Former music critic, Steve Almond, wrote an op-ed piece over at the Boston Globe this past week, blasting the music criticism industry. He stated, rather eloquently, that good critics–himself not included, by his own admission–could never capture “what it feels like to listen to music. Because listening to music is a collaborative endeavor. Fans don’t just sit there (as critics do) parsing the technical merits of a song. They bring to each song their own emotional needs: their lust and sorrow, their hopes and heartbreak.” When faced with the question hovering in front of everyone’s face, he stated the obvious:
“Am I suggesting that music criticsm is a pointless exercise? Yeah, I guess I am.”
It’s an argument that’s been coming up a lot lately in every realm of popular culture (like here). Which begs the other obvious question: what is the value of cultural criticism as a whole? In olden times (y’know, like, fifteen years ago), the value of critics was simple: no one had the money, time, or in some ways, the taste-based fortitude to listen to all the music that was out there. Critics, and music publications or large-circulation websites, were there to simply tell you in broad strokes what music was worth your time, and what music was not.
There’s no question the importance of musical criticism has dwindled since the rise of blogs, digital downloads, and whatever other technological innovations that the RIAA can claim is responsible for the decline in records sales. But no matter what your taste in music may be, the collective reality is the same: the majority of music out there is mediocre, and simply not worth listening to or talking much about. That isn’t to say that a lot of that music is bad, there’s only so many ways you can say that a band is okay for what it is, but not really your thing.
Since the internet basically exists for prolonged conversation, it’s only expected that the people talking the loudest would be about the two extremes of the fan spectrum: the love, and the hate; something that Almond confirms when he says, “[Now], I devote myself almost exclusively to spreading the gospel of those bands that I love. As for the bands I don’t like (and there are still plenty of those) I tend to assume someone else will.”
What’s strange about Almond’s sentiment is that it seems oddly representative of a generation that he’s not a part of. At 44 years old, Almond was a teenager during the dawn of the 80s, a heyday of cultural pop indulgence that was embodied in lavish hairstyles, cock-rock metal, and other-worldly synthesized soundscapes. It was an era of excess bathed in a political conservatism that superficially kept the culture strictly divided between the haves and the have-nots. Even assuming that Almond’s critical career went well into his 20s, he would still identify with an era of grunge, alterna-rock that was too disillusioned and confused to know how to assert itself; a wash of teenage angst and a general spurning of the pop sensibilities that characterized the past decades, leaving in its wake an amelodic, overly complex, almost comically emotional decade of pop music that slowly killed itself out of social atrophy, rather than the excess of the stars of the 80s. As Y2K gripped the country in fear and peril, the pop cultural landscape was a hodge podge of street rap, electronica, power pop, and a resurgence of grandstand pop music that seemed like it was out of the 50s.
By the time Almond would reach his mid 30s, it would’ve been the mid-2000s (presumably sometime around the point where he came to his op-ed epiphany), leaving him smack dab in the middle of this confused era. An era where he and other industry professionals bemoan the downfall of critics and journalists as “taste makers,” with the belief that their ability to drive cultural taste represented their main value.
Yet, the interesting thing about our modern era is that this is the first generation in possibly half a century where people are no longer simply reacting to the generation that came before it, whether by incorporation or by rebellion. There’s an exciting acceptance going on where indie hipsters are willing to admit they listen to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” (no lie, I still love this song to death), as much as pop whores are tuned in to the latest Goldfrapp single. And unlike the ’90s (or the punk vs. New Wave war in the 80s), no one really seems to mind.
Perhaps professionals tend to see our generation as a “critical generation,” as Almond remarks; I see it as a generation that, for the first time ever, has the knowledge, facilities, and (perhaps thanks to some less-than-fully-honest means) the financial capacity to fully enjoy all the music that they always could have. And ignoring the hateful echo chamber section of the Internet for one second, there’s a lot of love going on; and that shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing.
No longer is it about hiding in your room and feeling like you’re the only one who understands the Smiths (you and Lester Bangs maybe). We are so interconnected with our friends, our family, in our schools, at our jobs, and with strangers we feel close to on the Internet. And we, as a culture, seem want to connect rather than retreat. And quite frankly, you don’t need a professional to tell you when you love something. The one thing Almond is dead right on…when you love a song, you don’t need a critic to justify it.
Say what you will about Almond’s article. The guy loves music, and perhaps that is the most valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on the armchair critic deluge that the web hath wrought upon the professional circle. Maybe we all need to go back to the basics, and have a discussion about what we’re all talking about. And maybe the starting point for that discussion is the simple statement, “Why do you love music?” The importance is that the discussion is even happening, and that even when the majority of music out there is music that will leave us unmoved, it still seems like there aren’t enough days to write about all the music we do love. And critics, just like non-professionals, are there to remind us of that either directly or indirectly.