Do You Get It? Some Thoughts on Music Criticism

If you’re one of the few unfortunates who reads my blog with any regularity, you’ll be bored to death of me bemoaning the state of music criticism. It’s a subject I return to often, particularly focusing on the lame ‘post-modern 101’ refusal to be overtly critical of POP! music and instead elevate some properly rubbish music with some half-baked nonsense about how authenticity isn’t real, maaaaan. Last year I attempted to sum up my thoughts in a ‘manifesto for pop‘ and now Neil Kulkarni has written a blog which contains a lot of the same points made far, far more entertainingly. There are so many sections from it which I could quote at length – I won’t, you should just read it – but I’ll begin with what was point 7 in my ‘manifesto’, which means quoting myself cos I’m a dick:

7. Don’t patronise young pop fans or use them to justify crap pop. A common response to criticisms of certain pop artists these days is to say ‘the kids like it’. What’s forgotten here is that just as lots of adults like dross, so do lots of kids. Why are we so afraid of thinking this? Watching ‘Crossfire Hurricane’ the other evening I was struck by the scenes from the early career of The Rolling Stones where girls in their early teens were fanatical about them. Just as teens (and younger) throughout the past 50 years have loved Elvis, Little Richard, The Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift, Beyonce. And loads have hated these artists and loved countless other artists who rarely (if ever) trouble the charts. Every time someone (usually at least double the age of the people they’re talking about) defends something terrible with an appeal to ‘the kids’, they’re talking rubbish.

Kulkarni writes at length about this, noting the “pre-emptive whingeing” wherein reviewers observe that it’s surely only old bores who could possibly dislike whatever it is they’re discussing. I’ve stuck One Direction up there because the response to them from music critics who haven’t been 16 in quite some time is pretty emblematic of this trend. I’ve observed circle jerks on Twitter where various writers congratulate themselves on their ability to tolerate 1D, assuring each other that it’s mean and pointless to criticise them as they’re ‘not aimed at them’. Thinking about that for more than 30 seconds reveals it to be patronising rubbish – as Kulkarni puts it:

Young people want to be spoken to across the table, not condescendingly DOWN to by the simplifications and lazy dumbness of those young enough to know better or the embarassing sticking-up-for-the-kids type shit older pop writers imbibe in to stay the right side of their juniors.

Well, he doesn’t just ‘put it’ like that, he absolutely nails it. The writers who indulge in this sort of response are absolutely terrified of looking like they don’t get it and so hedge their bets rather than giving their actual opinion. They condescend to allow the kids to listen to their rubbish pop because hey, they’d never actually listen to it themselves would they? It’s not for them! So there is no allowance for the fact that pop can be great and it can be dreadful. No distinction made between young folk with their infinite varieties of taste or recognition that plenty of teenagers regard a group like 1D with contempt. Those of us who love music to such a pathological degree that we bang on about it constantly will all share memories of songs, artists and albums that took our little ideas of what music was out of their box, smashed them in front of our eyes and took us outside into an enormous, terrifying, wonderful world. When I was 14 I didn’t want to hear older people telling me that I was allowed to like Let Loose or Doop – in fact I started reading the ‘adult’ music press religiously and devouring every album which received rave reviews, every artist who sounded like they’d changed the game. I didn’t want my music to exist in some gloopy neoliberal fucktopia where everything had equal value as long as someone bought it. I wanted – and I loved – writers who reached out of the page, grabbed me by the collar and said ‘listen to this, it will change your fucking life’.

It’s a no-brainer that your tastes will develop as you age. That’s not to say that you necessarily stop liking certain kinds of music but, as you clock up life experiences and develop emotionally, different songs and artists speak to you in different ways. Personally speaking I don’t think a teenage me could ever have loved Leonard Cohen in the way I do now – I needed to live a bit before I could inhabit his songs. The point is that you do get different as you get older and you do have different perspectives – if you don’t you’re either dead inside or an idiot – and all a critic can do is bring that to the table. They can’t second-guess what the response of someone 20 years younger than themselves might be; they can’t make excuses for music they think is shit because they think great music is only for older people. I overwhelmingly write about how this is done to pop (Poptimism) but Kulkarni’s particular focus is on landfill indie. It gets around.

I think part of this trend is the related move towards a cloying ‘positivity’ where WRITING THIS THIS SCREAAAAAAAM ZOMG!!! about everything and anything is seen as more worthy than actually being a critic. The responses to Kulkarni’s blog (discussed here) are almost uniformly examples of this: he’s called ‘bitter’, ‘angry’, a deluded nostalgist. People make trite comments about how it’s so easy to hate things, contrasting this with the ostensibly ‘pure’ and ‘productive’ overblown love for even the most insipid rubbish which passes for so much music writing these days. Tellingly, there are quite a few responses which attack Kulkarni for not being paid for his writing – indeed, there’s one on his own blog. They speak volumes. What is, after all, the value of an opinion which hasn’t been paid for? What is an appreciation, a demolition, a response to art if you can’t get it printed in the NME or on Yahoo Music? It gives ample fuel to what Alex Niven writes here:

Unfortunately the mainstream of music journalism right now appears to be dominated by a peculiarly virulent strain of braindead consumer hedonism, by people who simply don’t acknowledge that pop music can be debated about in politico-cultural terms. It would be (sort of) alright if these people were cognisant of their position, but depressingly I fear that they’re just moronic capitalistic yes-people for whom pop music is a leisure pursuit and nothing more. 

We’re given a glimpse into a cosy world of paid writers, getting their music and gigs for free and thinking that this makes their opinion more important than the music fans whom they occasionally condescend to defend if they think it reflects well on them. I was thinking about this again regarding the responses to The Knife’s gigs. Many claims were made that people expecting a GIG were ‘missing the point’. In this interview the following, quite insanely patronising, question is asked:

In a strange way, the complaints are almost like a critique of capitalism in themselves. I think it’s a pretty recent development, this sense of entitlement among fans to what artists should or should not do on stage: which songs they should perform, the manner in which they should present them. It’s almost like ticket-holders imagine themselves to be stakeholders in the band.

I say ‘question’, it’s more a plea to The Knife to recognise that the interview is one of the elite who ‘gets it’. Somewhat ironically given the ‘critique of capitalism’ line, the interviewer’s refusal or inability to seriously tackle the contradictions and problems inherent in The Knife’s show but rather agree with them at every turn causes Niven’s accusation of “capitalistic yes-people” to rush into your head. Obviously those people, those sheep, who bought tickets to see a band they loved and wanted to enjoy and didn’t enjoy it – they’re so entitled, such capitalists. They lack the appreciative skills of the critic (who probably had the added bonus of a free spot) who doesn’t actually need to be made to think themselves but can see that lesser mortals need to “question themselves a bit”. It’s another circle jerk, another self-congratulatory sneer from the balcony above yet fuelled by the same terror of being seen to ‘not get it’ as insincere 1D adoration. The alternative is not getting it or, even worse, being bitter, being negative.

What’s fundamentally missed here is that responses to The Knife’s shows, and writing more generally, can and should say something themselves. Criticism can be a transformational art form. Clearly much of what we read in the press is very strictly governed by diktats (albeit sometimes self-imposed) that constrain the response to ‘this is good/bad’ and it’s precisely for that reason that sneering at Kulkarni for his unpaid passion is so, so idiotic and tedious. Overwhelmingly, the best music criticism I read is on the fringes – in smaller sites or blogs rather than in the traditional places. The last time I picked up Q Magazine (the David Bowie issues) I was pretty appalled by most of what I read. There’s nothing challenging, nothing illuminative, no sense that the critic can have a role beyond flattering ego (primarily their own) and saying ‘yes, you can spend your £10 on this’. Perhaps The Knife’s interviewer wouldn’t unquestioningly accept the assertion that their show can make people ‘question themselves a bit’ if music writing wasn’t so currently posited on the basis that the critic is a species apart – an implicit assumption which is made all the more absurd by the failure of most of these people to actually ever express any view other than the most obvious one. The only way in which the critic is ‘separate’ is that they are in a tiny minority of people who are privileged enough (by this I don’t necessarily mean financially – time, opportunity, abillity and more come to mind) to write at length about this stuff. As such, there is an obligation to actually criticise, in its broadest term. Argue, destroy, defend, adore – just show some fucking passion and some backbone and accept that looking like a bitter idiot who doesn’t get it isn’t actually all that bad sometimes.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Pop Deserves the ‘Social Justice Warriors’ | howupsetting

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