What’s in a critic?

Last week, esteemed music writer Ted Gioia unleashed a screed on The Daily Beast about the nature of music criticism today. Gioia writes:

Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients.

These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music.  Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.

It’s a fair point, and not an uncommon one (see n+1 magazine’s takedown of Pitchfork) but Gioia overlooks the fact that the issue of celebrity navel gazing masquerading as arts criticism is as old as criticism itself. If you go back to the earliest examples of British theater criticism in the late 18th century, the writers are definitely more interested in the spectacle of the gathering than what’s actually going on on stage.¹ However, Gioia’s article brings up an issue that’s at the heart of the meaning and purpose of arts criticism – is criticism a technical analysis of art, or is it about what the art means to the society at large? It’s great that Gioia’s piece has started a healthy debate on this topic on the interwebs.

Certainly the condemnations of Gioia’s piece have come hard and fast – it does indeed come off as pretentious and lumps really great cultural criticism (writers like Ann Powers and Jon Caramanica come to mind) in with cheap celebrity gossip pieces. But there have been plenty of people piggybacking on Gioia’s ideas. Matt Zoller Seitz, television critic for New York Magazine, wrote a piece on his blog about how writing about the form and construction of a film should be just as important as talking about the plot. Slate published a former Facebook post by sometime-Arcade Fire member and Oscar-nominated composer Owen Pallett that involved him analyzing Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” in a technical, music-theoretical manner in a way that was intended to be widely understandable.

As a music practitioner, I certainly appreciate Seitz’s argument and Pallett’s analysis. I would love critics to care enough to devote time and space to describe the inner workings of a piece I wrote, like how the form works, or how improvisation and pre-conceived material interact, or how the textures are constructed. But as a music listener and a regular reader of criticism, I feel that in-depth technical description of the type that Seitz and Pallet articulate isn’t particularly important, or rather, I don’t think that a good piece of criticism needs to focus on describing the sound and design of the music at the expense of everything else.

I feel that the most important role of a critic is to translate the feeling of experiencing a work of art, a point hammered home by film critic Bob Mondello during a class I took with him in undergrad. When I’m trying to review an album or a movie or a piece of theater, I think about what the performance made me feel and think about, and what aspects of the artwork elicited that response. For music, I don’t run to I-V-I or “sonata form” for an explanation, but more intuitive aspects, like tone-color and character. Certainly a magical moment like the deceptive cadence about 11 minutes into the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth can be explained away with Roman Numeral analysis and a Schenkerian graph, but I feel that the sense of that moment can be more adequately described in metaphorical language. In an ideal situation, the beauty of the critic’s description can elicit a similar emotion in the reader as the piece itself (theater critic Walter Kerr was a master at this. Ben Ratliff is quite good too). Sometimes, when a piece of art explicitly plays with form and technique (like say a Wes Anderson film), it’s great to have a vocabulary with which to discuss them in order to get to the crux of how the art works and affects the experiencer, but not all works require technical descriptions to describe their essence.

One’s experience of a piece of art, however, isn’t just mediated by the art itself. Certainly Kanye West’s outsized personality colors the way we experience his music, and it’s important for a critic to talk about things like that—to talk about the nature of celebrity and authenticity and class and so on. The problem is when a critic becomes so in love with their own social insight that they forget to differentiate between what the music makes them feel and what the extra-musical elements associated with it make them think. Reviews like this become pieces of hollow cultural punditry, rather than real arts criticism, which Gioia justly criticizes.

Nevertheless, Gioia’s doom and gloom take on the state of music criticism as a whole does a great disservice to modern readers. I feel that very few people would enjoy a Pitchfork-style review more obsessed with explicating the reason for an artist’s celebrity than describing the music more than a review that genuinely attempts to translate the experience of the music into words and bring the reader along for a ride. There have always been and always will be vapid criticism and click bait and tabloids, just as there have always been and always will be Kenneth Tynans and Ellen Willises and Pauline Kaels. The difference between good and bad criticism isn’t good technical description vs. a lack thereof, as Gioia or Seitz contend. The difference has to do with the writer—will they be vulnerable enough to be honest about their experience of the art and emotionally perceptive enough to describe it, or will they be more in love with their erudition and opt for cheap takedowns?

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1. I read reviews to that effect in a theater class in college, but can’t find links anywhere online. Just trust me on this, I guess.

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March 25, 2014 · 5:10 pm

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