New Criticals

A Brief Exposition of Contemporary Music Criticism: Part One

It should be clear to everyone that modern music journalism is an intensely exploitative practice. It uses the artist’s material as a means of selling content as opposed to building a relationship with the material over time. Because of this lack of sensitivity to the feedback loop that exists between writer and artist, the culture suffers. This is not to say that the modern music critic is worthless, but that the journalistic thinking is wrong, concerned less with understanding and fleshing out a work, and more concerned with gaining a steady stream of hapless readers. Along with this more business oriented mindset, the critic has fallen as well, being replaced by a less critical-minded fan: the distance between the fan and those in the music industry then shrinks and blurs. The critic is not at the service of their audience; the critic's job is not to teach or explain, but to unravel a work and map out its focus. The shortsighted nature of modern music criticism is lost in a need to please, pander to and caress the whims of their readers. Despite the years of critical theories and traditions built up in the surrounding mediums, the music critic evades this in instead chooses a path much closer to blogger. In the process, no work gets covered fully, only to the extent of the reader's desire to be interested in the subject - the reader only wants to know: "will it please me?" and "should I buy it?" This straightforward thinking reduces even the most meaningful record to something of a gift to the world as opposed to be an object, a droplet from the moment's collective narrative and experience. The points following intend to explore the current relationship and the potentialities between the critic, the subject, and the language/system through which an art object is turned into a subject. The investigation of these items, the eventual projection and assertion of their collective potentialities will take us through the dissection of the current critical system’s failing to define and metabolize as well as raising a new intertextual and interdisciplinary mode of critical discourse.

There has been many remarks about the uselessness of the music critic because it gains little traffic, and because of its singular voice, but this thinking undermines the very idea of artistic discourse. If anything this is an argument of inclusiveness, that everyone should have a take on the music’s meaning, but that simply isn’t the case. In a time when the varied disciplines have been collectively over worked to understand the current burgeoning technological development and its subsequent effects, it should be clear that the music in this era too would be deeply coded and to respond to this the critical investigation of it, should become more heighten and academically-bred. While it is fine if a critic enjoys an album, it would be much more beneficial for the artist and reader to know if an album is objectively good, and more so what the album means in relation to the current times’ convoluted nature. A more strong and organized system of methodology is needed for criticism to stay relevant in a time in which everyone is an author and anyone can be a critic. To solve this problem, the issue of the artist and subjective experience as commodity will be exposed and fleshed out while implementing a more objective structure in its place.

There is a distinct absence of the evaluation of the structure and form of an album, causing musical merit to be bypassed in favor of the opinions of supposedly elevated intellectuals who define music by current ideas and trends rather than musical aesthetic – the ideas behind the sound – allowing the unknowing reviewer to run rampant with subjective experience and an imagined narrative of music history. The structure of criticism in this way has been tainted by the solipsistic motivations of trend-driven bloggers who act as omnipresent influences vociferously shouting, not whispering as the music fan initially had, their opinions and quoting their right to enjoyment: music for them is owned not a priori.

As opposed to the postmodern critic who treats the album as an embodiment of his or her life experiences, the album as a subject of analysis, should rather be defined as a collection of songs bound to the continuity of the track listing in connection with the cover photo and the overlaying ideological transcriptions that are lyrics. That is to say, the songs work together to form a whole, collective sound that then produces an image or idea that is merely experienced by the listener - this is done silently, communally and on the terms of the artifact, the art presented. This defines the earlier assertion that the postmodern critic is solipsistic - because he only takes the album in parts which are then augmented by personal experience causing a lack of attention to the music's arrangement. The critic's wanting to retain their personal voice disregards the fundamentals of musical aesthetic. Of course, that is not objective and makes for inaccurate criticism.

Art - and in this particular case music - is an organizing and pinning down of a society's thoughts and experiences onto the plane of sound. The recognition of music's societal function forces the critic to consider the underlying concept that is being presented in the listening experience. This will be labeled music concept theory as opposed to music notation theory. Notation analysis is solely the analyzing of the arrangement of notes, not what that arrangement means. With music concept theory in place, the critic can learn to see the cultural and critical systems objectively while retaining their subjective roles as listeners, thus defining the aural representation of a time more accurately.

The critical flaws that can be clearly seen are present in the transition of styles from critics of old to the critics of new. In the article “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”, Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni state,

“There can be no room in our critical practice either for speculation or for specious raving. It must be a rigidly factual analysis of what governs the production [. . .] and the meanings and forms appearing in it, which are equally tangible.”

With that statement in mind, the critic must be reminded that they are not to feel and like the album, but to note and understand the feeling that the album produced - once again on the album’s stated terms. One could easily see the distinct differences between the reviews of the 1980s (Rolling Stone, NME and Smash hits) and those of recent (Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, etc). Though both eras saw music criticism in the wrong light, only the 1980s reviewers have the advantage of not have an assumed a priori, i.e, no one to compare the artists to besides their peers: the albums were incidentally listened to within their proper context.

The reviews from the 1980s treated music reviews as though they were ads, attempting to advise the reader on whether an album was worth the money spent on them, while modern reviews rely on the placement of references to decide what is “good.” Both methods are inefficient because they never evaluate the music at hand on its own merits. The British music sociologist, Simon Frith, confirms the idea of referential criticism in his book, Bad Music: 

"Music is judged bad in the context of or by reference to a critique of mass production. Bad music is “standardized” or “formulaic” music. The implicit contrast is with “original” or “autonomous” or “unique” music, and the explanation built into the judgment depends on the familiar Marxist/Romantic distinction between serial production, production to commercial order, to meet a market, and artistic creativity, production determined only by individual intention, by formal and technical rules and possibilities." (20)

What Frith is attempting to point out is that when music adheres to a formula too perfectly, the movement of the overarching narrative becomes static. Music can be defined as the unconscious expanded into the real by way of tones, so what that equates to is that the mental well is dry. The concept of bad music in the critical world is often linked to the retreading of old ideas or something being too avant-garde for mass consumption. With music being positioned as a commodity in 80s critical spectrum, modern critics already have a standard to judge newer artist by. Critics are now allowed to view bad music as music that doesn't line up with the ideas of those who have reach commodity status – low sales equal ineffectively getting their message across.

The selling point of uniqueness illegitimately defines what an era experiences. Pop culture phenomena takes the place of era replication on the plane of sound. The “uniqueness” of image beats out musicality because the audience has something physically present onto which the audience can project. The artists are placeholders for the message that their music intends to get across. “[A]ll entertainment businesses are organized around the idea of stardom. The star is central to the entertainment market, most obviously in the figures of the film and pop star ." (Frith 205) The message or theme is blocked by iconic figures; thus, the music is no longer significant. By reading music as a text, picking apart the details within the song and album itself, critics can reverse the current ideology that supports “faces” over music quality.

As mentioned earlier, the problem with current criticism comes from having a supposed narrative in place, or point of origin in which the review can rely on without question or fail. Because music offers no narrative outside of cognitive imaging by way of emotional impressing or lyrics that appear to give the songs plot, it has become easy for critics and their fan counterparts to make up a narrative. Truth in this case is wholly subjective, and out of this a supposed or self-evident truth arrives a memetic truth: truth encapsulated and reduced down to a swallowable form, but what has been lost in the process of reduction? Music in its current state (hypnagogic pop, vaporwave) is fascinated with memory through repetition, disjointment and the titillation of the absurd notion of cognition, which is interesting but that is for film to do by way of image montage or visual-cognitive dissonance and disassociation. Music through repetition is meant to construct, or rather, reconstruct. Frequency, harmonic structures, they are all building blocks on a monistic level striving to replicate if not build entirely the mind in its most basic and abysmal form. Memory is the simulation of having experience, as is the notion of cinematic presentation. Music is the body confronting itself and its very nature laid bare. With the memetic truth in place, the true narrative is lost. The narrative of tonal or structural growth and development that comes along with the ideological revelations that time brings about with wars and economic situations becomes utterly lost or seen as coincidental because the album’s worth is relative to the listener, the sole listener. For the music artist, this creates the interesting predicament in which the artist no longer has to know the rules of music, only the structure and the selected canon.