Say What? Why Music Criticism is Drowning

Read this: “Guitars submarined by wild-angled synths, off-kilter beats tripping up big ballads. A few songs have the old leather-jacket kick, but things get weirder as he explores alienation from a Lower East Side he once ruled.”

So that’s a direct quote from a recent review of Phrazes for the Young, the first solo album attempt from Julian Casablancas, front-man of the popular, lyric-slurring New York indie quintet, The Strokes. Now, not to fret, it doesn’t matter if you know who (a) Casablancas is (b) who The Strokes are, or (c) what the heck “wild-angled synths” means. I have no idea either.

What matters is that you see the absurdity of the above description, which comes from a micro review of the album by the industry’s numero uno source of rock criticism, Rolling Stone Magazine.

The point is that music criticism, and a lot of other arts criticism (see: theatre, book, movie, art criticism et al.), is bothering the heck out of me. Go ahead and search through any print (or online) publication for its review section and take a 15 second gander. About 86% is abstruse drivel void of any argument or logical sense, while the remaining 12% is factual, in that it spelled the artist and the artists’ album/book/arts collection correctly. The last 2% equates for some kind of argument.

Increasingly so, I find myself reading these micro, 100-word reviews, looking at the typically arbitrary rating it received and thinking, “I didn’t learn a single thing here that made any sense. In fact, I think I’m more unclear about the album and its contents than I was before I read this.” In other words, I can’t find any clarifying opinion in the gobbledygook of current music criticism. Which is tiring, because (a) I love music (b) I love to read and (c) I run a magazine with a number of pages dedicated solely to reviews – be it music, book, movie or otherwise.

Now let me clarify: reviews, most definitely the terse, short ones, I have the tiff with; conversely, I typically take a lot away from music articles. By this I mean pieces that are at least 500-words and more objective than their subjective counterparts. These typically hold quotes from the band with a clear hook (or focus) as to why this article was written. It thus has a clear, logical flow and explains the purpose for the artist’s most recent album or a problem; naturally these “problems” are self-induced.

Clearly a subjective approach is needed in criticism. This is the bed that criticism rests on. We know this. But when I read a review that gives an album, let’s say, one and half stars out of five, I want a darn good explanation as to why. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have an articulate reasoning with a couple follow-up examples as to why the record is rubbish. What I don’t want is this: “Most of Embryonic sounds like laid-back echoes of Miles Davis’ early-1970s skronk jazz, with distorted funk grooves undercutting pillowy vibraphones and zonked electronics.” (That’s another review taken from a recent Rolling Stone issue on the new Flaming Lips album, Embryonic.) Like, seriously, what does that even mean? “Skronk” is barely even a word – it’s haphazard slang at best. But so is the climate for so-called arts criticism.

You know what I mean?

–RYAN BOLTON

A version of this article originally appeared on Lutherans Connect.

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