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Critiquing the Critics

Friday, May 07, 2010 - 12:30 PM

In the old days (whined the cranky old man), music critics had a definite niche in the musical ecosystem.

For people who were interested in exploring music, especially things that weren’t being played on the radio, finding a critic or two whose opinions you trusted was crucial.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to complain about how all you need these days is a blog to set yourself up as a music critic. I’ve heard this charge a lot lately (including from many critics); but that’s not really my issue with music criticism today.  

See, the best critics attracted readers because they wrote well and communicated something of what the music was like. This is an astonishingly difficult thing to do. As Thelonius Monk once said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” But it can be done.

You still need to be a good writer if you’re going to attract readers; that hasn’t changed. What has changed is the old-fashioned idea of reviewing multiple genres, the way Robert Christgau used to do in the Village Voice, where he’d grade new releases in rock, rap, world, and jazz. Now, most bloggers write about very specific musical areas, and the result is some of the most solipsistic writing you’ll ever see. “Fleas & Ticks’ new album blends crunchy Chocolate Bunnies grunge with the insouciant harmonies of the most recent Arf Arf Arf collection…” (I made that up, but just barely.) If you’re introducing me to a band I don’t know by referring to other bands I don’t know, that’s not helping. That’s not good writing. And that’s the difference between being a blogger and being a music critic.

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