Pop Playground
Music Criticism

By: Ian Mathers

Posted 09/21/2005 - 09:27:40 AM by wmdavidson:
 Ian, great piece. I guess it's no secret that I disagree with practically everything you said, but I couldn't ask for a more eloquent and well-reasoned argument and that's a joy to read in any circumstance. Thanks.
Posted 09/21/2005 - 01:46:55 PM by IanMathers:
 And I couldn't ask for a nicer response than that one, wm. I'm glad you liked it, even if we're on opposite sides of the fence.
Posted 09/21/2005 - 02:06:49 PM by iainrf:
 Hurray! Says almost everything I believe about this very well indeed. Just one thing though: the word 'popist' to me doesn't bring to mind the idea that everyone's opinion is equally valid, as you use it here, but the idea that any band of white boys with guitars is inherently objectively awful (except for McFly). I know that there's probably no formal definition of it anywhere but that one seems to make more sense and to be at least as prevalent.
Posted 09/21/2005 - 02:10:22 PM by J_R_K_:
 if only all the music critcism articles were like this one.
Posted 09/21/2005 - 06:17:08 PM by daphima:
 This is a really wonderful essay. Without getting too hyperbolic, it has justified my fascination with music criticism and showed me how it can still be important. This is discourse with heart.
Posted 09/21/2005 - 07:59:47 PM by adentice:
 Yeah, i really enjoyed that too, well done. However, being a fan (and a purveyor) of "white boys with guitars" music, I would agree with iainrf that popist logic is not quite the egalitarian, "everyone's opinion is valid", form of criticism that it is made out to be here. I think there is a lot to like about popist writing, but when taken to the extreme, it results in hyperbolic, borderline-ridiculous reviews like this one: "The flipside to 'Since You've Been Gone': a similarly unbeatable chorus, and also about a break-up, but this time from the point of view of someone who isn't moving on. I honestly didn't think the reunited Backstreet Boys' were capable of releasing a song this good. The video has attracted a lot of attention, but it's the song itself that deserves the acclaim: the connection being that to an extent both are about pining for a past that can never be regained, if it ever even really existed". [10] I think it's great that popism (if that's the word??) has allowed us to appreciate a Backstreet Boys song (and this one is, I agree, an excellent track) rather than trash it of hand, but when it extends to waxing admiration of the LYRICAL CONTENT, things have gone to far - it's admiration for admiration's sake, to push the popist agenda. Also, I am left with a lingering suspicion that this reviewer would not give a '10' to a pop-rock song by (for example) My Chemical Romance or Alkaline Trio - many of which have undeniably "unbeatable choruses". This was a rather long-winded way of saying that popist logic is not representative of the kind of "new criticism" Ian was talking about. But i guess what it does do, is set up against rockist criticism on the other side of the breach, to create the "argument or discussion" that criticism should continue to foster.
Posted 09/21/2005 - 10:10:14 PM by IanMathers:
 Fair comment on the terminology; I actually thought I'd just used "anti-rockist" as opposed to "popist", but in any case I think the essay makes clear what I think about people who act the way iain and adentice describe. I do disagree with one of adentice's conclusions, though; I'm not sure what we want is warring camps of rockists and popists etc. See the line "but by now we've come to a place where some of us are trying to move beyond these sorts of reformations and counter-reformations, these constant additions to the canon, and move on to more productive grounds."
Posted 09/22/2005 - 06:44:07 AM by edwardo:
 I'm as popist as they come, but the last My Chemical Romance single eats the last Backstreet Boys one for any meal you care to mention. Oh, and great piece, Ian.
Posted 09/22/2005 - 08:24:08 AM by whiteboysushi:
 So what I get from this article is that music criticism wants to be appreciated for its own sake because it's like, really hard to objectively discuss an album an' all, y'see? Good points all, but I'm so sick of this stupid argument that writing the best article I've yet seen on it still doesn't do much for me.
Posted 09/22/2005 - 03:09:36 PM by J_R_K_:
 well then white boy sushi, if you want to understand why it's really hard to critize music and this article didn't do it well enough, maybe it would help you understand the other side of the coin. if you spent 10 years playing the guitar or sequencing or whatever, about $2,500 of your own money on gear, practice spaces, recording, duplication and press kits, and then see how you feel when some contrived hack disses your record cuz he or she woke up on the wrong side of the bed. there is somethin to be said for valid knowledge of musical background being brought a record review verses just personal ancedotes of little substance.
Posted 09/22/2005 - 04:19:43 PM by whiteboysushi:
 Uh... I agree? Completely? That's exactly what I'm saying. Music critics should hold themselves to a higher standard than musicians, or you just end up with the blind leadeth-ing the blind, introducing noise at every point along the signal chain because everyone wants to have their own distinct, individual take on the music (let's let the layout guys arrange the text based on how the music makes them "feel"). Leave the "fuck you, I don't care what you think, I'm an ARTISTE" stuff to the musicians.
Posted 09/22/2005 - 08:36:27 PM by IanMathers:
 No, let's not; in fact, let's try to wipe out the "fuck you, I don't care what you think, I'm an ARTISTE" mindset entirely. Musicians are artists. So are writers. When members of either group claim they're somehow more artistic than the other, it's a sign of insecurity (and bullshit to boot).
Posted 09/23/2005 - 12:00:34 AM by whiteboysushi:
 I hate to be the guy repeatedly attempting to piss in your cheerios here, but I really think you need to come to terms with the fact that people read music criticism because they care about music. But fine, what do I care, I wish you the best of luck in your efforts to turn music criticism into a huge insular circlejerk where you need a Ph.D. to make sense of anything that's going on because everyone just keeps writing about the same three albums (NOTE: it's late and I'm frustrated and sober and I love hyperbole).
Posted 09/23/2005 - 01:31:39 AM by daphima:
 Note taken into account, whiteboy, but the insular circle jerk is really not the point. Critics can sharpen their art without sacrificing readability; in fact, I think readability is part of the sharpening. But I don't entirely get what you take issue with. Is it pretentious Ph.D.-requiring music criticism? Is it insipid anecdotal music criticism? We all agree that critics should know their shit. Ian was just saying (forgive me, Ian, if I'm twisting your point) that criticism should be a jumping off point for talking about music instead of the final word on what an album/song/artist is or isn't. I understand if you want to talk less about music and just listen. I feel the same way, but I like talking about the music I care about with people I care about and respect from time to time as well.
Posted 09/23/2005 - 01:50:15 AM by IanMathers:
 Don't worry, daphima, you've done no violence to my point. You put it quite well, especially about readability. And if whiteboysushi thinks noting that criticism _is_ art and not just an adjunct to art is trying to force it to be, what did he call it, "a huge insular circlejerk", maybe that says more about him than me.
Posted 09/23/2005 - 11:42:49 AM by whiteboysushi:
 daphima: What is there to discuss? I guess that's my issue. I, too, "lik talking about the music I care about with people I care about and respect", i.e. my friends. I don't want or need critics to try to be my friends; I have friends, I know about them, I know what they like, they know what I like, and we're able to easily introduce each other to new music as a result. And even with my friends, I rarely 'discuss' the actual substance of the music. Most such discussions either take the form of "Man, the bridge on that one Maximo Park song totally kicks ass!"-"Oh, I know, totally"-"Fuck yeah!" or "Man, the bridge on that one Maximo Park song totally kicks ass"-"Ugh, what is this shit?"-"Fuck you, douchebag". The only music I feel strongly enough about to want to discuss it is music I love, and I just don't really enjoy discussing the music I love with people who don't 'get' it.
Posted 09/23/2005 - 02:31:35 PM by daphima:
 I can understand that, and I am mostly the same way. But that doesn't change the fact that when a piece of art (assuming we can call music art, which I don't think is too preposterous) is produced, there is usually going to be some sort of critical discourse surrounding it. Now this isn't always the case (e.g. comics have very little of this critical discourse surrounding it, but give it time), but music criticism has existed for a while now, so it is the case with music. Some people are into developing a critical dialogue about certain pieces of music, and I know that in my case, this fulfills a need to - as nerdy as it is - talk about what a certain band or album or song "means" or how it fits into history, etc. There is a danger with getting too wrapped up in labelling music and putting it into categories, and that should be avoided. I also think that as interesting and thought provoking and maybe even moving as the criticism can be, it should always point back to the music. And, if you'll allow me to get a little bit wanky here, this sets up music as being similar to Plato's "ideal" form and the criticism as a reflection of that. This analogy is tricky because I'm mixing mediums, but maybe you can get what I'm saying anyway. Basically, that, if one is interested in criticism, there can be a lot of good gained that will inform one's appreciation of the music, as long as the criticism points back to the music and doesn't get too wrapped up in existing for its own sake, which, still, doesn't make it less valuable than the music but just serving a different purpose. I think.
Posted 09/23/2005 - 04:13:01 PM by whiteboysushi:
 I see where you're coming from, but I guess my reservations stem from a desire to see music criticism stay at least somewhat rooted in the present. That's sorta what I was getting at with the "insular circlejerk" comments: I don't want music criticism to go the way of literary criticism, where the 'critics' don't have the power to define the canon, so they just write endlessly about what has already been established as canon, and new works are only really discussed in cursory reviews by newspapers and magazines.
Posted 09/24/2005 - 06:57:36 PM by daphima:
 Yeah, that's a pretty valid concern. I mean, the reason I think lit. critics focus on a lot of past stuff so much is that the works might actually require that much discussion. I also think it's hard to totally be in the present, as it takes time for the best works to assert themselves, and then, I think some sort of consensus is generally reached. Plus, there is always going to be someone who disputes the authority of a certain musical text based on some new interpretation, and I think that's generally a good thing.