Why it’s ok to hate music criticism

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Carl Wilson is a “poptimist,” or at least he calls himself one in a piece he wrote for Slate on why he hates The National. I don’t really know what poptimism is, but from what I can gather it means you hate music.

Wilson’s piece  in Slate is a perfect example of why I hate music criticism. Let me correct myself: I don’t hate music criticism, I hate music critics. Or, maybe it’s more fair to say they don’t fulfill my needs as a consumer of music.

To be fair, it must be hard to be a music critic these days. With movie ticket prices being so high, I lean on the critics I trust the most to offer an idea of which films are worth the $12 admission, and which aren’t. When it comes to music, there seems to be little point to reading a 1,200 word review when you can just listen to it yourself before buying it (bless you Spotify).

For that reason I think music critics should work a little harder to justify themselves. We all know that critics, in general, live on another planet. One where art and entertainment are not to be enjoyed in the context of your current life experience, but instead examined in a vacuum that changes its air pressure every couple of years. They are attempting to objectively analyze something that is, by its nature, subjective.

I think for that reason a lot of music critics, more so than theater or film critics, have to get creative. Sometimes it’s interesting, most of the time it’s unfortunate. I remember reading an absurd piece in the New Yorker a few years back (it’s always stuck out in my brain as the best example of wacky music criticism) that criticized Arcade Fire for not being “urban” enough. I feel like that’s akin to someone criticizing Radiohead for not being American enough. Win Butler grew up in suburban Texas and went to college in Montreal, Canada.

Anyway, I think that Wilson’s latest piece for Slate is another great example of why I’m so turned off by music critics. In his article, Wilson tries to explain why you don’t need to feel ashamed to admit you hate The National. I was unaware that this was a problem (closeted National haters) but I’m sure he’s more tuned-in to the situation than I am.

Let me just say that I definitely have a bias against the article from the get-go;  I’m a huge fan of The National. That being said, I can think of many reasons why someone wouldn’t like them. Actually, I can only think of one: they don’t get it. Not in a “you’re not deep enough” kind of way, but in a “they don’t click” kind of way. You see, all these scientific attempts at identifying why you do or do not like a band, or album, or song seem completely unnecessary. Either something clicks (or moves, or whispers, or whatever) inside you when you hear it, or it doesn’t. It’s really that simple.

Now that’s not to say it’s not important to try and explore what that “click” feels like. It’s a unique feeling, but good music critics can capture the intangibles of a great listening experience. It’s the bad ones that say things like, “The National reflects the way social and economic stratification are narrowing the space for cultural free agency and rewarding artists who straightforwardly serve either the libido of the mass market or the neurotic narcissism of the privileged classes.”

Wilson admits that his little burst of silliness that I just cited is likely an attempt to rationalize a more “gut reaction” hatred of the band, but it’s still a wonderfully stupid thing to say, particularly when you’re talking about a band that hasn’t reached nearly the amount of mainstream success that critics want to believe they have. They aren’t Green Day for heaven’s sake.

Wilson can’t decide whether he hates The National because they they represent the mainstream too much, or because they aren’t main stream enough. His confusion is likely because he isn’t motivated by either. His hatred comes from the fact that whatever it is they are laying down, he isn’t picking up. Which is a perfectly healthy attitude to have towards a band.

He says other silly things, like “I’m the kind of person who listens to the National,” implying  that only middle-class, liberal white thirty-somethings can possibly enjoy their music. He has a blinding disdain for what he considers to be “pretentious music”, because it makes him think “rock music, like much of American literature and visual art before it, has died and gone to graduate school.” Which is exactly why we should all hate James Joyce novels and Orson Wells movies.

Complicating things even further, Wilson admits that he likes what he hears beneath the surface. He claims he began to understand the band the more he listened. It’s only the surface that bothers him, and that’s what he has decided to base his judgement on, like any self respecting critic would.

He dislikes the fact that for some unimaginable reason he’s tricked himself into thinking Berninger is faking a British accent. Not only have I never noticed that before, but I’ve even begun to look for it. Suffice it to say I haven’t located the fake British accent songs yet, but I’ll keep trying.

He also says he hates the “artificially thrilling” crescendos (or he did before he dug “beneath the surface”, I think) which are a trademark of The National’s sound. It’s beyond me how something can thrill you artificially. Can an unsolicited emotion be artificial?

“Oh, you scared me. But only artificially.”

I don’t think it works that way. Either you are actually scared or you’re not. Either you feel thrilled, or you don’t. Maybe you consider the means by which you were thrilled to be artificial, but that doesn’t mean you weren’t genuinely thrilled. But I guess I understand his point.

He then lumps The National into an interesting category. What he calls it “Crescendo Rock.” These are bands he feels “sound like a group of guys who feel they’ve got something to say and demonstrate their significance by saying it over and over, getting louder and louder.” Or what us non-critics call “music.”

There is something to admire about Wilson’s article though. He is always quick to remind the reader that he recognizes there are many redeemable qualities of the band, and he understands why people like them.  He even goes so far as to suggest that if he ever had a band, it would likely have all the same shortcomings of The National. In fact, that seems to be the theme of his rant: The National reminds him of everything he hates about himself.

With that in mind, I can understand why he would be turned off by such a band. There are plenty of bands I dislike for irrational reasons, and finding one that caused me to search deep down in my soul to confront my inner demons is as good a reason as any.

Nothing could be more frustrating than listening to a band whose music expolores the frustrating monotony of life in the 21st century by deep, brooding and repetitive mel-

Oh wait, that’s exactly why I love The National.

So how do I think music criticism could serve me better? Well, for starters, stop trying so hard to be career starters and enders. Talk about the music for Pete’s sake. I wish I could read a music review that reflected how I listen to most my music: driving with way too much on my mind.

I got in an interesting conversation with a film critic on twitter a while back. He wrote a fascinatingly nuanced review of a movie I wanted to see. I asked if his review was a positive one or a negative one. His response: I don’t really think that way.

Mind blown. What and idea. Maybe, instead of focusing on whether an album is “good” or “bad” music critics could focus on what’s interesting, and what’s not, about the album. That would give them the chance to be more insightful and move past their role as guardians of culture. It would also hopefully give listeners–even those who have already heard the album–a chance to think about the album in ways they hadn’t anticipated.

I guess that’s easier said than done.

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8 comments

  1. Alex Long · May 30, 2013

    I enjoyed your thoughts!

    I have a weird relationship with music criticism. For the most part, I think music criticism tries to use objective language to describe what should be an objective experience. I used to love old Pitchfork reviews (I know that sounds like the most hipsterish statement ever, but bear with me here) they were really silly and entertaining and seemed to communicate the feeling of what it was like to actually listen to the music! Here are a few I remember:

    http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/3892-tyrannosaurus-hives/
    http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/621-guero/
    http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/329-relationship-of-command/

    I guess they wanted to be taken more seriously but in so doing they lost any kind of personal relationship to the music in the process.

    • Alex Long · May 30, 2013

      Sorry that should be “subjective experience” in the second sentence.

      • JJ Feinauer · May 30, 2013

        Alex! How are you? I’ve pretty much just given up on professional critics when it comes to music. Blogs seem better to me. Mostly because they maintain that feeling of a friend just spouting off his thoughts.

  2. Cody Ray Shafer · May 30, 2013

    Yeah, so, I was going to write a blog with this exact theme, only centered around the new season of Arrested Development. Does this make us even? Or am I just letting you know because I probably will still write a blog about what I think criticism should be, and you should know I was thinking about it before I read this.

    • Cody Ray Shafer · May 30, 2013

      Also, I just noticed you plugged my blog in here. Thanks again.

    • JJ Feinauer · May 30, 2013

      Well you should definitely do the one on AD because I want to hear what you have to say. Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to didn’t like the new season.

  3. Steven Talley · May 30, 2013

    This is fantastic! Could I ask you to consider something? It is evident to me that music, even though overly subjective, still contains some objective elements to it. Really, the most notable one, and perhaps the only one worth mentioning in context of this discussion, is that of intent. Ignore the debate of whether or not importance should hang heavier on the listener’s interpretation. What I’m talking about is the artist’s goal to invoke some sort of feeling, or express an idea in some way.

    Music is a form of art. You have medium, you have method, etc., etc. Giving it a more tangible comparison might make it easier to understand a comment like “artificial thriller.” If the artists’ attempt were to invoke thrill, and they used a particular subject, color, method, placement within a particular context of subject matter, color, composition, then how successful were they at achieving their goal? Carl Wilson obviously felt they were less than successful, perhaps using contrived mixing conventions when there was a more honest way.

    I’m not valuing his opinion necessarily, just trying to point out a methodology. Those who listen to enough music, enough to have an accurate idea of what any given musician was trying to accomplish, can at least put in a word to say whether or not it seems that the musician was successful or unsuccessful (good or bad). To be clear, I am not defending Carl Wilson or his overall position. I think it’s obvious from the “it seems” two sentences back that there is still an overarching subjectivity to this just like film criticism. This is why I agree that you should not be able to say “This album is bad (or good),” but rather have enough experience to be able to reliably comment on the value (or lack thereof) of particular intent. Isn’t that what criticism is actually considered to be?

    • JJ Feinauer · May 30, 2013

      Yeah, I can get behind that. I was being unnecessarily harsh on this guy, mostly because I disagree with him, not because he’s actually such a terrible music critic. I think you’re right that one things critics can definitely do is ty to gauge how well an artist executes what he/she seems to be attempting. Roger Ebert always used to say he judged each movie based on that standard. When he reviewed a stoner comedy, he wasn’t comparing it to The Godfather, he was comparing it to other stoner comedies. Having said that, I still think Wilson is implying that he was successfully manipulated, but that he blames The National for manipulating him with something false. One of the things some critics say about Spielberg movies, for example, is that they are emotionally manipulative and they see that as a bad thing. I don’t see it as a bad thing. I think all art is manipulative, and that’s its purpose. Gus Van Sant is just as manipulative as Spielberg, they just have different approaches.

      What I can see being a legitimate criticism would be something more along the lines of “I could see they were tying to manipulate me, but it just didn’t work.” And maybe that’s what he was trying to say, but it came across a little pompous. Of course, this whole blog post is a little pompous, so I really shouldn’t be complaining.

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