The Thankless Task Of Being A Music Critic

Frank Zappa claimed "rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read" That's a bit extreme, but it does have its problems...
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If there exists any substrate of society which is deserving of more sympathetic attention, surely, that substrate is the critics. Those who leadenly lift their pens to write a eulogy for their favourite, obscure records, and deliver defeatist, embittered tracts on the latest million-seller, hating every petty, compromised second of the process. Pity the sour, judgemental wretches! No, wait. Let me genuinely make my case. I think there is a problem with criticism generally speaking, and, in this instance at least, the problem is not the fault of critics.

It’s a timeframe problem. A deadline problem. We all work to them; the office ticks over unerringly at a rate of nine to five. The pubs shut eventually, giving drunks a reprieve between sousings. Deadlines are also well known to students, who inveterately utilise extensions, so difficult are they to confront unaided. In these other domains, the deadline serves a valid purpose; businesses must keep up; services must be provided without too great a lapse. But the deadline in review writing terms is antithetical to the task at hand. It is employed in service of the commodity, not the art. So that the product receives proper commercial coverage. Opinions are hastily formed, and the meaningful content of the work is often misconstrued. Or construed insufficiently. The one concession which money makes is that the critics are allowed to give whatever reaction they see fit, including negative ones.

It’s a timeframe problem. A deadline problem... Opinions are hastily formed, and the meaningful content of the work is often misconstrued. Or construed insufficiently.

One of my favourite examples of this was the instance of Tom Waits 2004 album, Real Gone. It was derided as a serious misstep - a crash landing even, upon its release. Six years later, on end-of-decade retrospectives, it featured prominently as one of the best albums of that ten year period. Now, to give these prevaricating publications their due, it is a rather demanding work. It’s the album where Waits finally conceded the reins to the monster that had brooding in him since before 1983’s watershed Swordfishtrombones. The songs are dominated by guttural scats and blood-raw roars which Waits had been developing slowly since 1999’s Mule Variations, and their musical setting is a parched and gnarly combination of wrecked guitars, broken bass and pots-and-pans percussion.

The album doesn’t welcome you warmly to its shores, but instead presents a fascinating challenge. One which was ducked by most critics. The reason? At least in part the time constraints. What happens with deadlines is a reviewer cannot submit copy which is unsure of itself. This would satisfy neither the promotional requirements nor the writer’s own sense of internal coherence. The opinion must be clear; the judgement ostensibly final; “4 stars” -no more or less. It’s this premature decisiveness which is the chiefmost evil in music criticism, and most likely other forms of criticism too.

What also happens with deadlines is they loom like a malignant sun, blazing meanly overhead, eating up your clarity of sight. Or say they’re like mountains; you can’t see past them until they’re met; they fill your horizon until they’ve been safely traversed. This is one of the main anxieties a writer feels, and it feeds the sweating discomfiture of the process. Consensus is the great scapegoat of this problem. Critics will rely on a consensus viewpoint where they fail to produce one of their own. They’ll even do this unwittingly, such is the pressure to meet the deadline.

Consensus is the great scapegoat... Critics will rely on a consensus viewpoint where they fail to produce one of their own

Another famous example of this timing problem was the release of Radiohead’s Kid A, with novelist Nick Hornby making the most high-profile disavowal of all, calling it “commercial suicide” which, I don’t know about you… commercial suicide always sounded rather good to me. The picture was more clouded in Radiohead’s case than with Waits and others. Many writers in fact instantly recognised the album for what it is, namely a work which balances an ascetic bloody-mindedness with a brave and enterprising attitude, making it simultaneously one of the most uncompromising and satisfactory albums of recent rock history. Yes, that is what it is.

In music criticism, the somewhat unfortunate word “grower” entered the parlance of the reviewing world more or less because of Radiohead. So it was with Kid A, which attained its distinguished reputation in fairly short order after the initial press incoherence, making most of the year-end-best lists, and later establishing itself in common opinion as a “top of the decade” type album. Commercial interests squandered the critic’s credibility yet again.

Taking another example from the reverse, Weezer’s Pinkerton is currently referred to as their best record almost without exception, and is talked about in terms of one of the great 90s albums nearly as often. Considering this, unique praise from fans and critics alike, let’s look back at what one example of the commodity-serving machine had to say about the album at the time of its release.

Rob O’Connor of Rolling Stone called the songwriting of Pinkerton “Juvenile”. I think those songs are better evoked by the term “childlike”, or “youthful” “innocent” or, even, “unsophisticatedly candid”. These mean the same thing, yet still represent a gulf of difference from “juvenile”.  O’Connor’s view was, regrettably, widely shared, even among fans of the band.

The initial harsh disparagement of Weezer’s second album was so severe that Rivers Cuomo grew a beard. He also retired from making music officially, until five years had been put between him and the pain of rejection associated with Pinkerton’s release. And, though he’s returned to making music full time (Weezer have put out five new albums since 2001’s Green Album) he’s arguably never been the same since. Whether this is attributable to maturing and natural development or whether it’s all Rob O’Connor’s fault, is a dissertation waiting to be written, but I think it’s clear that the several-years hiatus (occasioned to a large extent by bad press) owns a lot of the responsibility here.

The difficulty with coming to a reasonable opinion of any work must be greatly exacerbated when the review is of a live concert. Thankfully these days, most albums precede the tours which are undertaken in support of them, so critics are not expected to listen and write up a notice in one evening. Let us imagine this was the case, however. One historical example of a “bad review” of this kind occurred at the premiere of  Igor Stravinksy’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring).

Nearly a hundred years ago, in the Paris of 1913, the novel instrumentation, alienating, bitter dissonances and nauseating rhythmical innovations caused consternation (apparently the first sign of trouble was the umbrage taken at the highly unorthodox high-pitching of a bassoon- classical music crows eh? Rowdy, yet paradoxically sensitive lot.) So, first consternation; then mild panic; then uproar as the production fell into a chaos commensurate with the still-radical Russian score. The story is so extreme (a riot at a prestigious premiere in Paris?!) as to seem apocryphal. But it isn’t, and represents the most extreme case of a work veering from unfavourable to favourable in the music world. These days the Rite of Spring is regarded as unrivalled in its genius.

I suppose I need to stress that not all reviews are eventually revised or recanted. That some albums are less inscrutable than others is not a hidden fact. It probably wasn’t painstaking and conflicted work, denouncing Be Here Now as bloated tripe on the first listen. And, as far as I know, there are no serious calls for the critical rehabilitation of Metal Machine Music. I nonetheless feel that time does rather get in the way here, and would tentatively suggest that, much as when libellous headlines are later retracted via apologies buried between the small ads of a newspaper, so too should emendations be made to hurried or obsequious opinions. Just put them in the back of publications, save the faces of these pitiful, much-abused souls.

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