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A Music Critic’s Response: Why One of Us Doesn’t Think You’re a Retarded Arsehole

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joanna-newsom

By Victoria Birch

Critics’ egos are generally happy to mop up all sorts of unqualified and unsubstantiated horseshit as long as it’s nice horseshit. The kind that says, “This is the best thing I’ve ever read in the history of people writing words and reading stuff”. It doesn’t matter if it’s generalised ill-thought out drivel, tell a critic they’re great and you can bet your ass not a single one of them will jump online to remonstrate with you about your rabid idiocy. [Damn, it annoyed me when people started saying how well-written my recent post on Udays Tiger was. It really wasn’t – Ed]

Litter our lovely space with your nasty knee-jerkery wrong thinking, however and you can expect the critic to tan your ignorant backside … with rules!

Wallace Wylie’s article was greeted with plenty of high-fives and general back-slapping. His skewering of the internet’s bottom-feeders (those who have the temerity to question our words but who fail to meet designated standards of rational and intellectual thinking) received an all-round thumbs up.

I may be the lone voice but I found the notion of a critic dictating how you can converse with him/her an incy wincey bit fucked. That, and the fact I didn’t buy his entire argument. Particularly these bits:

1. The ‘Hipster’ Problem

The only thing wrong with ‘hipster’ is that a moratorium on the term is badly needed. It’s become the beef jerky of insults; the juices are sucked dry and what’s left should only ever be used in an emergency situation. Let’s think of a shiny new pejorative that means the same thing. In my day it was ‘too cool for school’ (don’t use that though – seven-year-olds will kick your shins).

Accusations of being a hipster rattle critics because it’s a direct smack in the cake-hole. The erudite musings of a critic are just a smokescreen for their internal wrangling. “Do I really like this because it’s fabulous or do I like it because a) I’m the only person that’s ever heard of it and b) everyone else loathes it. I’m a tastemaker, right? How can I make taste if everyone’s beating me to the punch?”

Of course they’ll tell you they love things because they’re noble of spirit and immune to the vanities and vagaries that normal, weak people (i.e. you) are prone to. But they thrive on subverting norms. They may rail at the hipster accusation, but it’s more or less in the fucking job description. Unearthing new stuff and telling people about it; jumping ship when the bandwagon starts to feel the strain.

Of course we’re hipsters. We do our best to keep our hearts pure but don’t believe for a second that our desire to stay one step ahead of you is a figment of your imagination.

2. Jealousy Denial

Why wouldn’t we be jealous? We’re a faceless bunch of nobodies who constantly have to fish around for new and exciting ways to tell you about people who prance around earning money and stuff. They sleep with groupies; we sleep with the dog. They make videos; we make ends meet. Their ‘art’ will be accessed by generations; ours will be forgotten in minutes.

A critic will never move you like the musician. No matter how terrific their words are you probably won’t want to read them 15 times in a row (like my listening experience with this). [That’s an incredible performance you’ve just linked to, Victoria – Ed] Their review may enlighten, or educate or entertain but it probably won’t thrill you or make you want to dance or cry … or in the case of Johnny Cash, seriously give me reason to believe in the big guy upstairs.

We’re all a seething wreck of envy; some are just better at hiding it than others. Whether the review is good or bad it’s entirely accurate to assume the critic is in fact jealous of everyone they’re reviewing. And so we should be.

3. It’s a fair point … what DO we do?

Every time I write a less than complimentary review a small part of me jumps up and down and yells “who do you think you are”?! Here I am stringing 700 words together to castigate something that’s been painstakingly put together. It may have taken years to craft. Friends may have been sacrificed; personal hygiene forgone. Hell, it might have been thrown together on a laptop in one day – that’s still approximately 85 per cent more time than it’ll take me to dispense with the lot in one pithy mean-spirited put-down.

Whether anyone cares what I think is immaterial. I’m very much aware that there’s a big ole disparity between my efforts and a musicians. I get why people question the validity of what we do. That doesn’t mean the artist’s output is any good or that it should receive undue praise, but I do feel guilty about the imbalance and have no problem if someone wants to call me out on it.

4. The Whole Shebang

What really got my goat about Wallace’s piece is that he’s trying to shut down your right to irrationally vent about something you love. There’s only one rule you should ever abide by when it comes to interacting with a critic and that is DON’T … not with reason anyway.

Spit fire and brimstone, bile and fury. Throw blunt ugly insults. Don’t think about things or resort to intelligent debate. Wallace mocked those who are “high on anger and low on reason”. Who invited sodding reason to the party?

I get incredibly narky when anyone disparages Joanna Newsom. I adore her. Part of that adoration stems from the beauty and the poetry and the etc etc. But part of that adoration is heavily rooted in a particular time of my life when Have One On Me was ever present. It’s absolutely synonymous with unbridled joy and a particular person I’m besotted with.

The latter half of my adoration is totally lacking in ‘reason’. I couldn’t convince anyone of Joanna Newsom’s worth by telling them about that time in my life. It makes no sense to say “you have to listen to this because it’s evocative of something amazing that’s totally personal to me”. Still, I consider that element genuine and equal to anything I could wank on about regarding ‘interlocking rhythms’ and ‘poetic structure’.

If you bitch about Joanna Newsom you’re bitching about an artist I deeply admire. You’re also a skip and a jump from bitching about that someone who I’d scratch your eyes out to defend. I therefore have no interest in pontificating about Joanna Newsoms’ ‘art’. I don’t want to be reasonable about it. Most people don’t when you insult something they love. Which is why Wallace’s guidelines to help you engage better with critics is bollocks.

If I slate something you adore I expect a fight. I’ll take it on the chin. All your mud slinging, name-calling, anger – bring it on. Call me bitter and jealous. I’ll happily engage in the argy bargy because there’s the thrill that you’re interacting with someone who is low on reason because they absolutely give a fuck.

I’ll argue with you even if we both know we’re resolutely stuck in our respective corners. I don’t expect to win you over but I do want you to try and win me over. You won’t do that with reasoned debate but you might if you call me a twisted old witch. If you love something enough to be so angry that you lose all sense of reason, that’s when I’ll be interested in giving Memory Tapes another go.

Love of music can’t be reduced down to objective facts and sensible discussion. It’s totally bound up with the intricacies of who you are and if a critic says you’re not worth bothering with, I wholeheartedly endorse a lot less reason and a lot more fuck yous.

Hipster illustration: interrobangsanon

17 Responses to A Music Critic’s Response: Why One of Us Doesn’t Think You’re a Retarded Arsehole

  1. golightly October 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    Too right. It’s the Elephant In The Room on all these discussion boards. I think that this also goes some way to explaining how much I hate self-proclaimed Taste-Makers… because it’s so arrogant to imagine that someone else is capable of creating those anchors in my mind. I’m way too sentimental (not in the conventional way) to go for some crap music with a good haircut just because the NME told me it was hot. I don’t work like that whether I’d like to or not. I just don’t. In fact, I mostly buy music magazines to skim them for what’s been released. Sure, I read the reviews, but I don’t expect to agree with the taste or opinions of the writers- I look for key words buried in their pieces that may suggest some ingredient that I may just get off on in the music, irrespective of whether they panned the band in said review or praised them to high heaven. And that is probably what makes me a music LOVER as opposed to some sort of music consumer-slut. I prefer to write about music that I love rather than music I think sucks… why give extra exposure to music that sucks? All publicity… In fact the last band that got into my internal Sacred Ground was Cults. I didn’t even want to pick apart their work in a balanced critical review because I was in love with them. I wanted the illusion, the impression, the emotion, the excitement and the rose tinted glasses, so I reviewed them in pictures. It was more fitting of a band who had pushed those buttons.

  2. Mark Donaldson October 10, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Is it really the hipsters who do the taste making? Or the artists themselves? Do we use the term taste maker too freely? After all, hipsters didn’t make skinny jeans cool again, The Strokes did.

    If hipsters aren’t ‘taste makers’ then what are they?

    I’m with New York Magazine’s Mark Greif on this one:

    “And hipsterism did not make an avant-garde; it made communities of early adopters.” Original here

    Or in terms of marijuana. The hipster might get the green hit, but the artist rolls the joynt. And as for the masses? I think you’ll find they’re left to burn their lips on the roach in this case.

  3. Wallace Wylie October 11, 2011 at 8:54 am

    First off, did you read what I said about hipsters? Nowhere did I claim to not be one, or that the idea embarrasses me. What I find more ridiculous is people using it as a put-down when they fit the exact criteria for hipster. Yeah, so they listen to lots of hip music but that’s just because they like it, not to be cool or anything. Blah, blah. I have no problem with either hipsters or the label being applied to me. What I do have a problem with is it’s casual usage by people who are to all intents and purposes hipsters.

    Second, I really am not jealous of Ryan Adams or Fleet Foxes. I’m jealous of people I like. I’m jealous of Austra, James Blake, Barbara Panther, Lykke Li, The Mountain Goats…I’m seething with jealously. Doesn’t stop me liking them. Using jealousy as some kind of cheap put down in regards to a critics motivation is beyond stupid. I did say all this though.

    You get why anonymous people on internet web sites question the motivations of critics? If anything is less brave than a critic attacking the work of an artist, it is an anonymous internet person rubbishing a persons life when we have no details about theirs. What the fuck do THEY do? We’ll never know, and honestly it doesn’t matter. A persons opinions stand and fall regardless of their occupation.

    If you enjoy childish name calling then the internet is the place for you. It’s everywhere. I don’t see why passion, reason, and intelligence cannot co-exist. In fact they do. Not wanting to play favourites with Collapse Board writers I’ll say that in the writings of Lester Bangs, Ian MacDonald, Paul Morley, Simon Price, Neil Kulkarni and Taylor Parkes I’ve seen passion, reason, and intelligence co-exist. If I aspire to anything in my writing it is that very thing. I have a deep passion for music and passion flows both ways.

    The main thing I wanted my article to achieve was to end banality and the repeating of bullshit. I reviewed the Ryan Adams album not long afterwards and I got called bitter, a hipster, asked what I like, asked what I do, etc, etc. It’s boring and predictable to say those things. If you’re ok with boring and predictable then you’re welcome to it. I demand a little more from the people I choose to engage with.

  4. Shan Welham October 11, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Encouraging debate is admirable. Encouraging the angry rants and otherwise of an anonymous stranger who may or may not be slightly unhinged is something I would caution against. Some people don’t know where the line between debate and harassment lies.

  5. Ninetyeightytwo October 12, 2011 at 4:10 am

    But Wallace, I took exception to your Ryan Adams review not because you didn’t like it, but rather because you implied that there was something deeply wrong with people who do like it.

    You didn’t come across as bitter or as a hipster – and I really don’t care what you DO like (because what difference does it make?) – you did, however, come across as a bit of a sanctimonious twat.

    I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Birch. The original article was the first time I’ve ever seen anyone suggest guidelines for their readership. “This is how you SHOULD react”. What could be more pretentious?

    I’ve used the whole “what do you know” line of argument myself simply because music will outlive us, but people used to describe criticism as “tomorrow’s fish and chips papers” for a reason. People only EVER remember reviews in as much as they agree with them. Bad reviews, on the other hand, are seemingly only ever remembered in such cases where the album in question subsequently becomes regarded as something of a classic. People take great glee, for example, in pointing out that just before The Beatles were signed, guitar music was claimed to be dead.

    However, I do write about music, yet in acknowledgement of this argument, I tend to only write about stuff that I like. It can take up to three hours to write a blog entry, so I’d much rather dedicate such time to something positive anyway. What’s the point in writing about something I hate anyway when I like so, so much? It’s a lot more fun to write about stuff that moves me positively, and it’s a lot harder to write eloquently about your passion than it is to string together a devastating denouement of something I hate.

  6. Daniel October 12, 2011 at 7:43 am

    Thanks Victoria!

    For those that take it upon themselves to read avidly about new music, write about music and compose new music, it often takes an obsession with sounds that’s more spiritually obsessive than well-reasoned. If a reviewer doesn’t understand where that defensiveness is coming from, perhaps they should keep some poorly written reviews panning their favorite records near their desks.

  7. Wallace Wylie October 12, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Christ all-fucking-mighty. Does everyone understand that my “8 Things You Should Avoid Saying…” was meant to make you laugh as well as contain some truth about mundane replies? It’s not like I e-mailed Everett and told him that I’d just knocked up some stone tablets and that anybody who disagrees should be banned. People saying the same thing over and over again is BORING.

    I can’t really be bothered talking about the Ryan Adams album over here. What I wrote was correct. Move along.

    If people are going to start getting all Deepak Chopra on this post then leave me out. I’ll keep my reason and logic.

  8. Victoria Birch October 12, 2011 at 11:46 am

    “…was meant to make you laugh as well as contain some truth about mundane replies”.

    Wallace – …it did and I meant much the same for my response. To address some of your earlier points above. My argument was about defending those oft quoted insults and trying to explain why they have merit (even if used broadly).

    You’re a talented writer who has the ability to express himself passionately and thoughtfully. I don’t think CB is, or should be, a writerly love-in. Are you wanting to exclude those from commenting who can’t express themselves like you do? I don’t think passion and reason are mutually exclusive, but if you slate something someone loves and they get angry about it passion tends to override reason (particularly when expressed in the heat of the moment – which the immediacy of the internet encourages). It may not manifest itself in the most attractive way but that’s where moderators need to strike the balance between allowing heartfelt expressions of hurt vs. spiteful vitriol.

    It may be boring and predictable and I do get your point, my issue is critics need to take it on the chin. These ‘insults’ have merit and by their repetition they remind us of the pitfall of being human and trying to provide objective and thoughtful critique (“keeping the bastards honest” as a politician round here once said). There are plenty of people ready to engage critics in intellectual hand-to-hand combat and fine reading it makes too. I didn’t say that shouldn’t occur but it has a place alongside those who just want to vent their spleen against someone who has offended them greatly.

  9. Victoria Birch October 12, 2011 at 11:49 am

    @Shan Welham – agreed. Nasty invective wasn’t what I was advocating and I’ve certainly not seen any that’s slipped through the nets here.

  10. Ninetyeightytwo October 12, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    I’ve listened to that Ryan Adams album now. The comments section there has now been shut down as a result of petty bickering and, as such, I cannot add my two cents. People were so incensed by the witterings of the author – and he got so incensed right back – that the music itself – and all possible future conversation – was buried.

    Is there a lesson there? Perhaps.

    I must say, though, that whilst I loved the album as much as it’s possible to love any album on a first listen, I can understand completely how somebody who’s not enamoured with Americana (for want of a better term) could find it boring.

    Wallace evidently has no time for music like this – as he takes great pains to point out as often as possible lest anybody assumes him to be – shock horror! – a Fleet Foxes fan.

    So I’m just wondering – how does the reviewing system work here? Are they commissioned or just submitted?

    Because, if it’s the latter, then, yeah – Wallace’s review was shockingly vindictive and a complete waste of everyone’s time. Why put yourself through something which you knew you’d dislike? Was it a follow up piece to your eight rules article? Were you playing a sort of bingo through writing a merciless hatchet job and seeing how many of the “rules” were broken in the comments section?

    Fascinating.

    Or perhaps you were just disgusted that something so hateful to you would inevitably be heaped with praise and, as such, you wanted to redress the balance through crafting a review that’s so bad that it doesn’t just criticise Ryan’s music, but also his fans.

    You’re better than that, surely?

  11. Wallace Wylie October 12, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    9082, what I said was that if you enjoy “Ashes & Fire” you are dying internally, and I stand by that. The words are so horribly trite as to be beyond belief, and the music is overly familiar retreats of music that has been done a millions times over, and by more talented people than Adams. What is there to enjoy? I didn’t go any kind of diatribe against Ryan Adams fans, in fact I told them that they could do better. I went into detail in terms of what my problem with the album was. His music is tried and boring. Enjoying it is the same as somebody enjoying a Nora Roberts romance novel. Dull cliched writing that repeats a pattern over and over again. I issued a challenge to Ryan Adams fans. How can you be in possession of a fully working heart and enjoy this banality? Evidently you took offence to that. I’m not sure what you want. For me to take it back? For me to admit that I was being unreasonable and that no great writer has ever written such a thing before? Keep waiting. Maybe ask yourself why you seem so obsessed with my review.

    @Victoria. I’d just had a really crap day at work and then came home and basically though “Christ, what the fuck is this now?”. I was probably overly snappy in my replies. I don’t think Collapse Board should be a love in, and indeed I don’t think it is. I just think maybe too much emphasis has been placed on just how serious my piece was. On my Ryan Adams review I indulged in a bit of illogical name-calling with some twat and it resulted in the thread being closed off because the person became so incensed. That’s the other thing. When you write a review thew chances are the artist won’t see it, but when people reply they are attacking you personally. When I defend myself I’m not trying to shut-down conversation, I’m literally fending off sometimes very personal attacks.

    When I wrote the piece on Odd Future, which if I’m being honest is the least favourite thing I’ve written from a writing point of view (I stand by the content) I was subject to such vehement personal attacks that it threw me for a loop. Combine the personal attacks with the fact that I felt I had turned in a sub-standard piece of work, and that meant for 3 days I could barely function. I couldn’t sleep. I walked around in a complete state of anxiety. At one point I was almost in tears. My point? I take this stuff very seriously and I try very hard to be a great writer. Sometimes I fail, but I hope sometimes I don’t. Oftentimes I put a lot of thought and work into the article, which is neither here nor there in terms of judging its merit, but it means that stupid, predictable attacks are likely to be extra bothersome for me. Hence the piece I wrote. I think the replies I get are probably a result of some of the intensity I put into the writing. In a way I want to elicit emotional replies, but if they are just parroting the same old crap then I feel like they’re not really thinking about their replies, they’re just going for the first thing that comes into their head. That’s how it goes sometimes, but it doesn’t mean I have to just shrug it off.

  12. Ninetyeightytwo October 13, 2011 at 12:07 am

    I think “obsessed” is a strong word to use to describe a few replies to a review.

    I really like Ryan Adams, though. Had your review been a favourable one (haha) I’d have still commented on it because I like talking about things that I like.

    But you wouldn’t describe me as “obsessed” in that case, would you?

    I’ve never heard of Nora Roberts. Is she like Mills and Boon? Maybe I’d like her writing if I like Ryan Adams.

    Yeah, I think I’d like for you to admit that you were being unreasonable. That’s probably what this whole thing’s about. I can’t stand grand sweeping generalisations.

    What is there to enjoy? How can I possess a working heart and still like it? Again I ask – why the hell should I have to justify my tastes? Could you pinpoint as to exactly what you like about everything that you listen to? By and large, perhaps you could, but there must be some things about which you can but shrug and say “I don’t know. It just does things for me.”

    You think it’s banal, I don’t. It just does things for me. If I or anyone could put into words exactly the things it does, then there probably wouldn’t be much need for music anyway, as we’d already be fully able to articulate our emotions.

    But if you think that makes me dead inside, then so be it.

    This ends now. I didn’t know that commenting on a review a few times could come across as an obsession.

    Maybe you should add a ninth item to your list of things you shouldn’t do when replying to a review: You may comment once, but if you reply to one of my replies, then you’re bordering on obsession and must question your motives.

    I thought that the whole idea of this site was the debate?

  13. Princess Stomper October 17, 2011 at 3:18 am

    “No matter how terrific their words are you probably won’t want to read them 15 times in a row”

    I just thought of that because I was showing this article to my husband as “one of the best interviews I’ve ever seen”. Reading a really great feature – something beautifully written, witty, moving and insightful – can easily be as unforgettable and inspiring as hearing a great album. It’s one of a number of pieces (interviews and reviews) I’ve read and re-read over the years because it’s just a great piece of writing.

    But of course we focus on the music: if it were otherwise, this would be literary criticism.

  14. Princess Stomper October 17, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    … oh, and one of my favourite ever album reviews

  15. Victoria Birch October 18, 2011 at 7:55 am

    I remember umpteen years ago Caitlin Moran writing something about wanting fuck music, crawl inside it an be completely consumed by it. It was the first time I’d read someone who articulated music’s emotional response. It bowled me over then and has stuck with me ever since.

    Some music criticism has the ability to make me swoon, but not much. There’s plenty that dazzles with gorgeous metaphors and clever observations and I find it deeply admirable, but it doesn’t stay with me. So much of it is taken up with a focus on what stuff sounds like/who it’s made by etc. Very little talks to the emotions. Music can be technically brilliant but first and foremost if people fall for it it’s because of the emotional response it engenders. On the whole I don’t think music criticism produces the same result.

  16. Wallace Wylie October 18, 2011 at 11:38 am

    I don’t think music criticism is supposed to produce the same result. Writing will never be as good as sex but there are still some amazing pieces of writing that are overwhelmingly erotic. To fault it because it ultimately isn’t as good as actual sex is to miss the point. A piece of erotic writing could make you enjoy sex more or get you in the mood and I think a positive review can either enhance the listening experience for the listener, or if they don’t like the music it could provide a key to unlock it. That’s what I go for to a certain extent in my reviews where I want the reader to share my joy. Barbara Panther, James Blake, Destroyer, Richard Youngs… I want my reviews to be keys that unlock the music for an unbeliever. Sometimes though I need to unleash a negative response, or critique an artist on points that are basically emotional responses that need to be articulated on something approaching an intellectual level. All emotion makes for bad writing. A writer who is able to get across a particular emotion is a good writer because they have intellect and are able to use the correct wording patterns to unlock an emotion they experienced. A piece of writing that recreates an emotion is a clever piece of sleight of hand by a talented performer. I love writing, and many music reviews stay with me for years afterwards (Oh to reread Taylor Parkes devastating review of Strangelove sometime soon). It’s a different feeling than the one music creates, but it stays with me. It can reverberate for years afterwards.

  17. Princess Stomper October 18, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Wallace, you just nailed it perfectly! 🙂

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