Goodbye, critical consensus

by Rob Horning

16 December 2009


Reading Simon Reynolds’s assessment of best-of-the-decade lists (“musical value and consensus are intimately connected”) made me think of how symbiotic the music industry and music critics are; that is, critics can only be as relevant as the culture industry is powerful and univocal. The hegemony of taste that the big labels sought to perpetuate relied on critics’ pronouncements, making the release of new Springsteen albums and whatnot seem epochal.

Reynolds shares his hunch that the critical consensus unwound completely in the past decade, leading to a situation where more “good” but “unimportant” records are made.

I reckon that if you were to draw up a top 2,000 albums of every pop decade and compare them, the noughties would win: it would beat the 1990s decisively, the 1980s handsomely, and it would thrash the 1970s and 1960s. But I also reckon that if you were to compare the top 200 albums, it’d be the other way around: the 60s would narrowly beat the 70s, the 70s would slightly less narrowly beat the 80s, the 80s would decisively beat the 90s, and the 90s would leave the noughties trailing in the dust. Yeah, it’s just a hunch – but it has the ring of truth. Because I think that the higher reaches of a chart of this kind demand something more than mere musical excellence: there has to be an X factor, the hard-to-define quality that you could call “importance” or “greatness”.

Musicians make music; critics and A&R people make “importance” or hype, and the latter is what allows music to become the broadly “unifying force” that critics yearn for it to become. Big, broadly popular records with an aesthetic aura (Reynolds and Pitchfork offer Funeral as the epitome) perhaps validate the importance of critics more than the music itself. It lets us then consume the zeitgeist in product form rather than listen.

The future of recorded music, I hope, belongs to microcommunities, small groups of friends who determine their own standards of importance (through listening rituals, what they play for each other in everyday life) and share them internally without needing to promote those standards online and proselytize. For these communities, it is all “best-of,” anything that is heard and remembered, that helps the group cohere, matters. Whether it had been released that year, or decade, or was promoted by the music industry or was a demo from a busker, or whatever, won’t matter. Taste can potentially be deindustrialized, and the critics will disappear into the multitude of voices. Ideally, artistic provenance will be relevant to us only if we want it to be.

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