The other day I came across this musician’s take on what the purpose of music criticism is. The basic premise being that music criticism is an entirely distinct craft from the creation of music itself. Despite the requirement for intimate knowledge of what they are critiquing, talent for punchy writing, and regular engagement in their craft, music critics – even those with a background in music – have little of value to say to musicians in their capacity as critics. Their craft is distinct, their assessments motivated by a potential audience’s reception, not the technical virtues or shortcomings of the actual craft of music making itself.
Just as the lover of food does not give cooking advice to the professional chef, despite the layman being able to articulate an informed opinion on their food, the critic does not tell the musician how to form a chord sequence despite claiming to have some degree of insight into the artistic meaning behind said chord sequence. Critics speak to and for an audience. Musicians have little if anything to learn from them for the simple fact that music criticism is a distinct craft to the creation of music itself.
Despite the obvious issue in this line of reasoning in assuming that the act of creation is entirely distinct from how creative works are received by an audience, this debate does still leave a question mark hanging over precisely what criticism is for, beyond people finding ever more convoluted ways to justify an emotional response to art.
If we set aside the commercial value that music criticism might hold for labels and artists, the good vibes and exposure engendered by a positive review, or the viral potential of a particularly snappy stink piece (Red Letter Media’s Phantom Menace review comes to mind), what are critics actually trying to achieve?
One may be tempted to answer by agreeing with the above framework, they are simply describing a piece of music to a potential audience, measuring it against comparable works and accepted norms within the genre, and ultimately steering the audience to or from individual works, much like a travel writer does for the tourist.
Obviously not all critics are so humble in their aspirations, not all reviews quite so benign. Despite the fact that no technical knowledge is required to meaningfully engage with music, only the most rampant populist would argue that anyone could be a critic. Aside from the obvious knack for engaging and snappy writing, one must surely have a degree of intimacy with the artform they are critiquing, if not on a technical or theoretical level then certainly a cultural and historical one.
Are critics then intermediaries? Cultural ushers guiding an audience toward particular works and escorting them away from others? If so, their output does indeed flow one way, filtering and contextualising the output of musicians for the benefit of a given public, leaving the Adam Neely’s of the world free to hone their craft segregated from all that hot air. Musicians in splendid isolation.
This framework may work for some. Many may be disconcerted by the idea of critics as cultural mediators, which is another word for gatekeeping. But such concerns are frankly drivel. Gatekeepers – much like critics – only exist if they are listened to. The term exists for no other purpose than to give solace to people unable to engage with culture without the unbending and unconditional blessing of everyone around them, free of challenge, debate, or conflict.
In the same way, a critic’s assessment of a work only has value if it is listened to, respected, draws out a debate, basically if it is taken seriously by any significant public. If that’s the case, then the audience that critics are allegedly speaking to is actually a tiny microcosm of the music loving public. Limited to not only those with a pre-existing interest in the artform being reviewed, but also to those within this group that find criticism valuable or engaging, and again within this group those who actually use reviews to inform their decisions about what culture to consume.
A critic like Anthony Fantano attempts to overcome this by broadening the scope of their remit to include a plethora of music genres. The payoff being a large and largely engaged audience. The downside being that no one individual can retain enough knowledge of the number of genres that Fantano covers to produce meaningful reviews. His thoughts are far from banal, but as a result of the relentless drive to eclecticism (besides the obvious need to be considered “open minded”) limits his thoughts to the largely superficial. A redlight/greenlight for a particular work, with any wider contextualisation of the work within the history or the future of its given canon largely going unanalysed (this is at least true for his metal reviews, unlike hip-hop where he clearly has more knowledge and investment in the artform).
Let’s take again this idea that the critic has little to say to the musicians themselves, instead translating their work for an audience within an entirely distinct profession. In a world where the godlike persona and divine abilities of musicians is finally being called into question – the repeated scandals related to many once respected artists, the drive away from mindless idol worship engendered by mass participation in music making – this view of the musician suspended in splendid isolation, unconcerned with the opinions of the masses or even those with a degree of insight into their craft begins to look decidedly dated.
Whilst it’s certainly true that the critic should not overstep their remit to the point of telling a musician how to palm mute, there is also a very real sense in which musicians – and often artists as a whole – are genuinely terrible at understanding or explaining the cultural and artistic import of their work.
Before we go on, a caveat. If you are a musician reading this, I probably don’t mean you…probably. I’ll further caveat this by saying that totally misunderstanding, misrepresenting, or simply not even trying to comprehend the deeper philosophical resonance behind one’s own musical output is not necessarily a detriment. Musicians have a very specific and highly refined skillset that makes them good at what they do. Whilst it’s certainly true that some are at least liminally aware of the ideological import of their work, the vast majority are unwilling or unable to articulate this to a non-musical populace.
Enter the critic. They don’t necessarily know every atom of music theory and might only have an incidental acquaintance with an instrument. But what they do have is an intimate knowledge of the current musical landscape, its history, and a program they wish to articulate for its future. They have a knack for persuasion, for provoking a response (positive or negative) in an audience that will spark debate, challenge, they will make the music’s meaning a contested space and throw a thesis or two into this space. They are also highly engaged in the wider political and cultural landscape around them, and are able to articulate how this interacts with the artwork at hand to a greater or lesser degree. Ideally with an explicit ideological axe to grind.
They are not just paternalistically explaining the meaning of the music back to the individuals that produced it, nor are they simply facing an audience with binary “this good, buy”, “this bad, hot take on why” utterances. They are trying to make the art mean something. They are placing it in its proper context, as a continuity with the past, a total break from it, a revival of it, a novelty, a revolutionary. They are doing this for audience, musician, and fellow critics alike. Not to overstate the matter, but they are – or rather should be – attempting to control the cultural narrative of the contemporary moment.
Musicians – on the whole – are not up to this. A general audience – for the most part – does not have the capacity to engage in this with enough regularity to influence the debate. Artistic meaning, evaluation, contestation, these are joint efforts that extend well beyond the individuals responsible for creating the work. Criticism itself is an act of creation, one that, at its best, will go some way to resituating the artwork itself, repurposing it in novel ways well outside the control or will of its source. But again, ultimately, this endeavour only has meaning if it has meaning for a significant public. Otherwise the critic is nothing but a soapbox rambler consigned to an obscure corner of the discourse.
Many will feel deeply offended by this analysis. This is understandable. It is a fundamental affront to the idea of artistic intent, of the artist having control over the narrative behind their work. Who are these unqualified herberts swanning in and explaining people’s art back to them? This is an interesting tangent I have written on elsewhere, one that takes us into the idea of artistic ownership, and the growing fluidity behind the very idea of originality.
The sad fact is that even if we continue to ignore the obvious commercial factors at play, most critics are not alive to or willing to face up to this enormous responsibility. And a good portion of the audience are so afraid of even discussing the art they engage with in an evaluative light that they will cry “gatekeeper” at the first hint of being challenged. But ultimately it should be remembered that musicians don’t spring from the ground. They are just as much a part of this continuum as anyone else. They as a populace must become alive to their responsibilities, their place in history, and assess why it is they even produce art in the first place.