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“Just Musing a Little Bit on the Futility of Music Criticism”

I got the idea for this post and I was going to set it up like an examination of how in recent years there is no reliable publication or magazine that’s read widely by the public and trusted for music taste. But then I started thinking back. I started thinking about Rolling Stone and its history, how they gave Nirvana’s Nevermind three stars out of five when it came out [1], how they bashed every album by Led Zeppelin, a band to this day adored not only the world over but sampled and name-checked in rap songs, as well as being influential upon pretty much every rock band [2]. I think they at least liked the Beatles but then, the general public seems to have turned on that band in today’s world, as is showcased in the movie Yesterday (2019), about a protagonist who can’t find anybody else but himself with affinity for the four blokes from Liverpool.

Anyway, I got to thinking, has music criticism ever really mattered for jack squat? Today, anyway, it would seem to be COMPLETELY doomed, as consumers can just stream any album for free to tell if they like it or not, outside opinion be da**ed. And yes, obviously this does malign certain projects I do on this blog, but I like to still do reviews as a way of organizing people’s thoughts, paying respect for the artist and propagating little-known acts or albums. Part of the reason has to do with the very malady of what I mention as no one authoritative journal existing as a beacon for people’s taste: an act as big as Dinosaur Jr. can put out an album today, you could be a fan of rock music and follow Loudwire, Stereogum and Pitchfork on Facebook and still, conceivably, not get wind of it. 

With Rolling Stone, bless their hearts, they still do reviews to this day despite what’s been widely reported as their extreme futility in spotting a galvinizing new act when they see one (plus they had this obnoxious habit in the 2000s of giving every indie album they reviewed three and a half stars, no matter who recorded it or how good it was). Now, Rolling Stone, believe it or not, can be a decent source of political news. Also, they specialize in very lively and entertaining articles on up-and-coming bands, such as one they ran on The Strokes in or around 2003 and on Modest Mouse the next year or so, when those bands were breaking respectively. 

But it all seems to come back to skin, with them. They are the closest journalistic entity, culturally speaking, to MTV, seeing as they seem to harbor in unabashedly this high school sense of what “cool” is. In this way, of course, they in a sense mimic the culture imbued directly from corporate America which holds to this day, of “famous musicians” doubling as really good looking people like Lana Del Rey, or Justin Bieber, or whoever. 

Well, most people today aren’t stupid enough to think Lana Del Rey and Justin Bieber make music that’s objectively GOOD — they don’t write their own songs and the songs they sing are pretty devoid of creative flairs like eclectic instrumentation, phrasing unorthodoxies, key, tempo or meter changes, and so on. It’s FORMULAIC, in other words, like a movie we’ve seen before but is still droning on to infinity as a sort of formality, or alternative to the objectively empty, dusty vacancy of death on Earth. 

The most popular new musical act on the planet today, outside of rap, might be Hozier. Hozier is the stage name of a singer-songwriter from Ireland whose most famous songs are “Take Me to Church”; “Someone New” and “Work Song,” each of which sidles a pretty digestible line within poppy, catchy acoustic rock. I have to admit that though they’re pretty simple, lacking in instrumental and virtuosity and prone relentlessly to simple, arguably banal themes of heterosexual romance, the songs aren’t particularly BAD. I might even be able to stand them if I didn’t literally have to hear each one every week in work. 

From what I’ve been able to gather, anyway, nobody really reviewed his debut album from 2014, which put him on the map, and reception of his last album, 2019’s Wasteland, Baby, has been tepid, perhaps understandably. Again, then we see how the critics have pretty much no control over what gets popular, seeing as this dude who writes these catchy songs and is pretty much on top of the world got no help from any of the publications. 

So Rolling Stone is basically an extension of MTV, for all intents and purposes, and not even an EFFECTIVE one at that, seeing as they couldn’t get ignited by this hearthrob, womanizing crooner with long hair. The next most popular journal for music in the last 20 years has probably been Pitchfork and there was a time when Pitchfork was blatantly, explicitly the anti-MTV, and would even print rhetoric from their critics championing the art of nerdiness [3]. In 2015, they relinquished their independency and accepted a purchase of their enterprise by Conde Nast, the same corporation that owns The New Yorker. Today, Pitchfork champions acts like Lana Del Rey, who pretty much makes music for driving to prom to. The entire zeitgeist is blatantly sexual and unimaginably awful and their editor-in-chief will wear yoga pants to a Carrie Brownstein book signing, as if their textual and critical cultural insight weren’t tacky enough. 

To this day, Pitchfork remains very popular and active, so I guess I can’t successfully argue that they’ve died, or anything like that. Without question, though, the journal was more important and vital when it focused on indie rock, in the 2000s and there was a slew of vital indie labels like Sub Pop, Matador, Polyvinyl, Thrill Jockey, Dead Oceans, Jagjaguwar, Fat Possum, Merge, Kill Rock Stars and so on and so on that were getting press from Pitchfork and getting propagated all across the nation. Today, many of these labels are still alive and kicking, and even putting out good music, and so Pitchfork’s retreat from this world of underground rock, or the waning extent to which they bulwark such manifestations, speaks to the apparently doomed endeavor of maintaining a music journal that is of any use whatsoever.

A couple more publications devoted to music have popped up, sure. There’s Consequence of Sound, which still captures live music and critiques it to this day, pretty energetically and pertinently, at that, sometimes. But I just can’t get over how in their review of The Dandy Warhols’ Distortland they made the claim that the band weren’t doing anything new, when the first song was more concise and pretty bubble gum pop than they’d ever done, the second track was literally an industrial song (they’re historically a folk and hopelessly dorky indie rock act) and the third song was this crazy metal boogie like Girls against Boys covering Animal Collective. Nothing new? The album was a veritable wilderness of astonishing, flowing innovation, at every point along the way. I also read one really terrible review of Bonnaroo of theirs where the guy went on this whole tangent about video games. Say what you want about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: at least you know Stevie Nicks isn’t going to start in about Dungeons and Dragons when she gets inducted for best makeup, or whatever. Paste has always been pretty decent but they fell hook, line and sinker for this new vinyl craze that undeniably prioritized physical music media over the music itself. For proof of this you need to look only, after they triumphantly returned from an overly philanthropic business measure that involved offering free subscriptions [4], at their “vinyl sampler” they offered every month, contrasted with what in the ’90s had been a CD sampler. I mean, a vinyl sampler. I can’t even describe with words how pretentious that is, not to mention the fact that you can’t even switch tracks on records and ergo essentially cannot “sample,” in any way, shape or form.

Sports, on the other hand, are an enterprise that unites us all, and in this way stand in stark contrast to music, the overarching critical reception of which seems so superstitious, fractal and fallacious to render it null and void. The most critically acclaimed album from the last year has probably been Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple, but I never seem to hear anything off that album at all, about which I’m not complaining seeing as I can’t stand that album, with its omnipresent relationship bit**ing and implicit racism of a song called “Shameika,” which seems to be saying that Apple “overcame” the quandary of having to go to high school with black people. I went to a school that was heavily integrated and not only was it not a “struggle” or something to “overcome,” it’s actually my comfort zone being in an integrated setting and part and parcel with who I am. And my immersion into the long-winded, arcane world of Bandcamp sure as He** ain’t gonna change anything or give this game any more cachet, especially what with the proclivity of that stuff toward favoring genre over pop [5] and stretching into bulbous song stature [6]. Anyway, tangent aside, the world of sports actually has iconic figures like Charles Barkley and Joe Buck, whereas I bet at most 1% of Americans can name a single active music writer of today. Lately, some of them, like Jeff Passan and Mila Kines of ESPN, have taken to posing for video interviews in front of copies of vinyl records, such as Wowee Zowee by Pavement in the case of Kines, and Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers by Wu-Tang Clan, Evil Empire by Rage against the Machine and Band of Gypsys by Jimi Hendrix, in the case of Passan. Notably, also, Kevin Reali, the host of Around the Horn, will refer to what he calls a “Wave of Mute-ilation,”  which is of course a reference to the Pixies song, when he chooses to “mute” all of the participants at once for making commentaries he finds bone-headed or near-sighted. Am I really that dismissive or pessimistic for thinking that, more and more, in today’s world, these are our real music critics? I mean, they really pi** me off with their safe and obvious selections, so they’ve got that feather in their cap, you might say. 

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[1] Today, if you look up their review you get a “four star” score, but this has since been modified from the original review of the album that ran in ’91, which gave it only three out of five. Still, give the magazine some credit for having the industrious to even spot Nirvana at all, an extremely obscure act at the time of Nevermind’s release. 

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[2] I mean, even if a band doesn’t cotton on to their complex metal riffing or macho instrumentation, some waft of the tender ballads like “Thank You” and “Going to California” would seem to be pretty much inevitable. 

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[3] I seem to remember some girl from there doing a pre-festival blurb on the band Battles and approaching something along those lines. 

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[4] They modeled this unorthodox strategy after what Radiohead did with their album In Rainbows of letting people choose their own price they wanted to pay for the online files (in the days of file sharing and purchasing, as opposed to streaming), one possible amount of which was zero dollars and zero cents.

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[5] One of the more appalling “praises” I heard for the new Apple album was that it doesn’t stand within any pop realm, or something like that, which for one thing is false and for another thing is grotesquely pompous seeing as Fiona Apple literally got her start in music by taking off her clothes and singing a pop song. It’s biting the hand that feeds you. In all my favorite Fiona Apple moments over the years, like “O Sailor” and “Jonathan,” she’s been staunchly poppy, and she even covered the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” for the Pleasantville and replicated it like a Zerox machine, for that matter. 

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[6] By this I just mean the songs are long. Sorry for the pedantic language. 

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