This post originally appeared at Niagara Wire in a much shorter format.
What was the role of “the critic” in a pre-streaming world? Was it to dictate what music constituted as good and bad? Was it to offer insight into the music so that consumers could make their own choices and spend their money wisely? It seems like a combination of both, and yet both reasons seem irrelevant in 2018. There’s no reason to worry about money anymore. Consumers can either hear their favorite music for free on YouTube, Spotify, or other services, or else cough up a certain amount of money a month for additional benefits on said services. Either way, the days of having to pay for each individual song or album to even hear it are long gone.
So alright, the second reason has been eliminated due to this revelation. What about the first? Considering that there’s no longer any risk with trying something out, why do consumers need to know beforehand what’s good or bad? They’ll figure it out themselves. Actually, they’ll just write about it themselves, because anyone can start a blog and be a critic now.
The role of a critic is not what it once was, and any definition it once carried was a product of delusions of grandeur. With that said, criticism is still relevant, wanted and perhaps even needed in 2018. The problem comes in trying to break it all down to what it means to be a critic now.
One tricky part about reviewing music in the modern age is that it’s hard to tell whether the reviewer should be personal or objective. Unless it’s an opinion piece (like this one), it’s unprofessional in any capacity to use “I” statements or say “I think” or “I feel.” On the other hand, no matter how impartial the reviewer comes across, the final piece written is something that could have only been written by that one person. Does that, in and of itself, eliminate objectivity altogether?
Emily Zemler, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, wrote in 2013 that “music criticism … is not about what’s good or bad. It’s not about categorizing the creative experience into a letter grade. The role of the critic is to contextualize, to generate an understanding of how our world is being reflected in popular culture and how that reflection compares to what came before. The critic helps the listener understand what they’re listening to and how it fits into music’s big picture.”
How do people tell the future though? One of the only jobs that requires that is a meteorologist, and as the old joke goes, they’re the only people paid to be wrong. Is the critic who didn’t think highly of Led Zeppelin’s debut album contextualizing history? To say that critics do this or have this power assumes a level of arrogance of a high caliber.
By that notion, one could argue that reviews themselves are art forms as well, and I’d agree with this notion. Hear me out. Much like music, reviews are taken in differently by everyone. Certain people take more offense to certain lines more easily than others, and others simply read or interpret other lines differently. They’re not, nor will they ever be, perfect. Critics can easily misinterpret an artist’s message, whether it’s by accident or to try and skew it to fit the critic’s agenda (something that should never be done). There’s no pleasing everyone either. Fans of the artist being reviewed expect positive praise. Skeptics expect their negative beliefs to be confirmed by someone else. Critics please one or the other, but never both.
At worst, reviews, much like music, can run on much longer than needed and lose any sort of coherent point anywhere throughout. However, the best reviews, much like the best music, say something that makes people think.
No, there aren’t as many notable critics as there are artists throughout history, and there really shouldn’t be. Music critics don’t exist without music. This doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience for reviews. The best evidence for this is YouTube, a home to many music critics who have little to no professional experience at all. It’s also the home of the rising “reaction channel” genre which, like a review, is an art form itself.
The Needle Drop has over one million subscribers. Lost In Vegas, a reaction channel that only launched last year, sits at over six hundred thousand. As far as country music is concerned, Grady Smith has everything covered and has over 5,000 subscribers, currently. When I get a notification that one of my favorite channels has uploaded something new, I usually click right away if I’m not busy. If I am, I get antsy thinking about what they said. It’s an unexplainable feeling. I’m perfectly capable of forming my own thoughts and don’t rely on these people to tell me what to listen to, yet I still find some sort of value in hearing what they have to say.
I know I’m not alone either. My theory is that while reviews are still important, they’ve shifted away from something that’s supposed to be objective and professional to something that’s much more personal. Trying to make a blog or professional web outlet grow is an absolute pain, but growing a YouTube channel takes significantly less time.
Going back to one of the first points made concerning consumers having unlimited options of music at their fingertips, this freedom of choice doesn’t really present a freedom at all. Radio still dominates the landscape for some strange reason, and streaming services offer custom made playlists for people who don’t want to think about what they want to hear. Sure, this is expected for non-music lovers who mainly listen to music only when they’re driving somewhere, but what about actual music lovers?
A 2017 survey conducted by Nielsen revealed terrestrial radio was still the number one choice for discovering new music by consumers (in comparisons to hearing about it from friends, online music services, social media, online radio and satellite radio) at 49 percent. For now, this option still grabs most Americans’ hearts. Larry Miller, director of the music business program at New York University’s Steinhardt School, believes this is the case because of what’s called the tyranny of choice. When confronted with all of the music in the world (as most music services offer), the tyranny of choice takes affect when consumers can’t make a decision due to the overwhelming amount of choices. Miller believes in order for people to make that decision, they need to be told by others what music is good.
In a sense, this is why radio continues to dominate, but surely people can be given more credit than that. Perhaps people simply like hearing from a fellow human being – someone who can think just like they can – to hear what they might like. YouTubers offer that face-to-face conversation despite the viewer and the “star” never interacting. There’s a chance to be more natural and personal than what one could write down on paper.
Perhaps it’s a stretch of an observation, but it doesn’t seem like criticism is dead. Now the listener and the critic are on the same level playing field, so there’s no sense for the critic to act higher and mightier than thou.
On that note, this also pokes fun at the elephant in the room – can anyone just “be a critic?” New blogs and YouTube channels appear seemingly every day, often inspired by the ones that came before them. Yet there’s also two common complaints against the “job” of a critic. Certain artists don’t believe non-musicians should comment on something they don’t know how to do, and certain professional journalists don’t believe anyone can write masterfully about music the way they do. It’s an unfortunate chain.
All it takes, however, is the ability to write well, which is something that can come with time or just naturally. Furthermore, it takes the ability to actually care about what one is hearing rather than treating it as background noise. No other requirements are necessary, and really, the passion can easily be a more important quality than the writing ability.
For the first criticism, however, what artists don’t understand is that critics, despite their seemingly “mean” personas, are still fans of music at the end of the day. They’re also consumers like everyone else who make their own decisions on what they either spend their time or money (or both) listening to. Like it or not, for everyone, this is a business, and while it is only an opinion, there’s nothing inherently wrong with offering a perspective on a piece of music.
There really is something magical about reading or hearing someone’s thoughts on a piece of music, if only because there’s something offered for positive and negative takes. With positive takes, the sharing of music between two “friends” is an indescribable feeling, especially when one person shares something with thousands of “friends.” With negative takes, it’s the thoughts shared that can make listeners, at the very least, think critically. If a difference in opinion exists, music is the perfect medium to “duke it out in” because the stakes are low. One person’s yellow is another person’s blue and vice versa. The sharing of perspectives, if we are willing to listen, can open up our worlds and make us think about something we hadn’t before. The key goal would be to make us better, more critical music listeners (and not to outright change someone’s mind if they find enjoyment in something we don’t). “Critical” of course in this instance means to listen to something with knowledge rather than cynicism.
That may sound stupid, and perhaps it is. There may be no value to this at all. Perhaps we must ditch our traditional perspectives on what “value” really means. Again, blogs and channels have their audiences, and there has to be a reason. In the supercharged political climate we live in today, of course that spills into the music scene by featuring those looking for their echo chambers. But I’ve been the music fan who finds value in hearing someone’s thoughts from someone I respect even if I disagree. It’s made me a better writer and thinker.
No, critics don’t cure cancer or solve any kind of problem, but even enriching just one music fan’s life constitutes as “value.” With that said, perhaps it’s time to quit thinking of reviews as one knowledgeable scholar talking to the apprentice and start treating them as two friends exchanging thoughts on a subjective piece of art. The only difference would be that one of them could likely write better than the other person, but that’s about it.
If you think you’re not a critic either – think again. We’re all critics. The difference comes down to what we post online and what stays in our head. For example, a critic may choose to only write about the music they enjoy and share it with others. However, in real life, this same person makes choices that exclude other artists. There are artists this person won’t listen to because they aren’t their cup of tea, and this sentiment extends toward who the person chooses to spend money for merchandise, concert tickets and other items on. The road to get there involves this same person at one point hearing a song or album by an artist they don’t like, thus prompting them to think about why they don’t like it and make their decisions accordingly. This is a critical decision. The question now is, do you be a good critic who thinks? Or a bad critic who accepts only the opinions of what others tell you to think?
Also, the point of this is not to say that anyone writing about music should pack everything up and head to YouTube. Given their rules, that’s a terrible idea. Most of my favorite critics have come from strictly online websites and blogs. I enjoy critics who explain their background with a certain band or artist, because as a fellow music lover, it may be a background I can relate to. That helps build trust, but not blind trust. At the very least, it puts us on that aforementioned playing field so that, even if we disagree, I can still read to find music I may like (even if the other critic doesn’t).
The point is that music critics and bloggers can feel useless given our unlimited options as consumers today, but they still obviously carry some sort of value. It’s time we shift the focus of what they have the potential to be, because that would make for healthier conversations in music.