Pop music critics

Raconteurs or racketeers?

by Rob Horning

11 October 2006


Though I’m an occasional practitioner, I’m generally turned off by pop music criticism. Usually the critic must strain to establish the reliability and authority of his own tastes, when these are often arbitrary or determined by extra-musical considerations. The critic’s need to sound authoritative often becomes an end in itself, so that informing the audience about a piece of music becomes subordinated to the critic’s establishing her cultural capital through allusive flourishes and headlong rhetorical rushes and crafty phrasemaking. Many reviewers are extremely creative, but the creativity seems misplaced if not parasitical. It’s a bait and switch: you begin the review wanting to learn about a band or an album and end up regaled with the reviewer’s diaristic ramblings. The reviewer uses the review as a ruse to get you to pay attention to his raconteur performance. Often this is entertaining and informative, but it feels as if that happens by accident. When I was a teenager, access to music and music opinion writing was so limited that I would consume whatever I got my hands on, and probably gave it more credit than it deserved: the scarcity of column space made it seem that those who had it had some privileged insight into the workings of pop, that they had oracular wisdom. There’s no scarcity of column space now; now there’s a scarcity of attention that readers can pay to all the reviewing that’s out there. This superfluity, paradoxically, has produced the monopoly Matt Yglesias argues that Pitchfork now has over indie-rock taste formation. I suspect that the long tail of Internet opinion writing makes those few “hits” at the narrow head seem that much more important; the more options there are the less consumers want to experiment—a “paradox of choice” scenario. Yglesias explains it differently, citing the decline of local alternative weeklies:

Most categories of media used to rely on a handful of big players that dominated the scene. The Internet, by lowering the barriers to entry, lets more voices get at least some audience and you see a lot of fragmentation. But indie music was very fragmented back in the day thanks to alternative weekly papers. That particular brand of media has, however, been very hurt by the Internet. On the one hand, there’s less need for each town to have its own record critic and movie critic when the Web can distribute reviews nationwide at very low cost. At the same time, Craigslist has really undercut the classified advertising market. So we’ve seen the emergence of a single website with enormous market power—Pitchfork.
The barriers to entry, of course, are still low. But to prevent a rival from emerging, Pitchfork doesn’t need to be perfect—it just needs to be good enough. Which it is. Their taste is generally reliable. What’s more, however, there’s an assymetry to what kind of reliability matters. A website that regularly recommended bands that turned out to suck would be a real problem. You’d waste money on albums and shows that you didn’t enjoy. But if the website merely fails to recommend albums that are, in fact, good you won’t notice. You just won’t buy them. Instead, you’ll buy other things that they do recommend. And as long as those things are non-terrible, your life will proceed just fine—you’ll still have plenty of good music to listen to and there won’t be an incentive to seek out alternative opinions.

I don’t know if Pitchfork has this kind of hegemonic power or not, and I’m not sure there’s greater incentive to write negative reviews than positive ones, though perhaps the unlimited space and the emphaisis on a reviewer’s raconteurship, though, has made preliminary filtering—the selection of only interesting things to review—less significant and customary. Still, people turn to reviews for recommendations; they don’t need to be told what not to listen to. And there’s no pleasure in writing negative reviews. I’ve written plenty of them, but usually out of misguided sense that what I was doing was some kind of radical truth-telling about the nature of the culture industry. But truth has nothing to do with it. I thought it made me seem credible and uncompromised to be negative; but record reviews are no place to make the case that commercial music altogether should be stopped.

Writers, knowing that a positive review will be read more than a negative one and will likely be featured more prominiently on a site or on a metafilter-type aggregrator, have more incentive to review everything glowingly and manufacture hype. And I don’t think it hurts Pitchfork or Spin or anyone else to hype bad bands. People are quick to forgive misleading hype because they get a temporary joy from the excitement it infects them with and because it is so universally prevelant that they probably don’t bother to hold anyone in particular accountable for it. In fact, it seems Pitchfork rose to prominence on the strength of its breathless hype of bands that succeeded in becoming semipopular. A pop critics’ power may seem to come from piggybacking on some high-profile trends and being regarded as the herald of things that have brought pleasure. But because music’s ability to give pleasure is so arbitrary, I wonder if a critic’s power ultimately has nothing to do with predictive power and everything to do with how entertaining a raconteur he is on a consistent basis. In other words, Pitchfork is widely read because the reviews are funny, not because they are accurate. Trends in indie-rock popularity are likely driven more by TV music supervisors selecting songs for shows or perhaps MySpace momentum than by Internet critics. And most of all they are driven by the word-of-mouth maestros that Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point, who differ from writers, I think, in the amount of ego invested in the taste-making process.

In an interesting post at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell picks up on Yglesias’s observation of distorted incentives to make a slightly different point about the source of pop critics’ alleged power. Farrell cites Diego Gambetta’s work on the Sicilian Mafia in an effort to relate the arbitrarity of pop music criticism to the Mafia’s racketeering methods. Just as the Mafia must broker negative outcomes to chosen victims to demonstrate their power, so must critics advocate dubious art to assert their ineffable powers of discernment:

Critics serve to guarantee to the public that certain artists, certain music, is ‘good’ (there are a whole bunch of sociological questions about what constitutes ‘good’ in this sense that I don’t want to get into). But they also want to preserve their own role as critical intermediaries and arbiters of taste – in other words, they don’t want consumers to feel sufficiently secure in their own tastes that they can bypass the critic and formulate their own tastes about artists. Therefore, one could make a plausible case that critics have an incentive to inject certain amounts of aesthetic uncertainty into the marketplace, by deliberately writing reviews which suggest that bad artists are good, or that good artists are bad, so as to screw with the heads of the listening public.

I think critics lack the kind of leverage with consumers to make this work, but for those who have fallen into the trap of looking to “established” critics to foster their own taste’s legitimacy, this sort of strategy will keep them ensnared. I doubt critics consciously embark on such a nefarious plan—it’s not as organized as organized crime—but they probably excuse their abstruse choices as demonstrating their versatility or flexibility or personal growth as a critic rather than an effort to keep readers guessing. But it’s probably right that the motive lurking behind all pop-critic discourse is the need to justify the need for pop critics at all—they are always threatened by the fact that pop culture is made to be directly accessible by a mass audience without intermediaries, that its aim generally is to cater to broad, simple tastes. The pop critic wants always to obfuscate that if he wants to do anything other than filter.

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