Laura Witkowski

Do Music Critics Ever Rule?

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by Laura Witkowski

So a Mr Clifford Allen of Austin, Texas came across my blog post about music critics sucking, which was in response to this Collapse Board post by Kelly McClure about music critics sucking, and he wrote a very thoughtful, well-written post on his blog Ni Kantu (whew – got all that?). His post did not suck or even talk much about sucking. Mr Allen mostly wrote about his own struggles with the myriad questions around the pursuit of music criticism and his own attempt to hone his craft and become a better writer. Which, you know, makes me look like a big-mouth and an assface. Not that he said, “Laura Witkowski is a big-mouth and an assface”. From his tone and style, I don’t think he’d actually use those words. He did disagree with me (patently!) on my point about not minding ‘sounds-like’ comparisons, but he did so totally fairly and stuff.

Even so, his thoughtful commitment to his craft and the fact he reviews jazz and improvisational music kind of sets him apart from me in terms of professionalism. If he and I were pieces in your music collection, I would be the Pottery Barn jazz compilation CD that was regifted to you by an aunt who didn’t realize you were coming to her Christmas gathering and he would be the 180 gram Japanese vinyl reissue of Giant Steps [John Coltrane – clueless Ed] that you bought two copies of – one to listen to and one to put in a safe deposit box for your children to fight over when you die. But rather than throw in the towel and give up stupid music writing pursuits, I’m going to just accept that and use his post as a springboard. Because I’m not even able to do a proper cartwheel, I can assure you this is only a mental springboard. Though I am totally writing this in a leotard.

So let’s get leotarded, shall we? We’ll do so by asking the question, “Do music critics ever rule?” For the sake of making this easier and so I don’t have to do any real research, I’m going to limit the scope of my answer to be about today’s music blog writers. Otherwise this would just be a boring account of shit Lester Bangs has written which transitions mid-sentence into a total break down about how overrated Almost Famous was and how much I despise Kate Hudson. But I really do think Kate Hudson is horrible. I feel like I have the right to reiterate that point here regardless of how unrelated it is to the topic at hand.

I have a lot of music nerd friends. Many of these people also write about music to some degree. I think it is very difficult to remember that the kinds of conversations we have about music in no way reflects how normal people think about/talk about music. In fact, I don’t know if I even fully understand how normal people talk about music. Where mention to my music nerd friends of the new Thurston Moore solo album easily opens the door to conversations about Sonic Youth’s SST output and whether Lee Renaldo [Ranaldo, actually – nerdcore Ed] or Thurston Moore had the cooler signature Jazzmaster guitar, I imagine that same statement would elicit this conversation with a regular person:

Me: The new Thurston Moore record is pretty good.
Regular person: Who is Thurston Moore? Was she on a Disney show?
Me: No. He. From Sonic Youth? They’ve been around for like, 30 years.
Regular person: Never heard of them.

On some level, the job of the music critic is to enlighten and excite that regular person about music, right? But if they don’t care, it doesn’t matter what I say about anything. They’re still not going to be interested. The older people get, the less they attempt any kind of adventurous music listening. Which means if I want to have any kind of impact whatsoever, I need to try to reach a target demographic of young kids who have impressionable tastes. But I do not do this. In fact, I am guessing if you forced me to have a conversation with a member of this youth demographic, it would be weird and awkward. It would probably go like this:

Me: So what music do you like?
Youth: I don’t know – Wiz Khalifa is pretty cool.
Me: Oh, I know that ‘Black And Yellow’ song. Every time I hear it though, I can’t help but imagine the song is about Stryper.
Youth: …
Me: You know – the Christian hard rock band from the 80s? They always wore black and yellow …
Youth: How much longer do I have to talk to you?

The music that makes me excited and that I am inspired to write about does not have a lot of appeal to the kids of today. And a lot of the music that I think is bullshit is stuff today’s kids love (what’s up, Sleigh Bells?). Like a lot of writers, my words are aimed at my contemporaries to a large extent. And since presumably my peer group is at that age where they get less and less musically adventurous by the day, what the hell is the point? If one writes about music with the idea that they’re going to truly shape people’s tastes and expose the truth about the blandness of today’s most popular bands therefore shaking up the status quo, one is probably going to end up feeling pretty frustrated.

So is there even much of an opportunity for music critics to rule in today’s world, Almost Famous-style? I don’t really think so. But every now and then you’ll hear from somebody who says, “I bought that record based on your recommendation and I loved it”. And that rules. And if you can spend hours and hours writing about music you love for pay that consists of a few free records and the occasional feedback like that, then you rule. Because you’re doing it for the right reasons. Now tell me about something you’ve been listening to lately and why I should love it.

Image lifted from The Philadelphia Weekly – but then, they did lift our words first!

9 Responses to Do Music Critics Ever Rule?

  1. Darragh May 20, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    My crowning glory as someone who is a music fancier was when my friend, who came to me to get some ideas on interesting music he could take travelling, attributes my suggestions to him hooking up with ladies. Who knew The Magnetic Fields were such a turn on?

  2. Everett True May 20, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    (from Facebook)

    Chris Roberts and Joanna Weber like this.

    Ngaire Ruth
    Love this. If I may sound like an inspired and wise strange thing: the person that had the motivation, iniative, balls and enthusiasm to be a music critic and follow their heart, as opposed to making decisions based on fear and ensure security, has a lot to offer the little bastard sitting at the computer- not in terms of good stories to relate but modelling above and showing how to make the right space to do above, rather than whittering on and still reassuring themselves they did something worthwhile. There is lots of worthwhile things still to be done.But yes, it is funny and rings bells with me, about ten years ago.

  3. Seth May 21, 2011 at 6:40 am

    I love and miss your assface, Laura:)

  4. golightly May 21, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Listen to Cults. Get over hatred for Kate Hudson, she is great. ‘Taste-makers’ are all arrogant self-deluded dickheads. Critics provide valuable service. Know the difference = the solution. NME has co-conspired to ruin British music which is so bad in general that records from America are essential. Bringing me back to Cults.

  5. clifford May 21, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I am pretty sure that we don’t have to worry too much about shaping broader tastes (for better or for worse), but encouraging those in our music-buying niches to check out certain artists/players and provide a forum for serious thought on what those making the music are doing… that seems to me like a fine enterprise.

    The peer group is an interesting thing. I was talking with a drummer today who’s in his 70s, and though this might apply more to jazz than other musics, the comment was made that because musicians generally play with people their own age rather than older, mentor-like figures, it’s harder for real musical breakthroughs to occur. So the critical value there might not be in lamenting that fact, but exploring the whys and the hows – the asking of the question is sometimes just enough to spur interest.

    Also, the conversation between critics whose musical tastes are not totally in sync… well, that needs to happen more often, so I’m glad that we’re sparking this dialogue.

  6. MFB May 22, 2011 at 3:35 am

    Nice little piece…I think that if you write about music you should do so first and foremost out of love and passion and wanting to share your music. If you get popular or become a tastemaker or what have you that’s great, but you should expect nothing from your work but still take it very seriously.

    The insularity of the “blogosphere” (kill me) makes this a bit harder and you do often feel like you are participating in a tiny conversation with a few hundred like-minded bloggers and writers scattered around the world, but hey, that is basically what academia is and it continues to be accepted as legitimate.

    I think what you are saying could be applied to musicians in general. The worst move I can think of is getting into music because you want to be famous/cult/adored/etc. With the speed of internet hype this is becoming worse and worse. Cassette labels have PR people now, its gotten ridiculous. Make music, put out music, and critique music because you love music and are passionate about it first and foremost. Everything else is secondary.

  7. Scott Creney May 22, 2011 at 11:37 am

    I don’t know about music critics, but this article definitely didn’t suck. More stuff by Ms. Witkowski please.

  8. Addy June 16, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    I don’t know. I stopped listening to critics after my favorite music critic, the one whom I thought was compatible with my taste ripped my favorite band to pieces and it broke my heart.
    Now I’m judging a song/band if they are any good based on the Youtube comments or likes/dislikes stat: “28 people are Beiber fans”, Yep, I’m sold.

  9. Pingback: When Fans are Critics :

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