One of the most dangerous jobs today is ‘music critic’. This is why – National
Back when music was expensive and hard to get, people did their research before choosing to buy an album or single. That means moving on to the record reviews of magazines like Rolling Stone, Turn, Mojo, Q, or dozens of others.
Each has a team of critics whose job it is to curate the music and provide an opinion on whether a particular release is worth your time and money. Some of these magazines even publish the collected works of their critics.
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Trusted music fans – dependent – the works of Robert Christgau (Rolling Stone, Billboard, Village Voice, Playboy), Lisa Robinson (CREEM, The NME, Rock Scene, Vanity Fair), Nick Kent (NME, The Face), David Fricke (Rolling Stone), Paul Morley (NME, BLITZ), Greil Marcus (Village Voice, Rolling Stone), and of course, Lester Bangs (CREEM, Rolling Stone), who has probably done more to elevate rock criticism to a respected art form than anyone else.
They and others have helped make fans more connected to music, taught us about the machine that makes stars, and helped us understand everything.
Old school record reviews are not only enlightening but entertaining. Take, for example, this review by Lou Reed – ahem – hard-to-hear, hard-of-hearing contract releases, Metal music. It appeared in CREEM magazine in 1975.
And we don’t just appreciate their opinions; they have contributed to the culture. In 1971, Dave Marsh was the first to use the word “punk” to describe a certain type of raw rock’n’roll in a CREEM article about? and the Mysteries. BBC’s Stuart Maconie is credited with popularizing the term “Britpop.” Chrissie Hynde applied lessons learned from her time as a reporter at NME to the formation of The Pretenders. Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys did the same after working at Smash Hits.
One of the first types of online music sites involved publishing reviews (or at least opinions) of new releases. Perhaps the most famous and infamous of these is Pitchfork, which makes it clear that they have no trouble skewering whatever is sent to them. The best/worst review appeared among its posts – a 2006 review of Jet’s Shine it on album – featured no words at all. However, the message is very, very clear.
Critics are said to be fearless in their opinions, unafraid to call them ‘as they see them’. Dave Marsh, for example, repeatedly denigrated John Bonham’s skills as a drummer even as he was hailed as one of the all-time greats. Lester Bangs hated Black Sabbath, calling the lyrics on their debut album “inane.”
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Jon Landau, the critic who later raved about Bruce Springsteen and eventually became his manager wrote this about Jimi Hendrix: “Despite Jimi’s musical excellence and his utter precision group, poor song quality and unclear lyrics still happen the way.”
And then there’s JD Constantine writing about a band’s 1985 album called GTR. Rate his one word? “SHT.” Noisy.
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Today, however, the landscape is different, largely due to social media, as Thomas Hobbs points out in Walkie talkie. “Browsing through the review on NME’s website in 2022 is witnessing 4 out of 5 silly articles that tend to refer to every other artist as ‘genius’, almost all songs ‘cathartic’ ‘ and dodge criticism. . “
Why? Feedback from fans, especially those organized into evangelists and brand defenders by artists like Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, BTS, and Harry Styles. Say one negative thing and Beyhive, Swifties, Little Monsters, ARMY and Stylers will find a way to destroy you on Twitter or in the comments section of any online post. These “stans” — ardent, ardent, highly motivated fans of a particular celebrity — won’t stop at making sure you understand that you’re not only wrong, but stupid, lacking thinking, tasteless and worthless.
I learned about this firsthand when I mentioned Kim Kardashian on Twitter. Even though I had sober thoughts and deleted the post after 15 minutes, the counterattacks continued for a week. Some things have been written down and deduced that are not only hurtful but also evil, like I am responsible for a mass slaughter of puppies. There doesn’t seem to be a small amount of sound that works on Twitter. In the end, the uproar died out, but lessons were learned.
Then, a few years back, I wrote an article criticizing Taylor Swift lamenting her inability to get rights to her employer. In it, I refer to Taylor as “Tay-Tay,” a diminutive often affectionately used by fans. The reaction was intense, with at least one person calling for an apology, a retraction of the application, and some degree of humiliation over my sexist, condescending treatment of the Great Woman.
Attacking critics for saying something fans disagree has become a blood sport. This toxic fandom has even seen some critics receive death threats, so it’s no surprise that critics have become less critical. Who needs this kind of grief and abuse?
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Another problem is access. Publishers and regulators monitor what is written about their customers as the NSA tracks al-Qaida. Say something negative and you risk being disqualified from not only the artist you’ve reviewed, but also other artists on their roster. Yes, they have grudges and have long memories. If a music journalist doesn’t have access, a large portion of what they do for a living will evaporate. And if they accept pressure, how are journalists supposed to tell the truth?
So what does this mean for the future of music journalism? I’ve noticed a workaround when critics post recommendations for music they like rather than posting reviews on releases. There will always be people brave enough to stand up to the mob of members out there, and thank heavens for that.
But I worry that an important form of serious criticism for art is slowly waning as it is bullied to death by people who refuse to accept a disclaimer about the object of their obsession.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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