Devaluing the Value of Music Criticism

Photograph by Liz Collins for Rolling Stone.

In what’s now become last year’s news – given that it happened around a week or so ago now – Ed Sheeran implied, through a Rolling Stone piece, that critics are useless in the age of streaming. I’m trying to be as careful as possible in how I word that, given that I think his comment has been somewhat misconstrued in the ensuing reactions to it. But the exact quote is, “Why do you need to read a review? Listen to it. It’s freely available! Make up your own mind.”

This isn’t exactly a new debate, but it’s always a fascinating one. So, my hot take for this particular discussion?

I don’t know, I kind of agree with him.

Now, in a sense, even as someone who writes reviews, I’ve always agreed with the spirit of the sentiment and have preached it myself to a certain extent. Let’s get real, folks: Music criticism and an inherent interest in it are both niche things. That doesn’t diminish the value of criticism or make it lesser than any other profession, hobby, or interest. It just means that you’re likely not going to get a conversation started about the greatness of Sturgill Simpson with just anyone. It’s even more niche with country music, which has always received a sneering glance from most critics and publications anyway. It’s even more niche if we’re talking about anything beyond the country music represented on Billboard’s various charts or what gets played on the radio.  

And so, I’ve embraced that weird little niche myself by writing discussion-based reviews that run way too long. For the record, I don’t consider myself to be a critic, and this has always just been a hobby for me. But I’ve always adopted the philosophy that a review should inspire discussion, not guide consumer interest. If not for streaming, I certainly wouldn’t be able to operate this blog. I also know that if I tried to step into any other medium of criticism – like, say, film reviews – I’d fail miserably, because that’s just not an area of interest for me. Everyone, whether they want to admit it or not, too, has a critical bone that comes alive in their area of passion. People may complain about how critics can’t play music but discuss it anyway, but how many everyday people who complain about sports teams could actually play on that professional level? Does it matter? Of course not, because those conversations light us up, for better or worse.

Anyway, music criticism. I love it. But it’s also been a dying medium for far too long. My main source of inspiration for this blog came from reading other blogs and independent critics, like Country Perspective, Country California, Keep It Country Kids, and so many more – as well as ones I’ve had to read through Internet archives, like The 9513 and Engine 145. They were operated by people who wrote out of passion for what they loved and, well, didn’t love. The reviews were written less from the perspective of someone sitting atop a pedestal dictating what one should listen to and more just from a casual perspective in a conversational manner. But all of those outlets I just listed are now defunct, and I get it. Outlets like these take a tremendous amount of time to update consistently, and if you want to even think about making money from this endeavor? In 2023? Forget it.

Now, of course there are several country blogs still in operation: Country Universe has been around since 2004 and operates under the same aforementioned philosophy; Farce the Music is another classic blog always good for a laugh; Kyle’s Korner is a great outlet for thoughtful reviews on mainstream country music past and present; Today I Heard is a fairly recent outlet that engages in long-form discussions and always gets me thinking. You get the idea, and that’s before even stepping outside of the blog realm and acknowledging country music’s critical presence on YouTube.

In a sense, then, for me, those independent thinkers have always inspired me more than the “professionals,” because even in an age where it’s just as easy to gain a new find or recommendation from a streaming playlist or algorithm, I still value that human connection through a recommendation or review. Don’t get me wrong – untangling the complexity of professional reviews is another discussion altogether in the devaluation of media as a whole, one where the faults of how it got to be the way it is rest with us. But still, I find little value in reading a three-paragraph review for easy clicks versus one that I can tell was written with actual heart.

And yeah, in an age where mostly every piece of recorded music is available right now at our fingertips on a variety of platforms and critics don’t dominate the conversation, I can understand why many would think it silly or stupid to think of critical reviews as a meaningful exercise. But for those of us who enjoy discussing our favorite music, and for the ones who enjoy simply reading those discussions and maybe participating in them? It can be just as enriching of an experience as listening to the music itself sometimes.

For me, it all boils down to a simple question: “Why?” Why do I love and/or dislike what I hear? Untangling that question, of course, always starts with actually listening to the piece of music in question, which for most people is where the whole spiritual process begins and ends. Indeed, there is some music where I’m content to leave it as comfort food for my brain and analyze it no further. It’s just that writing about music can turn that same endorphin rush into an even greater high. And reading a review in which I can tell it happened for someone else can also unlock new perspectives and meanings I hadn’t considered before, enriching a favorite piece of music altogether (or, conversely, making me reconsider something I love, even if it doesn’t mean I have to love it any less).

Hey, look, I did already acknowledge it’s a nerdy, niche thing, but it’s a valid area of interest for some of us out there. And it’s a privilege to be able to operate a platform in which I can exercise that interest and further refine my love for it. Again, I agree with Sheeran in certain regards to music criticism: I wish end-of-year lists weren’t just boring rehashes from one publication to another trying to denote the most “important” or “impactful” releases of the year, or just shameless attempts to validate consumer interests and rabid artist fan bases; and I wish writers were allowed to get more personal with their writings.

But he’s also wrong and misguided in certain other regards. Music writing can help spotlight overlooked artists as well as elements of music you might not have thought of before, and further convey the esoteric elements we all inevitably feel but don’t know to how properly communicate when listening to something great. At its best, it can be a bonding exercise, and it’s a shame that it’s often reduced to only being about one thing.

Of course, too, the problem with having every piece of music available at virtually no expense is, well, having every piece of music available at virtually no expense. Sure, monetary expenses aren’t the issue they once were in regards to what we can listen to, but there’s nothing anyone can do to offer us more hours in the day to listen to everything. With over 60,000 new songs uploaded to Spotify alone every day, there’s a lot to listen to, and it can be hard to know which of those 60,000 tracks are even worth it, if any.

It’s taken me a long time to see that with this outlet – how readers still come here for recommendations because they don’t want to spend their entire day sifting through releases that may or may not move them. Like with anything, too much of a good thing can make us desensitized even when we stumble upon greatness. It can be a daunting task to keep up with every new face or rising star emerging from the multiple avenues that exist today – even just in country music and its many, many subsets. The album art form isn’t dead, as once predicted; there’s actually more of them coming than ever, and they’re getting longer and longer. If anything, I’d argue that only the “art” in the art form has begun to fade – though, again, another complex and subjective discussion for another time – given that it’s hard to tell a cohesive story or set up an engaging journey over albums spanning 30+ songs, let alone just half that.

So, what can the critic (or, in my case, the weird, independent thought-thinker) do?

Honestly? I’m not too sure. The problem with trying to untangle the musical arms race of today is that music criticism as a whole is becoming even more niche than it already was before. Reviews are shorter because attention spans are shorter; they’re less critical and way fluffier because no one in their right mind wants death threats from rabid fan bases that have only become worse through the proliferation of social media offering easier access – both to their favorite artist and to the writer they’d like to gut; they’re less thoughtful and more to-the-point because … who cares, right?

Well, if you’re reading an outlet like this one, I’m guessing you do. And that’s what matters – not the depth to which music criticism or similar exercises as it are effective, but that they are at all. Music has value, whether we hear it or just take it for granted in how it can unlock past memories or feelings, or offer that special adrenaline rush that keeps us replaying something for any extended period of time. Is it nerdy and niche to take that passion further? To untangle it further and find a deeper, personal meaning that may even reach someone else? Sure. But it’s damn fine company to be in any day, and maybe someday more will see it through more than its stereotype.

4 thoughts on “Devaluing the Value of Music Criticism

  1. I do enjoy the odd informed review, which is what I find with you. Unfortunately not every reviewer is actually qualified to do so. Your point about the amount of material out there is why reviews are so important. Not only to save us from sifting thru a hundred new songs a day to find what you may like, but then when do you listen to the stuff you know you like and love? What about stuff you might have missed, new or old? Besides how many artists really like or agree with reviews? When it suits them I suppose. Keep writing Zack 👍

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like reading reviews. I always take it as suggestions from the author, not them saying this is good or bad (Even if sometimes that may be their intention). Music is subjective so I always take it as music you enjoyed. I like hearing/reading about what people are listening to especially when it pertains to Country/Americana music. I think reviews are also especially great when they showcase a new artist that might not be on somebody’s radar. I love the feeling of discovering a new favorite artist.

    Liked by 1 person

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