[20 March 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
If you somehow didn’t know Ted Gioia’s name before his article on the Daily Beast, “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting”, started spreading around like wildfire, then you most assuredly do now.
Gioia, one of the world’s most prominent jazz critics and music historians, absolutely takes to task the current state of popular music criticism, citing a recent American Idol episode where Jennifer Lopez ridiculed Harry Connick, Jr. for using the term “pentatonic” as a prime example of how bad things have gotten. He talks about how he went through “leading music periodicals” and “couldn’t find any cogent analysis of how [most] instruments were played”. He says music criticism is very much driven by lifestyle reporting now, how scandals and fashion discussion dominate critical dissections, all as assessment of harmonies, song structure, and other elements that are critical towards determining the ultimate value of a song itself get tossed by the wayside, all these tropes as disposable as candy wrappers out a car window.
He makes a lot of potent arguments, but leave it to New York Magazine critic Jody Rosen to refute them in his own point-by-point takedown on Vulture.com. While yes, he agrees there are a lot of issues with music journalism, specifically with “the level of music literacy among pop critics”, he notes how Gioia’s piece “acknowledges no distinctions”. All he cites is “leading music periodicals”—is this to say that there’s no good journalism coming out of Rolling Stone? Guitar Player? How about more contemporary publications like cokemachineglow or, I dunno, PopMatters? Rosen refers to Gioia’s piece as “parachute journalism”, his rhetorical strategy as “strawmanning”.
Rosen calls Gioia’s piece lazy—which on a technical aspect it is—but the more apt turn would be that Gioia’s piece is an accidental manifesto of the New Fogeyism: a rather pointed and furious defense of Boomer-friendly old guards, a tactile and articulate way of basically yelling at meddling kids to get off your lawn. This, of course, is nothing new, and the whole reason New Fogeyism is even at the table for discussion is because this has already come up multiple times in 2014 alone.
Go back to February to find Bert Archer’s own Hazlitt piece entitled “Let Us Now Praise… Bob Dylan? Really? Must We?”, wherein Archer eviscerates Esquire‘s own January piece “Who Is This Bob Dylan” about being way too reverent towards a Boomer-idolized figure, treating him like a God who graces us with his presence, instead of actually looking beyond his already-impressive laurels to hold his feet to the fire about issues of sustenance. Two years prior to Gioia’s piece, Jim Pagels at Slate did a piece titled “How Much Does Rolling Stone Love Bruce Springsteen?”, which highlighted how Rolling Stone will automatically give Springsteen a free pass on basically every studio album he ever puts out, dolling out perfect scores to the Boss without as much as batting an eye. Give credit to Slate‘s own Forrest Wickman for joking about how Rolling Stone “SLAMS Bruce Springsteen with rare 4 ½-star review” for his latest disc High Hopes, which was, as most of those Springsteen reviews were, penned by Rolling Stone‘s old warhorse David Fricke. You have to remember: Fricke devotes a lot of his time to reviewing new, barely-heard bands as well, using his great stature and influence to make sure new acts get the benefit if his own influence and clout should they be worthy of such praise. Then again, Rolling Stone is a very top-heavy organization, and the publication’s own knee-jerk reactions to releases with the names “Springsteen” or “Jagger” on the album cover is a learned behavior. Yes, they are some of the most influential artists in the history of pop music—but great influence does not make one infallible.
Of course, discussing the scales that Arcade Fire uses doesn’t inherently capture the essence of what that band is about, and just because Gioia isn’t finding as much technical writing in modern music journalism doesn’t mean that said journalism is bad, dead, or hemorrhaging for his amusement. Since he only refers to the reviews he cited as using buzzwords like “badass”, “hot”, “sexy”, and “tripped-out”, one has to wonder if the “leading music periodical” he is referring to is People Magazine. Oh, they do music reviews. I checked. “Leading music periodical” is a bit of a stretch if that’s what he picked up, but since he refuses to cite examples, we’re left to take him at his word. Or, as Rosen so eloquently puts it:
“He decided he wanted to write a piece about how music criticism sucks; he knew what he wanted to say in the first place, and, lo and behold, his extensive researches—a whole afternoon’s worth, and a depressing one at that—confirmed the suspicion he’d had coming into the project: that critics need to ‘stop acting like gossip columnists, and start taking the music seriously again.’ “
So what does Boomer idol worship and Gioia’s skewering of the whole of modern music criticism have in common? It goes back to idea of New Fogeyism, that the old guard just knows better and these young kids have no idea what they’re doing, too distracted by shiny objects to look at things of substance. Gioia can’t stomach the way criticism is written, and the print mags will hold on to their idols tooth and nail. Need proof? Just look at the difference of opinion that greeted U2’s last album, No Line on the Horizon: print publications (Rolling Stone, Mojo, Uncut) gave it raves. Online publications (Paste, AllMusicGuide, PopMatters, The A.V. Club) knocked it down several pegs. I even debated Blender‘s Joe Levy about this on WNYC’s Soundcheck, and heels were dug into the sand, rest assured. There is friction in opinion about how these idols are handled, and as time and technology advances, there’s even a difference in the very way pieces of criticism are being written (our own Zach Schonfeld wrote a great piece on how the realm of the “midnight release” has changed the very way in which albums themselves are reviewed—as indicative of a sign of the changing times if there ever was one).
Of course, while Rosen does a great job of pointing out the flaws in Gioia’s logic, there is still a shift in the way some publications have changed themselves, and that shift may very much be what Gioia is referring to. Under the editorship of Sia Michel, Spin was one of the most funny, engaging music publications out there, capable of writing about everyone from the Used to Kanye with an enthusiasm and deep-seated knowledge in genre archetypes that made for page-turning reading unlike anything else, all while also giving platform to writers like Chuck Klosterman, Greil Marcus, Andy Greenwald, and Will Hermes. After a conglomerate purchased the magazine in 2006 and spun it off into a media holding company (ousting Michel in the process), the magazine has since become everything Gioia derided: a “lifestyle” rag that occasionally tapped on music but spent so much more time trying so hard to be something as trendy as Fader that it proved painful to watch.
Since Gioia’s article got published, Rosen and Gioia have engaged in a somewhat messy Twitter spat, wherein the boys are now tweeting photos of their bookshelves at the other as if to make some declaratory point about who has a more impressive knowledge base to stand from. Gioia has tried to solidify his own point but retweeting Billboard‘s own recent acquisition of a fashion editor and dumb stunts like Vogue UK‘s hiring of Kate Moss as a music critic, as if it’s somehow indicative of music journalism as a whole (dear gods don’t tell Gioia about The Talkhouse!!). Although Pitchfork‘s Mike Powell penned his own Gioia response—which essentially amounts to “look at all the music terms I know, Ted!” (something which Gioia has already given a snarky response to)—he does a great job of pointing out the fallacy of Gioia’s claim that music criticism sans nuanced language is akin to a sports announcer failing to explain a rule or a play on the field:
“Later, Gioia writes that ‘football announcers not only talk about ‘stunts’ or the ‘triple option’ but are expected to explain these technical aspects of the game to the unenlightened.’ True enough. But football is a game where you score by moving a ball to a certain part of a field and music is not. The field is time and the ball is sound. There are no teams and no ‘winners’ and no such thing as a musical ‘touchdown’ (though I think Funkadelic’s ‘Can You Get to That’ comes as close as humanly possible.) It’s true that music has ‘rules.’ But unlike football you can break them and nobody will throw down a little flag and tell you to go home.”
Absolutely correct. The spectrum of pop music is in a constant, never-ending state of flux, and the critical response to it, in turn, evolves with it. Gioia bemoans what he sees, but his thesis belies the truth: there is no “right” way to do music criticism, much in the same way there is no “right” way to do music. You will rarely find people discussing the technical songwriting mastery that the Ramones possessed, just as you will rarely find publications fawning like schoolgirls over what an artist like Seasick Steve is wearing. Much as some of modern day critical icons still stand by the old guard and hold up their idols up to a place of sheer unimpeachability, some music criticism can be great even if not technically masterful.
So what say you, dear reader? Is there actually a thing known as New Fogeyism or does the very nature of that term unfairly generalize in the same ways that Gioia did for the whole of the current critical pop music landscape? For what it’s worth Rosen asked this same question of Gioia, and as of press time, has yet to receive an answer…