Music Criticism Has Not Died. But It Must Transform

ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL WOHLBERG, TFK!

ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL WOHLBERG, TFK!

My friend and colleague Shane Mehling wondered if it might be on this website earlier this week. He’s hardly the first to ponder that. Dan Ozzi at Noisey pondered over the same possibility earlier this year, and Invisible Oranges, a site I currently edit, posited a similar question five years ago.

Which isn’t to say that Shane was unnecessarily repeating an answered question. None of those articles presents a satisfying answer to the question, “is the album review obsolete?” They all essentially suggest “yes,” but as Shane points out, reviews just keep happening anyway, so obviously the answer is “no.” But the question persists. In fact, now — when it seems like every institution of critical thinking and cultural analysis is now crumbling at an accelerating rate — is the most important time to understand how criticism works, the purposes it serves and its importance. 

The real answer is that music criticism is in a state of limbo. It is waiting for a transformation to finish. All of those articles correctly point out the thing that made this transformation necessary and inevitable: the Internet. The Internet exposed, and began to dismantle, the economic relationship between content and objects that used to be the basis of criticism. 

Pop culture in general flourished from the end of World War II through the new millennium because of the rise of media. By media, I mean the sale of objects that have been enriched by content. When you, or your mother or whoever, buy a vinyl record, the piece of music music is not actually what you are buying. What you are buying is a plastic disc. The music, the recording and packaging, exist to make the plastic disc valuable enough to trade for cash. Movies? Same thing. They aren’t selling you Chris Hemsworth’s abs at 64 frames per second. They’re selling you a DVD, or a cassette tape, or a piece of paper allowing you admission to see the film projected onto the screen. News? They are selling you a stack of cheaply printed paper. Decibel magazine? Expensive glossy paper. The content — the music, the writing, the frames per second of faux-nordic eight-pack, reviews by Shane Mehling and myself — only ever had value insofar as it was incentive to get you to exchange cash for a product that would be otherwise worthless.

What does this have to do with album reviews? Everything. 

The Internet makes content infinitely reproducible. That is the real problem with piracy. It’s not that piracy lets you hear the new Metallica album before the album comes out — the release date was a matter of convenience and logistics anyway. The product was always going to hit the market, which is why artists like Beyoncé and Frank Ocean can release albums with no warning. The fact that you are able to easily duplicate and share the files makes the process of pressing the record no longer worthwhile. Piracy destroys the value of that plastic disc, which was always what you were really purchasing. 

Shane said that the value of film and TV criticism was intact. It is not. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times just slashed their critics. Music just hit the rocks first because piracy existed there first, and music piracy only existed first because MP3 files are smaller than movie files. The Internet has uncoupled all pop culture from material culture, but material is where the money is. 

ENOUGH WITH THE ARMCHAIR ECONOMICS, JOSEPH. WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ALBUM REVIEWS?

Fine. Like I said. Everything.

Music criticism, especially record reviews, was a consumerist tool in the postwar era. Record reviews existed, more or less, to help consumers make shopping lists. Year-end album lists and books like 1001 Albums You Need to Hear Before You Die take a little labor away from the reader. But because of the Internet, content has no value and so shopping lists are completely besides the point, especially when it’s so easy for people to create their own via streaming samples. Without consumerist value, postwar music criticism has no use. 

And that’s a good thing. Because it frees us from the tiresome task of thinking about music as a consumer product. Now, we can stop thinking along the axis of "good" vs. "bad" (read: "worth your money" vs. "not worth your money") because "good" and "bad" don’t matter anymore. 

What matters is making sense of the musical landscape, because there’s more of it than ever, and also because every musician can be aware of every other musician in any genre. Tape-trading is over, the underground is all fully aware of itself if it wants to be, and ideas can be exchanged in real time. 

Rather than telling people what to buy, the post-Internet critics need to perform a different labor: Giving listeners context for what they’re listening to, because we’re being bombarded with so much of it. The best criticism isn’t about giving something a score out of ten, it’s about telling the reader how a given piece of music fits into the ecosystem of music. 

Don’t tell me that Wolves in the Throne Room’s Diadem of Twelve Stars is a masterpiece — that’s my decision as a listener to make and no opinion is right or wrong. Instead, tell me that Weakling did a similar thing years earlier, but that it was Wolves in the Throne Room who spawned a host of imitators. And if you’re a really good critic, explain to me why that record might have inspired so many people at that time. Why might it inspire me? 

Critics are useless as recommendation engines. Literally we have algorithms to do that. But algorithms cannot offer context. A computer can’t give you a few ideas to keep in mind when listening to a piece of music to help it open up to you in a whole new way. After all “review” only means “to view again.”

Context is a much harder thing to grasp than "good" vs. "bad." The best most writers get is describing the music. Again, that’s useless, because the listener can hear for his or herself. Context involves being well-read and well-listened, and trying to find reflections of the world around us in music. 

That’s going to make some people mad, especially people who think that music is a closed system, or only good for escapism or that it should be kept separate from "politics." But those same people need to admit that, for example, the shadow of the Cold War informed the nuclear paranoia that made Metallica and Celtic Frost so cool in the '80s. They need to admit that the milquetoast liberal mainstream of '90s Norway made black metal possible. And it’s the consumerism of postwar pop culture that made their own phony escapism possible. Recent events like the election of President-elect Trump and Brexit are going to change the world of underground music in ways nobody will be able to ignore.

Now more than ever, we’re going to need great music critics who can make sense of the big picture. When that becomes the standard model for criticism, the transformation that Napster triggered will be complete. Anyone who can perform that task gets a 10/10. Anyone who cannot gets a 0.

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