Monday, March 22, 2010

Dueling Critics on Criticism

Steve Almond penned an Op-ed in today's Globe in which he derides the very idea of a music critic:

Am I suggesting that music criticism is a pointless exercise?

Yeah, I guess I am.

In many cases it’s even worse than that. Because critics are, by their very job description, charged with being hypercritical. I certainly was. It was as if my critic credibility depended on my not being fooled into actually enjoying myself.

And to be perfectly honest, I took some perverse pleasure — as a wannabe musician — in having the power to pass judgment over actual musicians.

This dynamic isn’t limited to musical criticism. Indeed, over the past decade much of our “critical’’ cultural has degenerated into a glorified form of punditry, in which critics have forsaken their role as compassionate arbiters for the barbed joys of snark.

The reason this pattern is so striking when it comes to music is because songs are aimed squarely at our hearts. They’re meant to make us dance or weep or laugh.

Joel Brown, who writes music criticism, responds on his blog Hubarts:

If I bought his narrow definition of criticism - "all you can do is deride the pleasure" - then I might agree with him. But Almond says he still writes about music a lot, he just devotes himself to spreading the word about bands he loves. Yeehaw, Steve, you're great, but spreading the word about bands you love is part of being a critic too. I've always tried to adhere to the old maxim - Was it H.G. Wells who said it? Orwell? The Internet is not finding it for me - that our first duty is to praise that which is praiseworthy.

I've certainly done my share of snarking, too. And there have been times when I've gotten angry letters for liking a show that some felt was disappointing. It's all part of the job description, which asks a reviewer to do several things at once, including provide an honest reaction to a show, describe it vividly for those who could not attend, take note of the audience reaction, and yes, offer some sort of artistic scorecard. (Others will add to or subtract from that list.) A review like the one I had in the Globe today can be a keepsake for someone who was there, a goad to someone who wasn't (to get tix the next time McFerrin is in town), or simply an enlightening read for someone not otherwise interested. It's information for music consumers trying to decide where to spend their hard-earned dollars. And maybe, sometimes, it becomes part of the record by which an artist is judged.


Thomas Garvey said...

Am I alone in thinking that neither of these guys are actually critics? Still, there's nothing like a poseur smackdown, is there.

Ian Thal said...

Steve Almond's essay makes a rather persuasive case that I have no reason to be interested in anything he has to say.