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.

Life would go on without music criticism, and given the state of old media, perhaps that is just an approaching inevitability--much like how CDs and LPs are beginning to seem like the relics of a previous civilization. There's certainly something alluring about the past Almond describes, and we hear many versions of it these days. The character-building trips to the record store, the ritualism of making mix-tapes, the hours spent waiting, patiently and devoutly, for a song on the radio. "I even liked that there was a whole process involved before you got to the songs," he writes. "You had to thumb through your collection, put the record on the turntable and then set the needle down with the utmost care." It's a very familiar kind of nostalgia, this yearning for a time when music seemed a loftier and clearly-circumscribed pursuit. Almond is right: music is everywhere, which makes the act of setting aside time to listen to it seem outdated. But the episodes of the past I revisit the most aren't those involving ritual--every generation will do whatever it chooses, and it will always seem illegitimate to the old school.

Here is what I am nostalgic for: when I was home last December, I spent an evening going through a pile of rap tapes I'd bought while in college. Evidence of a more idealistic moment. Cassettes were already a comically outdated technology then, but they were a cheap and durable way for local rappers to get their material out. They were amateur affairs: screwy fidelity, photocopied inserts full of inside jokes, hand-drawn covers, etc. The artists viewed themselves as casualties of an unimaginative industry. They turned their independence into a critical stance. They existed outside of the major label economy, beyond the imagination of a big box store, undeserving of fancy advertising campaigns. Sometimes they were firmly against it all, as with the many tapes here with jokes about shiny-suited rappers scribbled on the margins of their inserts. The difficulty of tracking down some of these were a reminder that not all tastes are created (or encouraged) equally.

It is amazing to browse YouTube or MySpace and try and wrap your head around a seeming infinity of offerings. You don't have to think about the provenance of something; the business of the music no longer announces itself on the back of the disc, next to the bar code. Some of these old rap tapes sound terrible to me now, and I don't miss the act of intense, blind searching. I am nostalgic for these tapes, not because they're a more legitimate way to own music, but because the heroes and villains were more clearly labeled.