The End of Criticism?

11

December 12, 2007 by admin

Steven Rubio has an interesting post up about the Rhapsody music service, its association with Robert Christgau, and the venom (four pages of it) spewed by Rhapsody-subscribing assholes readers about Christgau, and about music criticism in general.

“As you read through the messages, it becomes clear that it’s not just Xgau that the writers hate. They hate the very idea of criticism. Note the problem described above: what gets the writer’s ire is that Christgau dares to give bad reviews to albums the writer liked. Apparently, the sole function of a music writer should be to list the tracks on the album and then get out of the way.

“I think this relates to the growth of artificial intelligence software that predicts our taste preferences. These programs don’t exist to help you appreciate art … they exist to help you find the stuff that already agrees with your tastes. They assume that the listener doesn’t want to be challenged. The rhetoric suggests otherwise, of course … they always claim that their method is the best way to discover ‘new’ music. But by ‘new’ they mean ‘things that are like all the other stuff you already like, only you haven’t heard it yet.'”

I think there’s some truth to all that, but my question is, has it ever really worked differently? Are we talking about a fundamental difference in the reasons people choose to listen to the music they do, or are we simply talking about the means by which they do so? Hasn’t radio been courting like-minded listeners for eons? (And haven’t listeners, in turn, long gravitated to the stations which filled their particular niche?) Ditto music magazines? Ditto live circuits and “scenes”? Have there been more than a handful–if that–of music magazines over the years which have seriously ever challenged their audience’s core assumptions and tastes? I don’t mean these as rhetorical questions–not entirely.

11 thoughts on “The End of Criticism?

  1. If you’re a critic and people don’t hate you, I don’t think you’re doing your job right.

    To discuss the actual question though, I think the difference between recommendation software and magazines is the obvious human factor. Even a publication as insular and parochial as the NME is put together by people — fallible, idiosyncratic, opinionated people — who will every now and then throw, say, an R&B act on the cover despite the fact many of their readers don’t give a fuck about them.

  2. Bob says:

    At Rhapsody, I find that many of Xgau’s reviews just seem more cryptic. Often, it’s just a sentence or two that in the context of the site doesn’t seem to mean anything. I like it. But then I know who it’s coming from.

    I’m sure plenty of subscribers are completely perplexed because they’ve never read negative reviews before and certainly not at a retail site. And I’m sure the many references just hit the wall. I don’t always know what he’s referencing and I actually care about this stuff…

    It seems more surreal than anything else.

  3. Alex Rawls says:

    The one comment I thought was interesting was:

    “Rhapsody needs to dump him and get their own reviewer, or better yet, choose reviewers from the people who actually BUY and listen their own music.”

    That writer’s on to something. I’m always bothered by the fact that my listening experience is so unlike those of other consumers. Because I don’t buy the music I review, I have no investment in it before I start listening. I also don’t buy a disc (or a few discs, or a few songs) and listen to them a lot.

    I listen to a disc until I feel like I’ve got enough of a handle on it to feel like I can review it. There are the CDs that I enjoy enough to stay with after reviewing them, but sooner or later new CDs that need to be written about crowd them out. My iPod only has songs I know I want to hear so that I listen to older music at some point in my day (or week).

    Since I don’t see reviewing as simply being a consumer guide, I don’t have a significant problem with that, but it does suggest there’s a significant experiential gap between me and my readers.

    I think the other issue the Christgau hostility points to is that his readers (and probably many of ours) don’t value music in the same way we do. For us, it’s art, and we approach it as such. As snobbish as it sounds, I always suspect that many readers like the music because it’s good to drive to, or aerobicize to, or relax to, or whatever. It’s an entry into a community they want to be a part of, or any number of social reasons that have nothing to do with art.

    The question is what to do about that gap.

  4. s woods says:

    >>>I always suspect that many readers like the music because it’s good to drive to, or aerobicize to, or relax to, or whatever. It’s an entry into a community they want to be a part of, or any number of social reasons that have nothing to do with art… The question is what to do about that gap.<<<

    I don’t follow your point here, Alex or see any gap whatsoever between critics and non-critics. Music usually sounds best to me when driving or doing the dishes or performing any number of other trivial activities. How do you listen to music?

  5. Alex Rawls says:

    Those are some of the occasions when I listen to music, but they aren’t why I value the music. When I’m listening to something, though, I’m thinking about it as a piece of art, whereas I wonder if listeners like the song or CD because it enhances the driving experience, the aerobics experience, and so on. The music is valued for what it adds to other experiences, and not because of what it is.

    As to the critic/non-critic gap, I think these are just a couple. Another highlighted by Christgau vs. Rhapsody users is that we’re paid think about music until we can talk about it in a fairly detailed, thought-provoking way, which means we’re likely thinking about how to write about the music while we’re listening to it. As buyers, they have no financial incentive to think through their responses to the music until they can articulate those thoughts, and in many cases, they have no incentive to think about their reactions to a CD beyond “It’s cool,” “It rocks,” “It sucks” and so on. If they want to communicate something more subtle, they can play the track or CD for their audience and converse about it until the idea is conveyed, even if the person sharing the track can’t nail down the thought in subject-verb-object form.

    Moving a little afield from this post’s central thought, I also wonder if listeners resent writers who treat music as an intellectual subject. Christgau’s dense, idea-driven, shorthand-rich prose is a natural lightning rod if that’s the case. If Christgau hears a drama and set of references in a CD that listeners don’t, I wonder if it doesn’t force them into a position of having to accept that there’s more going on than they recognized, or reject the reviewer out of hand because accepting his/her review casts doubts on their own listening experience.

  6. m coleman says:

    As an enthusiastic Rhapsody subscriber and former rock critic I’ve been struggling with this very issue for months now. The problem is context: what reads as intellectually provocative and stimulating in the pages of Creem or the Village Voice or an anthology book can be utterly cryptic and mystifying at the bottom of a Rhapsody page. I think Rhapsody reviews are meant to function as reference entries as much as critical evaluations. When I’m listening to a new/old discovery from the 70s I want some informational nuggets along w/the writer’s interpretation.
    Most of Xgau’s consumer thumbnails fail utterly on this score, so densely packed often I have no idea what he’s going on about or simply don’t care about the personal touches, y’know like whether his wife liked the album or what some other critic wrote about it. And the thing I’ve picked up on here that never bothered me about Bob’s writing before is the nastiness. He is so CONDESCENDING toward musicians doesn’t like and even some he does that it’s no surprise that Rhapsody subscribers would recoil in horror. You’re sitting there digging If Could Only Remember My Name and you look down to read something about it and wind up feeling INSULTED because you don’t agree with the dean.
    He comes off like an imperious prick a lot of the time. Sorry but it’s true. And not liking Xgau’s reviews in the context of Rhapsdoy doesn’t automatically mean you’re anti-critic or some dumb philistine. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. What I liked about Rhapsody’s reviews before Xgau was the freshness and non-canonical views of the young critics, esp. this guy Mike Mcgirk (sic).

  7. m coleman says:

    and yeah there were plenty of negative reviews on Rhapsody before Xgau.

  8. Alex Rawls says:

    One last thought (on my part) on the critic/non-critic gap. Scott says he doesn’t see it. The issue is one of investment. Non-critics have an investment in the music they hear because it required some effort and/or financial transaction to get the music. They had to have a reason to think they would like it, so they listen to it with an emotional investment that I don’t start with.
    If I do nothing but check my mail, I’ll get music. As such, my initial relationship to the music I’m reviewing is different from the initial relationships non-critics have. That sense of investment also helps to explain the insult that M Coleman sees readers taking to Christgau’s reviews.

  9. s woods says:

    “Most of Xgau’s consumer thumbnails fail utterly on this score, so densely packed often I have no idea what he’s going on about”

    Yeah, I have to say I agree for the most part. Sometimes I don’t mind doing the work to figure it out, often I just don’t bother; sometimes I just enjoy a line or two, even without the context. (I stopped reading Christgau for recommendations almost two decades ago, though, so the Rhapsody thing’s kind of a moot point for me–not to mention that I’ve never used the service.)

    “And not liking Xgau’s reviews in the context of Rhapsdoy doesn’t automatically mean you’re anti-critic or some dumb philistine.”

    I think that’s a good point, too–it’s too easy to jump on all these folks as anti-intellectuals. I mean, to be honest, I only skimmed the comments really quickly, and obviously, there are some dorks there, plain and simple. But knees jerk in all sorts of directions when it comes to this stuff.

    “I’m thinking about it as a piece of art, whereas I wonder if listeners like the song or CD because it enhances the driving experience, the aerobics experience, and so on. The music is valued for what it adds to other experiences, and not because of what it is.”

    Alex, I get a little better what you’re saying now about the gap between a critics and a non-critics experience (though I probably disagree that said gap makes one experience necessarily more meaningful, which I think is what you’re implying), but as to the quote above: how do you experience art “because of what it is” and not “for what it adds to other experiences”? For me, art is about enhancing life, even the most trivial aspects of life (though not just that, of course). I don’t like to think of any art, music included, as just some still object I listen to or stare at and incessantly “ponder” in a vacuum as it were (not in the least because I don’t believe it possible anyway). I’m kind of putting words in your mouth here, but you’re kind of leading me in that direction… unless I’m way off base.

  10. Bob says:

    In most cases online where you’re attracting a general cross-section of people, most of them seem to be reacting to the perceived slight. “You called my mother fat!” Or in this case, “You gave my favorite artist a D.” So, from there, it doesn’t matter. There’s no reasoning. They miss the point. People who get the point and realize it’s just some guy’s opinion — well-reasoned or not — don’t bother to write in.

    I think for a lot of people it goes beyond anti-critic to anti-reading or anti-thinking. They just want to listen to their Billy Joel album and they don’t need to be told it sucks while they’re trying to find which album has “Movin’ Out.” And considering Rhapsody is a streaming service, I’m not sure why anyone needs anything more than some factual background about the record. You can listen to it right there. Some guy’s opinion seems superfluous IN THIS CONTEXT. Personally, I like reviews and those Meta-Critic sites where you can read the pile-ons are pretty good sometimes.

    What is really weird is how Rhapsody will include Xgau when it’s not even close to a full review, but one of his honorable mention things that I guess ran as a short summary at the end of his column and it just lists a couple of tracks with the usual fuzzy references. That just doesn’t make any sense.

    I have to say I really like Rhapsody as a service. The streaming allows me to check out all kinds of things I would never get around to otherwise and there are always ways to “capture” that stream should you be so inclined…

  11. Alex Rawls says:

    Scott – I wouldn’t presume to declare one listening experience more meaningful than another, but they are different and gap is what I was driving at.

    As for enhancement, certainly music enhances my life, but when I review it, I don’t evaluate it based on how it directly enhances specific parts of my life – relaxation time, Saturday night, parties, getting high, etc. I like music I can sing and dance and drive to, but that’s not why I positively review it. Liking music because you can sing or dance or get high to it is perfectly valid as well – I’m not asserting anything hierarchical here – but it is another difference between the critic and non-critic.

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