The critics falling over to tell themselves he’s boring

It’s safe to say that there have been art critics in existence for as long as there has been art to critique.  But until the 1960s or so, critics in newspapers and magazines tended to focus their efforts on the fine arts, film and theater; popular music was dismissed as fleeting and unworthy of such scrutiny.

Beginning around the time The Beatles took the long-playing record album and turned it into an artistic statement, “rock journalism” became a thing, led by pioneering wordsmiths like Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs writing for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Crawdaddy and Creem.

When I was in high school in the early ‘70s, I started subscribing to RS and always looked forward to reading the album reviews.  They gave us the lowdown on the latest releases of not only our favorite and familiar artists, but new and unfamiliar groups as well.  These reviews proved helpful to us (if not always accurately) in determining which records to add to our growing album collections.

By the time I was pursuing a journalism degree at Syracuse, I came to realize that the type of writing I enjoyed most was reviewing, or “critical writing,” as the course was titled in the curriculum.  It was impressed upon us that a review couldn’t merely say that we liked or disliked something.  We had to explain why.  We were assigned to analyze and evaluate movies, plays and TV shows, always giving reasons for our opinions.  Of all the art forms we surveyed, I most enjoyed using my passion for music and my knowledge of specific genres and bands to offer informed opinions about the latest rock albums and live music shows.  I became a regular contributor to, and eventually an editor of, The Daily Orange, SU’s daily independent student newspaper.

I felt rather privileged to have access to this forum.  Just about everyone has an opinion, but in the pre-Internet age, very few had the chance to share those opinions with the public through the media on a regular basis.  Once I got a job as a reporter/reviewer at a chain of community newspapers in my home town of Cleveland, I felt I had the dream job: I was being paid to attend the concerts of dozens and dozens of major and minor artists and then to publish my observations about the performances.  Friends envied me for this, and I don’t blame them.

I soon learned I had to develop a thick skin, because not everyone agreed with my opinions.  (Imagine that.)  Some readers were sufficiently annoyed with what I had written that they wrote angry letters to the editor or called me at the office to rant about how I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.  Usually these were rabid fans of some band that I had had the audacity to criticize.  Even if I had given what I felt was a positive review, the reader could not abide even one negative remark.  And on those occasions where I disliked the concert and wrote disparagingly about it or the artist in general, the gloves really came off.  “You’re a complete idiot, Hackett.  How can you call yourself an objective reviewer?” one letter said.

That always made me laugh.  A review is, by its very nature, not remotely objective.  It is a subjective commentary, merely one person’s opinion.  But because I had the forum to print my opinion and he didn’t, the reader found it unfair.  “Who does this guy think he is?” was the gist of his response.

I certainly understood his frustration.  I, too, still get a little irritated when a favorite artist of mine receives a scathing critique for a new release or appearance.  But having been on both sides of this equation over the years, I have learned some important truths about this intriguing “critical writing” profession.

The primary definition of “criticism” in Webster’s is “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.”  And there you have it, the main reason why many people don’t like critics: They tear down, they find fault, they harp on the negative.  And it’s a fact that some critics seem to delight in writing what are known as “hatchet jobs,” which, depending on the clout and reach of the critic, can unjustifiably ruin artists’ careers, or at least their self-confidence.

However, the converse is also true.  If a review unendingly gushes compliments to the point where it sounds like it was written by the artist’s publicist, it lacks credibility, especially if the critic routinely writes this type of “puff piece.”  That’s why it’s interesting to note that artists often claim to dislike overwhelmingly positive reviews nearly as much as the brutally negative ones.

The secondary definition of “criticism” is “the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of an artistic work,” and that’s a more apt description of what a really great critic does.  He/she uses knowledge and expertise about the subject, seasons them with his/her own particular taste and sensibility, and renders a meaningful judgment about the work in question.  Typically, the most worthwhile reviews include a mix of pro and con, because in almost every case, even the very best stuff has weaknesses and even the worst dreck has some redeeming value.

It’s frowned upon these days to pass judgment on anyone or anything:  “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” and so forth.  But the key word here, I think, is meaningful; if the judgment has depth and authority based on knowledge, it has more weight and credibility than a mere thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating.  The critic who offers perspective – weighing new songs against previous work, for instance, or why and how yesterday’s concert compares to shows from years past – is adding substantive discussion to the understanding of the artist’s message and milieu.

Some say music critics are merely frustrated artists who don’t have the juice to write songs themselves, and their envy motivates them to take shots at those who do.  No doubt there’s some truth to that; some critics seem to either have a hidden agenda or develop a bias against (or for) certain bands or musical styles, doing the artists and the readers a disservice.  But if the critic’s motives are pure and honest, and he writes with expertise and a desire to search for the how and why, the reviews can be illuminating, well-reasoned and fair.

Artists know going in that their work is going to be put under the microscope and evaluated, sometimes in a manner they find decidedly unfair.  They can ignore it, they can complain bitterly, or they can have a sense of humor about it.  The title of this essay comes from a 1974 song called “Only Solitaire” written by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, who cleverly used actual phrases from critical reviews to poke fun at himself in the lyrics.  Critics who found the flautist’s exuberant “Pied Piper of Rock” stage persona tiresome saw their disdainful words thrown back at them in lyrics like: “court-jesting, never-resting, he must be very cunning to assume an air of dignity, and bless us all with his oratory prowess, his lame-brained antics and his jumping in the air, and every night his act’s the same and so it must be all a game of chess he’s playing…”

There are a few maverick musicians who have proposed doing away with music criticism altogether.  The late iconoclast Frank Zappa once said, “Most rock journalism is written by people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”  Elvis Costello – channeling the school of thought that says “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” – had this to say about what he feels is the futility of music critiques: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

I doubt that critical writing of the arts will ever go away.  Indeed, the explosion of social media outlets in recent years has made that once closely-held public forum available to anyone with a laptop or smartphone, so now “everyone’s a critic.”  Hell, pretty much anyone can start a blog…

I regret the trend in recent years away from the longer, thoughtful essays on artistic work and toward the quickie “capsule reviews” found in most publications.  These tend to be woefully superficial and almost pointless for those of us searching for reasons why we should consider investing in the album/song/concert/artist.  My advice would be to take any review only for what it is: One person’s opinion.  It would be wise to read multiple reviews, particularly those that go into greater depth, to get some sense of balance.  If you find you invariably agree (or disagree) with a particular critic’s reviews, you’ll probably end up giving more (or less) weight to his/her opinion, much like viewers who get their political news from sources that reinforce the views they already hold.

Or you might do with music reviews what my daughter does regarding movie reviews: She refuses to read them at all, or at least not until after she’s seen the film.  Understandably, she grew weary of staying away from a movie because it was panned, only to see it later and totally enjoy it.

Perhaps that’s the best approach:  Judge for yourself.