It’s true: the rock critic has gone the way of the buffalo.
As the recorded-music industry withers, so does its unruly
stepchild, pop-music criticism. Newspapers are jettisoning reviewers of all
kinds, rock magazines are disappearing, and music websites tend to pay (if at
all) even less than the defunct magazines.
While the space for pop-culture analysis shrinks, the
two-thumbs-up universe expands. Websites like Yelp allow civilians to review
pretty much anything, and online merchants encourage their customers to post
critiques. Most of these comments are useless, but they’re easily available,
and usually attached to multi-star or numerical ratings. If you’d prefer a
yes-or-no answer over reasoned consideration, the web offers a worldwide break
from heavy lifting.
For critics dejectedly watching their self-image fade, the
latest crisis is the “instant” album, a phenomenon that includes not
just download-only releases but also hard-copy ones like The Raconteurs’s Consolers of the Lonely. Never mind all
the beginner-band, industry-dropout, and dubiously legal music that’s sloshing
around the Internet. People can actually walk into a record store—if they can
find one—and buy a brand new major-label CD that no one from Rolling Stone has heard yet.
That doesn’t mean that writing about music will disappear.
But rock criticism as a paying career, never a prudent career option, is
looking increasingly iffy. For rock writers, it’s a good time to be
But then it always was. While large metropolitan dailies and
a few of the bigger alternative weeklies employ full-time critics, most rock
writers are freelancers who support themselves doing something else. (Rock
reviewers are no more likely than cult musicians to have health insurance.) The
Bush administration’s economic shambles makes life harder, but it doesn’t
change the fundamentals of freelance writing, a field no one enters to get
Enough about money. The larger issue is the role of
pop-culture criticism, an impure form that was never welcomed by most of its
audience. It may seem that the golden age of rock writing is over, but actually
it never happened. Pop-music critics really didn’t have much influence, and
were appreciated by the biz primarily for their willingness to fall into line.
Mavericks could be tolerated if they were amusing, especially since it was
clear that no cranky commentator could damage music’s major franchises.
(Remember when hip critics hated Grand Funk Railroad? It had so little effect
on the band that ultimately many of the detractors converted. That also had
no effect on the band.)
Rock critics, like film reviewers, are fundamentally at odds
with most of their readers, who want just two things: tips on which new
cultural products to consume, and validation of their own opinions. A reasoned
analysis that challenges their own viewpoint is about as welcome a surprise as
a rat’s tail in a bottle of supermarket salsa. (Readers aren’t always wrong to reject
rock criticism, of course. Lots of it is worse than supermarket salsa.)
A timely review of a new pop-culture consumable serves
several purposes. It’s a news item, informing people that the album, movie, or
whatever exists, and what broad category it inhabits. A review is also
entertainment, offering such pleasures—depending on the writer—as well-turned phrases,
incisive jibes, or crude appeals to accepted opinion. (Heavy-metal “rocks!”
Chick flicks “suck!”) Lastly, if there’s room, a review is a consideration of style, craft, influences, development,
integrity, and so on. You know, art.
In today’s always-on mediaverse, few readers have the
patience for such matters. Free-market efficiency channels cultural opinions,
which can be Googled faster than a vending machines can dispense a bottle of
Dasani: “A-,” “one thumb up,” “buy now,”
“wait for the DVD.” And since every click can be tallied, pop-culture
businesses know for sure what they always suspected: Most consumers don’t care
what most critics think.
This reflects new technology, but not such a new attitude.
The rapport between music consumers and reviewers has been always shaky. It’s
no coincidence that the cherished zeniths of rock criticism occurred during periods
when, or in places where, the music under discussion was hard to hear.
For English-language rock criticism, the standard was long
set by British music weeklies. If callow, absurdly trendy, and often rash in
their judgments, New Musical Express,
Melody Maker, and Sounds were great fun to read. Their
energy had something to do with their weekly schedule, but owed more to the
stodginess of the BBC. With precious little rock being played on the radio or
TV, the music press had a near-monopoly on manic pop thrills. When satellite
TV, commercial radio, and the Internet arrived, Melody Maker and Sounds disappeared, and New Musical Express retrenched. I rarely
look at it anymore.
Much the same happened in the U.S., albeit on a
near-subterranean level, with glam-rock, garage-rock, and punk. The mainstream
U.S. music mags didn’t get the Stooges, Ramones or their followers, and neither
did “album-oriented” radio, which was already drifting toward a
“classic” format. The obstacles to hearing or acquiring this
insurgent music were boons to print journalists, notably at alternative
weeklies and fanzines. Something was happening here, and you had to read to find out about it.
There’s more to read than ever, of course, on myriad blogs
and websites. But consumers can skip straight to the MP3s, or take their
guidance from specialized search engines. Skipping the informational middleman
has never been easier—or at least, not since rock criticism first forced itself
into the conversation, demanding to say more about the music than AM DJs or the
rate-a-record teens on American Bandstand.
Rock criticism is still demanding its say, however hard it
is to deliver commentary that is both timely and informed as an ever-increasing
number of CD and digital releases zoom directly to potential fans. Reviewers
have to accept that they’re often behind the buzz, even as their editors insist
that their reviews must run on the official release date—whenever that is. (Internet
release? CD release? First gig at which a tour-only disc is available?)
Amid this frenzy, I’m hoping for more care and less haste,
more in-depth analysis and fewer premature discharges. But I’m expecting lots
of stars, thumbs, and letter grades. At least the writers who specialize in the
latter will have a new excuse: The Raconteurs made me do it.
Mark Jenkins currently
writes about music and film for the# Washington Post #and NPR.org, among others. He is the co-author of# Dance of Days:
Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital (Akashic Books).