Death of the Music Critic?

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Hua Hsu

Insofar as Google Analytics can make you feel good about yourself, Steve Almond must have enjoyed a wonderful week. Anticipation for his upcoming book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, spiked thanks to two op-ed essays thick in a kind of guileless, Average Joe contrarianism. The first, which appeared in last week's Boston Globe, flogged the long-gimpy horse of music criticism. After confessing to a litany of blind spots during his days as a critic, and then calling bullshit on any institution that would keep him, blind spots and all, gainfully employed, Almond concludes that criticism is essentially "useless." ("Am I suggesting that music criticism is a pointless exercise? Yeah, I guess I am.") This isn't exactly big game hunting: I don't think I've ever heard anyone argue the contrary. Almond's second piece, published in this weekend's LA Times, laments the bygone days when we would listen to music with passion and care, before the possibility of the pocket-sized terabyte. It is a romance of the object.

Glenn Kenny, Slate's Culture Gabfest, and others have quite admirably attempted to make sense of Almond's first essay. Naturally, Almond's pieces are designed to offend, but in the most commonsense way possible--who would think to defend the critic? Isn't there something honest and pure about being able to hold a record in your hand? As a sometimes music critic, my problem isn't with Almond's soundbites or the tangled ins/outs of his views, since these pieces, not exactly object lessons in argumentative rigor, function more as PR for his book than as actual, reasoned stances. My irritation stems from his substitution of glassy-eyed nostalgia for something resembling a point. Perhaps criticism claimed more scalps back in the days when consumers relied on reviews to make wise purchasing choices. But this was never the point. At its most alive, criticism is far more than a Ras Kass joke here, a Ras Kass reference there, and a recommendation about which Ras Kass record to buy.

It is the belief that our engagement with culture is never free of politics, that our own personal sense of taste never arises free of larger, invisible influences. The "feeling" and pleasure Almond describes is vital--this is why we listen, after all. But art also issues demands on our intellect. When we encounter culture as children, we learn that we can enact change upon our small worlds simply by expressing our preferences--we are not yet equipped to describe in language why we enjoy this taste but not that one, but it is what distinguishes us even then. We continue to engage in critical decisions everyday, most no greater in scale than what song to play while we walk to work. Somewhere just beneath politics and economics, we are constantly crafting a sense of taste, and we buy cars, listen to bands or refuse to wear Nikes, accordingly. We trust one candidate because of his swagger; we detest the other for his. It is important to be able to describe the difference--this is the purpose of criticism, and the best critics are our culture's keenest interlocutors.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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