For one day, I was the sexual fantasy of hundreds of men. It still gives me nightmares.
Three years ago, I grasped total rock stardom in my stiff little fingers and crumbled like a cheap souffle. That acclaimed moment, the most popular musical performance of my life, was with the Cal Poly Classical Guitar Ensemble at the Atascadero State Hospital. That’s because the “hospital” is really a prison for the mentally ill, and I was the first girl those men in blue had seen for a long time. I was seated in the middle of the stage, greeted with hundreds of unblinking eyes. The other guitarists – the boys’ club – found it oh-so-funny.
They (meaning jerks in general) say that those who cannot do, write. The above story is evidence of that cynical theory, as I will never reach such great sonic heights again (thank God). I have, instead, shifted to penning articles about music. It often seems like a secondhand creativity; as Elvis Costello once mused, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”
More than anything, this idea of the runner-up rocker-turned-writer applies to music criticism. Over the last 10 years, independent record reviews have deteriorated into quote-ready exaggerations and hipster pretentiousness. Some sources put a filter on the crap (All Music Guide, or AMG, does a good job) but reviews are not the same as they once were. In the ’70s, Lester Bangs and Creem magazine described rock with an intensity that shook in each letter (or maybe it was all the cough syrup). Rolling Stone, in its pure, early incarnation, wrote reviews as honest and poetic as a Bob Dylan ballad.
Today, the strongest voice in music press is arguably Pitchfork, a Midwest Web site that specializes in indecipherable ego. Excerpt from a recent CD analysis: “The song’s sweeping shuffle breathes life into the band’s nostalgic musk … newfangled hankering for melody sublimates the band’s sound.”
What the hell does that even mean? Is that – good? I feel like I just got thrown out of John Malkovich’s head. And Pitchfork is an indicator of the talking-head trend, not the exception; other mediums mirror it. The reviews in this very newspaper are often frustrating and oblique.
The real problem of mid-level music reviews is not their wordiness, not their inflammatory lack of relevance or sincerity. Today, anyone with a modem can be a cultural blogger, which makes album criticism a deflated currency. (When queried for “album review,” Google returned 33,300,000 sites.)
As a result, reviews are never the ideal job for the ambitious music journalist; it’s not a final destination so much as a stepping stone to the juicier artist profiles. (This theory has personally and repeatedly been confirmed at media parties, which are a black hole of type-A scribes.) Often times, the reviewer tries to slide their own personality into reviews to make their byline buzzworthy, which makes the actual musical critique fall by the wayside.
Ironically, skeptical readers often assume that record reviews are constructed to sell albums, not the writer. This isn’t usually true if the circulation is strong enough to yield dependable support and an open market.
“We’re not very corporate, and that’s a good thing and a bad thing,” said SPIN Associate Editor Caryn Ganz in a The Art Beat interview last June. “It’s a good thing in that we’re free, and not, like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to offend this advertiser if we give the Rolling Stones record a C-,’ or ‘Mick Jagger won’t talk to us anymore.’ And those are actual concerns for other magazines.”
But the worst facet of music criticism is inherent to the concept: The writer is constructing a career off the weak points of a braver artist. (And this comes from a guilty soul. I used to compose cruelly specific, unfair denunciations about bands to appear “professional.”)
Reviews are only helpful if they offer constructive advice from an unbiased view, and that has all but expired in the last five years. They wax alternately fanatical and brutal, and neither is helpful to the reader.
The truth is out there, though. Honest music fans and their poison-less pens still walk among us. Try www.allmusic.com and www.gloriousnoise.com (which I’m biased about, but they deliver).
It could be, though, that “respected” music journalism venues will always be flawed – and maybe, like rock ‘n’ roll itself, reviews are best left to the unprofessionals.
Stacey Anderson is a journalism and music senior, KCPR DJ and two-headed monster. Catch her Sundays 7 to 8 p.m. and Thursdays 3 to 5 p.m. on 91.3 FM or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.