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Clique critics

It would seem self-evident that the point of reviewing pop music is to provide some description of what the music sounds like. But frequently what you get is a sense of how important the reviewer thinks he is -- his subjective impressions conveyed through his pet adjectives ("a thoroughly funky beat"), his expansive range of musical reference ("it's definitely Krautrock influenced, but less Faust-like and more like Amon Dߟl before they went space-prog"), or his nimble way with a tightly-coiled phrase ("measuring his words and notes out in half-teaspoons, masking cruelly honed existential witticisms with a vicar's calm.") Given a constricting enough word count, music criticism approaches hypercompressed poetry, imagistic and impressionistic with no hint of argumentative reasoning or of the criteria being used to draw conclusions. These would be bad things if readers actually wanted to know what music sounded like, but most people already believe that words can't do music justice. So despite what some readers will say, they don't care if they get a sense of what music sounds like from a piece of criticism. If they are looking to buy something, they want the reviewer to make them feel like they will become cooler, will belong to a more elite or more fun-loving group, by buying it. The reviewer's job is to perform coolness, to make his prose redolent with a sense of hip knowingness. That is why inferences and asides and in jokes (the things that set up the exclusionary boundaries of cliques) are de rigeur in pop criticism, and deliberative logic and justification are exceedingly rare. A description must first be snappy and cool-sounding -- startling, surprising, allusive in a neat way. If it happens to be accurate to the music, well, that's a nice bonus, but more or less irrelevant. This is why the criteria for pop music critics isn't necessarily an understanding of music, which you would think is the fundamental prerequisite. But it's not; the fundamental prerequisite is an unflaggingly self-confident sense of one's own taste being cool, a snobbish certainty that anyone who can't relate doesn't deserve to sit at one's lunch table in the high-school cafeteria of life. Pop criticism's main function is to make us feel like we belong, and just as important, that other people don't.

We read music reviews because we require a social context to enjoy pop music -- it is not often enjoyed for its own sake but for the sense of belonging it fosters. Ordinarily we get context from the people we spend time with, our tastes are in dialogue with theirs and it points the way to what we listen to and what we get out of it. In the absence of that, we buttress that context by reading reviews, preferably by someone who seems like a person we would want to hang out with. (Editors sometimes look for what voters allegedly look for, someone who sounds like he would be cool to have a beer with.) Reviews in lifestyle magazines are not meant to be informative; they are meant to make you feel like you are hanging out. I sometimes find myself reading reviews of albums I already own; it's not because I want to be told what to think about them (though that is part of it) and it's certainly not because I need to know what they sound like. It's just that I'm starved sometimes for a meaningful conversation about the culture that adorns my life. (Culture in general serves to generate conversations that link people together, be it one to one or an entire folk.) Reading reviews is one way to try to assuage that hunger. Writing reviews for amazon.com is another. And writing a blog, too.

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