Do We Still Need Music Critics?

by on January 19, 2014

Posted in: Music

Twenty years ago if you wanted to listen to an album you had to go out and actually buy it. Maybe you’d hear one or two songs on the radio or from a friend, but for the most part you were putting your ten bucks on the line. Maybe the record would become a new favorite, maybe it’d be a flop; you would only know once you bought it. Because of this risk, for as long as there have been albums there have been album reviews. Music lovers began to trust magazines and newspapers to help them manage their musical budget. If Robert Christgau (google’s top result for “famous music critic”) told you an album wasn’t up to snuff, you saved your money; if an album got top billing in The Village Voice, you could bet it would be worth your hard-earned stacks.

Nowadays the way we listen to music has fundamentally changed. You can go on youtube, Spotify, et cetera and hear a whole album before you have to actually own it. If you listen for free and like it, hopefully you end up buying it; if you hate it, you aren’t out anything more than the time it took to listen. Despite how obvious this revolution has been over the last decade, album reviews have not changed to reflect the new landscape. In fact, we now have more of the same in a big way – these days, everyone is a critic and a blogger who wants to tell us what to listen to and, more dangerously, what not to listen to.

Given that we can hear an album before we have to commit to buying it, I believe that negative album reviews have become obsolete, and even harmful. When you couldn’t hear an album before buying it, getting a professional opinion on it made sense because of the inherent risk involved. The converse risk – that you would skip out on an album you may have liked – was a small price relative to the cost of buying a record that would only gather dust after its first play. Today, we can hear albums for free and form our own opinions without that risk. Today, we don’t need critics to tell us what not to listen to.

“But Carter,” you might say, “you yourself have reviewed plenty of albums here at WRMC, you rotten hypocrite!” Well, reader, indeed I have, but if you read them you’ll notice something consistent about all of my reviews: they are positive. To me, the modern music critic’s role is not to just give an opinion on any album that comes through their door, it is to search out music that they like and share it with the world. A traditional music writer would probably look down on someone who only writes positive reviews, but I argue that we no longer need music criticism in its traditional form. When someone pans an album on a blog or in a magazine, who is that helping? The person who doesn’t have 20 minutes to listen to a few songs on youtube, maybe? Or, maybe the person who doesn’t want to listen to the album but wants to be able to pretend they know music? But does it help someone who is a true music fan? No, we can form our own opinions.

When Tyler, The Creator released his most recent album, Wolf, he tweeted something along the lines of, “Please Don’t Read Any Reviews Of My Album Until You’ve Listened To It. I Want People To Form Their Own Opinions.” For me, this sums up why I think music writing should change. Even if you end up listening to an album, good reviews or bad, you can’t truly form your own opinions and tastes if you read a review of everything you listen to. It’s great if people who are passionate about music want to put out recommendations, but the model of professional critics giving a grade to everything under the sun has outlived its usefulness.

  • Dean Jones

    Tyler, the Creator’s issue on Twitter is, quite frankly, laughable. Some very smart comments under mine, people.

  • Sam Tolzmann

    Say whaaaat? What society is it that you live in where every listener is actively critical and historically aware in their approach to music; where no one can be exposed to another person’s opinion without losing the ability to form their own; where critics are economic agents whose sole role is to influence consumer decisions rather than listeners’ engagement with a record; where the major-label music industry needs so much help with marketing that they need critics to stop criticizing and start pushing; where no one needs to bother assessing problems in cultural politics no matter how insidious and harmful; where no one reads criticism for its own sake; where any and all aesthetic standards, including the imperative against plagiarism, are trumped by the individual’s pleasure; and where nothing was ever accomplished through conflict? I am glad not to live in such a place.

    • Sam Tolzmann

      Also, your last-minute approval of positive reviews is nonsensical because the issue you claim to take is with reviews affecting a listener’s ability to form their own opinions. Why is it okay to expose oneself to a good review but not a bad one? If you really believe that every listener is critic enough and criticism serves no other purpose beyond the economic, then you should be arguing for the abolition of writing about music altogether, and indeed of any cultural criticism whatsoever. (You can always pick up a book in a bookstore and decide for yourself based on a few pages whether it’s a masterpiece, right? Heck, why are we still paying professors to teach literature?) Really committing to your line of thinking demands a different conclusion than, “Why can’t we all just be nice?”

      Also http://gawker.com/on-smarm-147
      and then http://flavorwire.com/428448/w

  • colemooreodell

    It all depends on how you perceive the role of the critic. You’re right that for the most part we no longer require consumer guides. However, critics can be far more than that. Do we not still need people who will devote sustained thought to examining what art succeeds or fails, why or how? I love engaging with music directly, but I also love it when someone with more knowledge than me shows me context, or makes connections I didn’t know existed. An example: When I was at WRMC in the early 90s we got in Slanted and Enchanted, the first full-length album by Pavement. We knew nothing about them except what was on that record and that we loved it. However, reading critics who were able to draw connections to their influences only deepened my appreciation and introduced me to great records by bands like The Fall. And when a band sucks, I really do think it can worth examining precisely why they suck, and why people like them anyway. Steven Hyden at Grantland does a great job with this. If our lives are going to be dominated by popular culture, we ought to at least make an attempt to understand it beyond whether or not we should possess it.

    • colemooreodell

      Another thought: When we focus exclusively on spreading the word about things we like, we run the risk of reducing ourselves to unpaid marketers. (And I say that as a paid marketer.) I would argue that tackling art we don’t like can be as valuable as evangelizing about things that are great–in that it helps us understand our own biases, and clarify what makes art successful (or not). If nothing else, it helps you develop your own aesthetic.