Monday, March 29, 2010

Why Critics Matter

Last week, the Boston Globe published a provocative Op Ed by Steve Almond, which argued that music criticism is a pointless, and at times pernicious, endeavor:

Wretched as I was, I loved being a music critic. I got to feel like a big shot, the one guy whose opinion (no matter how misbegotten) mattered.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my glorious career as the next Lester Bangs: I was dispatched to cover an MC Hammer concert. This involved lots of flashing lights and sparks. Hammer himself was wearing those ridiculously baggy pants and barking out lyrics about jewelry and torture.

I dutifully spent the evening scribbling witty insults in my reporter’s notebook. But at a certain point (after I’d fulfilled my quota of witty insults) I turned my attention to the folks all around me. They were enthralled. And what I realized as I gazed at them was this: I was totally missing the point.

The very idea of music criticism — of applying some objective standard to the experience of listening to music — suddenly struck me as petty and irrelevant. I spent several more months as a critic, but my essential belief in the pursuit evaporated.

I’d come up against a concept I’ve since come to think of as the Music Critic Paradox: the simple fact that even the best critics — the ones, unlike me, with actual training and talent — can’t begin to capture what it feels like to listen to music. Because listening to music is a collaborative endeavor. Fans don’t just sit there (as critics do) parsing the technical merits of a song. They bring to each song their own emotional needs: their lust and sorrow, their hopes and heartbreak.

Basically, Almond thinks that since fans are going to like what they like anyway, critics are only valuable as cheerleaders for the artists they love.

There are a number of problems with Almond's argument. The most glaring of which is that his (yes) criticism of music criticism can be applied to all types of criticism. Almond halfheartedly attempts to make a special distinction for music, "because songs are aimed squarely at our hearts. They’re meant to make us dance or weep or laugh." I think what he means here is that music is more of an emotional, rather than intellectual, experience. True. But music as an art form contains a number of intellectual elements: its craft and structure, its historical and cultural context, its literary merits (when lyrics are involved). The same can be said of the novel.

Almond misses the point by arguing music fans will like what they like no matter what critics say (as in his MC Hammer experience). Music critics don't write for the casual fan, nor do literary critics, art critics, dance critics, etc. Even film critics, the most populist variant, write for people who have a deeper appreciation for the art form. Steve Almond, as film critic, would have also despaired at the droves who enjoyed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, in spite of the evisceration it received from him and his colleagues.

So what value do critics provide? The cheerleader function (of which even Almond approves) is the most obvious. Critics are paid to consume mass quantities of an art form, and they primarily provide guidance within a sea of options. This is especially important with music, given the great quantity of it out there. Even though it's basically free of charge to sift through music online, time is still a high cost. In this sense, you could argue that music critics are even more important today. In the past, radio and music television could break a promising new artist. This is no longer the case. Though internet memes can often fill this role, music critics are invaluable as champions for the new.

But there is a second, equally important, function critics provide. They put artists and their works within a context, and give serious fans a framework for analyzing the artists and works. Good critics provoke further thought and examination, which is true even if the reader disagrees with their final evaluation. Sure, it's a process that could occur without critics, since the work itself provides the material for contemplation. But critics bring professional perspective, whether you agree with it or not.

Yes, like all fans, I like what I like. But I love to read a review and think: this critic nailed it, or blew it, or just made a really interesting point. Criticism engages me in art. That's why critics matter.