is trending. We’re talking people who actually write under their real names and have blue rosettes next to their Twitter handles trending. Mighty Ted Gioia got the massive ball rolling (the same one I’ve been flapping at for years—and also, last month), then New York Magazine‘s Jody Rosen made his reasoned response, and ever since Final Fantas[tic] Owen Pallett has treated us to his satire on how strictly theoretical criticism can read even more uselessly than the coolness criticism I loathe. The fact that this dialogue has elevated to the mouths of the widely respected suggests that the desire for a more substantive pop music criticism is not just the wet dream of a few didactic cranks on the internet’s outer limits. But how much musical prattle can the average reader take before they feel alienated or worse, bored? Style currently rules pop music criticism, and we need to negotiate its share in a duality with substance. My previous little rant was about substance as opposed to style. This one will be a cordial invitation to a marriage of the two, working towards a healthier, more compatible pop music criticism.

After his first “music theory” article went live on Slate (an astute analysis of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”), Pallett clarified his position by saying “theoretical analysis favors certain genres over others.” By “certain genres” I’m led to believe, given the palatable subjects of his articles and the seemingly historical disconnect between the tastes of theorists and, say, the punk rock aesthetic, he means genres that value things like clarity, familiarity, and technical facility over originality, deviation, and artistic license—like straightforward pop over experimental rock, or, in a different sense, the taut craft of Robert Johnson over the primeval stylings of Son House. But while theoretical analysis can assess the formal unity of a song’s musical elements—or lack thereof—it says nothing and should say nothing of value. Theory is merely a contextual tool, a standard by which the compositional aspects of this can be compared with and contrasted to that. It helps to normalize and even define formal aspects of music.

The problem, however, is that genius is often identified by its deviation from form. And since recognizing genius requires first a recognition of form, theory helps a critic to recognize genius. Moreover, theory offers the critic a lexicon to precisely examine the nature of that genius. So I have to disagree with Pallett: saying theoretical analysis favors certain genres is like saying the census favors certain types of people. It ain’t about favorites. It’s just data. Precise and invaluable data—

Data your average pop music fan does not want or even care to read about! The biggest misconception of the argument for more musically educated music critics is that we “theorists” are demanding more theory-driven analysis in pop reviews. While I enjoyed Pallett’s piece, it seems to satirize the content of my argument by overcompensation. A strictly theoretical review of anything—not just pop music—always reads like “then they did this,” “isn’t that nice?” “and then they did this,” “how cool!” etc. This is not criticism as much as it is show and tell. No, the ability to do analysis is what is missing from the pop music criticism I argue against, because without this ability the writer has no authority to criticize actual music. But criticism in general necessarily cuts analysis with hard thinking. Along with theory expertise, there are at least two other essential components of the pop music critic: cultural context and knowledge of repertoire. Pop music is as “pop” as it is “music,” so cultural context is essential to its understanding and for establishing authority in the critic. In fact, I believe the good music critic rightfully spends most of his or her words on biography/cultural context. It’s what the average reader wants, and it helps give the music vitality for the uninitiated listener. Ted Gioia’s Delta Blues and Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise are great examples of how to balance musical expertise with cultural context.

Knowledge of repertoire is trickier. By repertoire, I mean the canon of standard works whose influence is borne by all current artists. Whether you like the Beatles or not, there’s no un-hearing “Hey Jude.” Conversant familiarity with this kind of repertoire is perhaps the crucial aspect of the music critic’s knowledge, even more so than theory or cultural context. Many current pop music critics seem to have a vast knowledge of repertoire, but they tend to favor depth over breadth. I would argue that the music critic who can identify 5,000 punk songs but little else has less authority to criticize punk music than the music critic who can identify only 500 punk songs but can also, for instance, tell the difference between Schubert and Brahms. This may be controversial, but let me rest my case with this point: if you know way more than a thousand punk songs, then punk culture is probably more important to you than punk music.

My pop music criticism wants to synthesize the aforementioned components into a reasoned, more forceful argument for or against new sounds. My gripe against specialism at the expense of this greater synthesis extends to other fields, too. Take the title match going on between economists Paul Krugman and Nate Silver. Silver denigrates Krugman for contorting certain facts to suit his worldview, and Krugman brands Silver a slave to numbers who has no capacity for hard thinking. Imagine Krugman as an opinionated music critic who hopes to synthesize as much general information as possible in order to project an ambitious if blurry outlook, and Silver as a knowledgable information hoarder whom some suspect hasn’t an original thought about music in his head. Alternatively, imagine that Krugman represents the pop music culture that seeks to assert and perpetuate its own aesthetic agenda, often with minimal regard to artistic substance; while Silver represents those who believe musical value is found only in music itself, and any extramusical aspects like persona or the concept of authenticity are shear distractions. In either picture, one is in a helicopter over the forest while the other is on the bark of an evergreen with a magnifying glass.

Actually, though, this analogy isn’t very good for our purpose. At least both of these guys agree that data is extremely important for understanding economics! Music theory, that invaluable tool for which there is little use outside of music criticism, is regarded so poorly (or not at all) by most pop music critics, I fear we’ve wandered out of the woodlands and into the desert. We slog around starved and dehydrated, worshipping mirages and hissing at phantoms. And this is the sad condition in which I published my caustic rant, the tone of which I now regret.

While I’m grateful for my piece to have been read by a larger audience than usual, the invective (right there in the title) was not constructive, and it invited equally useless responses. Other than some passive aggressive muttering, some flat-out misreadings, and a potshot or two at my amateurish writing (very fair, I’ll admit), the only valid rebuttal was that our readers demand no supply of musical expertise from our pop music critics. If this is true, and it very well may be, then our “music critics” are the cool kids in middle school arbitrarily setting a status quo with sneakers and slap bracelets.

This is understandable. Music of the rock era has always been about shilling insecurity and sentimentality to the kids. I don’t have anything against fads, and I even think being or feeling cool is one of the most adorable features of teenager-dom. Cool has also been the bloodiest vein surging through the body of the rock era. Pop music critics have been swimming in that mainline alongside the fans, but that’s not what critics are supposed to do. They’re supposed to be living in the brain, helping to make decisions on what’s good for the body. Lester Bangs was good for validating rock music criticism early on when it wasn’t taken seriously as having artistic substance, but this music isn’t a sexy teenager anymore. It has the dignity of an adult that has survived wars, cocaine binges, and Twee Pop.

Critics now have the responsibility of validating this music with the same substance that was previously reserved for classical music. Artists are not responsible for understanding much about the technique of their art (even though the very best do); if it’s good, then who cares how it got that way? That’s what critics are for. We have to be able to explain why it’s good, and it’s our job to use our experience and expertise to help steer a healthy course for our artistic culture. This is especially important as the world negotiates an ever-collectivized point of view. Coolness ain’t gonna colonize Mars.

Lack of theory knowledge is like an iron deficiency, and it’s been turning our pop music criticism ever more anemic. Perhaps the saddest thing about the response to Ted Gioia’s article is how much energy it lacked! Jody Rosen essentially said “Hey, there are at least, like, three or four pop critics who don’t suck at all” (I agree), and then all the other ones he didn’t defend cowered under his tiny umbrella as if to say “Yeah, we know we don’t know about music, but neither did Lester Bangs, so leave us alone!” Now Owen Pallett, a decent musician, is just snickering behind a curmudgeon’s back. Gioia might as well have lit into a scarecrow with a paintball gun!

Well, I’ve not yet lost hope in the integrity of our pop music criticism. We have great journalists out there with the energy to attain a vast knowledge of important repertoire and cultural context whose only problem is they think it’s perfectly acceptable to criticize something they know very little about. It’s a simple problem: we don’t fully engage the stuff we criticize. People without musical expertise don’t hear as much as those of us who have it—amateurs lack a capacity for depth and subtlety. Maybe you’re intuitively moved by beauty (and I’ll admit there are many “experts” who are not), but, if you have no normalized frame of reference to explain beauty to yourself, then how meaningful can your overall critique be to anyone else? Pop music criticism currently takes a chauvinistic and objectifying view towards pop music. We show no respect for this music we pretend to love, and we owe it to this music to criticize it more seriously.

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.