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Rosen: In Defense of Pop Criticism

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Photo: Valerie Loiseleux/Getty Images

Ted Gioia is a smart, serious, hugely accomplished critic, music historian, and pianist — who has just published an asinine article. Gioia has written some superb books about jazz and blues, including The History of Jazz, which I gobbled up when I read it in the late ’90s. It is one of those doorstoppers that earns the reviewers’ cliché “magisterial.” It’s sharp, sober, judicious, with a clear-sighted view of both forest and trees, and, for that matter, the sky above the treeline and the little creepy-crawlies scuttling in the underbrush; Gioia swoops from jazz’s origins in Africa and Congo Square to fine-grain readings of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings to the social and historical context of bebop’s rise, and on and on. I learned a lot from Gioia: not just facts, but ideas and insights, which I’ve no doubt bandied about in conversation in the years since, pretending they’re my own. I owe the man.

All of which gave Gioia’s Daily Beast screed, “Musical Criticism Has Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting,” an especially bitter tang when I choked it down yesterday with my morning coffee. Gioia’s argument is that music critics know nothing about music and care about it even less. (Gioia is talking about pop critics as opposed to jazz or classical ones, although he never says so explicitly.) “Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from [music journalism] discourse,” Gioia writes. Instead, he says, music writers are focused on trivialities and sensationalism: pop stars’ love lives, “what the chart-topping musicians are wearing (or, in many instances, not wearing),” “updates on the legal proceedings of the rich and famous,” “the food preferences and travel routines of megastars,” etc. Gioia also read some record reviews, which he reports were full of idiotic adjectives: “‘badass,’ ‘hot,’ ‘sexy,’ ‘tripped-out,’ and ‘freaky.’” What you will find in the music press today is not criticism, Gioia concludes, but vapid riffs on that most vapid of notions, “lifestyle.”

To be clear: There are lots of issues with music journalism, and Gioia has identified some of them. By and large, the level of music literacy among pop critics is poor. Certain music journalists do seem mysteriously incurious about music qua music, or at least they display little interest in or aptitude for analyzing it. Popular music is often made by celebrities, and in some music writing the balance between criticism and gossip tilts in the wrong direction.

And yes, there is a puerile strain in some music journalism. Pop music is a powerful social force, and it hits listeners in a deep place, where it counts; millions self-identify through music, some overly self-identify, and some of these mawkish over-self-identifiers wind up writing about music professionally or semi-professionally. A reader can usually sniff out the critic who is too ensnared in pop music’s cult of cool — you can feel the writer’s insecurities and status anxieties seeping into the prose, one “badass” at a time.

These problems may be acute in pop music writing, but they are not intrinsic to it, or exclusive to it. Any serious pop critic has an understanding of the form’s history and its peculiar pitfalls, and is aware of the zillion other booby-traps that await any writer, on any topic — every day, every sentence, every em-dash or comma. I constantly run up against the limits of my own musical knowledge, technical and otherwise, and try to rectify the situation by hitting the books or picking the brain of some smarter and more erudite colleague. Like all writing, music criticism is a craft, which the good practitioners approach with rigor and a healthy sense of their own inadequacy, honing their skills and learning from their bellyflops as they go.

But yes: There is shitty pop music writing, just as there are shitty one-volume histories of jazz — and shitty movies, and shitty food, and shitty lawnmowers. The thing to do is this: Steer clear of the lame book, and read Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz; attack that overgrown front yard with a John Deere and not the weed-wacker you bought for $8.95 at True Value Hardware.

Yet Gioia’s Daily Beast piece acknowledges no distinctions. For Gioia, today’s music criticism is debased lifestyle-journo-prattle, full-stop. Here’s Gioia: “One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music … I’ve just spent a very depressing afternoon looking through the leading music periodicals. And what did I learn? Pretty much what I expected.”

Which “periodicals” did Gioia read before rendering this judgment? What were the “music magazines” in Gioia’s “stack”? Rolling StoneSpinPitchforkSea Punk Quarterly? I doubt Giaio dipped into magazines like Guitar Player or Modern Drummer, whose shortcomings are the opposite of those he diagnoses: The writers tend to go wild with technical music-talk at the expense of everything else.

There’s no way of knowing what music criticism Gioia is referring to, actually, since he cites no specifics. He provides no hyperlinks to examples of terrible music writing, which would have been nice: Evidence is always helpful in a scorched-earth polemic. There is precisely one quotation from a piece of published writing in Gioia’s nearly 2,000-word piece. It’s an excerpt, not from a work of criticism, but from the “parting shot” of Bill Werde, the deposed editor of “the industry’s leading trade journal” Billboard — which incidentally is just that, a music industry trade journal, an outlet focused on music business news, not criticism.

Reading Gioia’s article, you are forced to draw one of two conclusions. Either Gioia is being coy about the periodicals and critics in question — is he worried about hurting the feelings of a Stereogum stringer? Doesn’t want to burn his bridges with Jann Wenner? — or his stack of music magazines wasn’t much of a stack, and his investigation comprised a cursory flip through one or two mags and a little casual web-surfing. Actually, my suspicion is that Gioia didn’t do much background reading at all, relying instead on his vague impressions — on the vibe, as they put it in poorly written rock reviews, that he’s picked up over the years. I mean, Gioia comes right out and says it: I’ve just spent a very depressing afternoon looking through the leading music periodicals. And what did I learn? Pretty much what I expected. He decided he wanted to write a piece about how music criticism sucks; he knew what he wanted to say in the first place, and, lo and behold, his extensive researches — a whole afternoon’s worth, and a depressing one at that — confirmed the suspicion he’d had coming into the project: that critics need to “stop acting like gossip columnists, and start taking the music seriously again.”

When I told Gioia on Twitter that I was skeptical about how thoroughly he’d looked into the topic, he shot back “Are you seriously suggesting that I have only spent an afternoon reading music criticism?” and tweeted a photograph of his bookshelves: “I couldn’t fit all of my music books in a photo (or even in the house). But here are some.” I replied, needless to say, with a pic of my manifestly way more awesome bookshelves.

Of course, I don’t doubt that Ted Gioia has read lots of music criticism in his time, any more than I doubt the resplendence of his home library, which I’m sure makes the Bodleian look like a Jersey Shore clam shack. I’m unconvinced, though, that Gioia has brushed up on the state of the pop critical art. How could I think otherwise, when the only critics whose names he mentions are, with one exception, long dead, and the exception, John Rockwell, hasn’t written regularly about pop in two decades?

There’s a term for the methodology on display in Gioia’s piece: parachute journalism; there’s term for Gioia’s rhetorical strategy, too: strawmanning. Or maybe we should just call the piece lazy. Gioia wrote a broad indictment of “the field of music journalism” without, it appears, bothering to acquaint himself with that field. In the best-case scenario, Gioia really does know current music journalism chapter-and-verse, and either forgot or didn’t find it necessary to provide any particulars to support his argument, relying instead on clichés about Lester Bangs and “the Bieberization of arts journalism” — a rather shaky perch from which to wag his horsewhip at other journalists for their shoddy standards.

No matter: Gioia has bigger fish to fry. The cruddy lifestyle-fixated music writing, he says, is symptomatic of much wider cruddy lifestyle-fixated cultural malaise. Over the past several decades, music’s “value as a pathway of personal definition” — i.e., lifestyle — has supplanted the time-honored values of virtuosity and artistry, with disastrous results. Gioia’s litany is familiar: Singers “who would need to retire if Auto-Tune disappeared,” songwriters “who couldn’t modulate keys if you handed them the chords on a silver flash drive,” musicians who “haven’t yet figured out the simplest syncopations,” stars whose appeal is based on “waving a foam finger or dressing like a robot.”

In other words, Gioia doesn’t like current popular music. (Nor, for that matter, does he care for the pop of the last 40-odd years: “By the time we arrive at the age of disco and punk rock, the music consciously builds its appeal on lifestyle considerations.”) That’s his prerogative, of course; everybody is entitled to prefer his record collection to the next fella’s. But it’s a little bit silly for Gioia to dress up what is essentially a grumpy little essay about his personal tastes — his perfectly understandable but altogether banal aversion to music made by the benighted young — by furrowing his brow and disgorging some huffery-puffery about “the most basic responsibility of the music critic” and the “[poisoning] of our aural culture.”

In fact, Gioia’s piece is nothing more or less than the usual barbarians-at-the-gates snobbery: the same cri de coeur that has greeted every new turn in popular music for more than a century, at least since Victor Herbert fans and parlor song dead-enders railed against “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” as jungle music that was destined to sell their daughters into white slavery.

As for music critics’ roles in all this: On certain days, when the play of light is just so, I like to imagine that I wield a wee bit of cultural clout — that my little 1,200-word review has the power to move a grain of sand in the Sahara, or at least to convince some schmo to cue up Ka on Spotify. Nevertheless, it’s not within a music critic’s purview to halt the progress of history, technology, that sort of thing. Even if every rock blogger on the internet became a music theory doctoral candidate, it wouldn’t cause Britney Spears and T-Pain — and, you know, computers — to suddenly evaporate and cease blighting Ted Giaio’s sense of well-being.

The fact is, today’s pop music landscape is complex, and the kind of criticism it calls for is complicated, too. Since Gioia feels comfortable declaiming on “the field of music journalism,” it’s safe to assume that he’s familiar with today’s most high-profile music journalists. Surely he’s read the work of the New York Times’ pop critical murderer’s row? Of course he knows NPR’s Ann Powers and The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones — right? Since he knows these writers, can he honestly say of their work: “I didn’t read a single discussion of song structure, harmony, or arrangement techniques”?

In fact, today’s finest music criticism takes in all that and then some: how music is made, how it sounds, what it means to its audiences, the ways it ripples through the culture at large. The best critics combine the sort of musicological chops that Gioia values with the ability to make sense of the bigger picture — the sound and the spectacle, the interplay of art and commerce, the ways that new technologies affect one of the oldest and the most primal forms of human expression. There is of course detailed musical description and exegesis in the work of the best critics, a task which, in 2014, calls for not only the old musicological toolkit, but for a knowledge of recording studio production trends and techniques, a consideration of things like dynamic range compression and, yes, Auto-Tune — in short, the very digital thingamabobs that Gioia believes are sending the world to hell in hand-basket.

And guess what? “Lifestyle” comes into it, too. As distasteful as it is to Gioia, celebrity culture is huge force in pop. Showbiz isn’t just the pop star’s medium; often, it’s her message, her subject, her muse. Times change, music changes, and responsible critics have to keep up. For a critic to ignore what Gioia calls lifestyle is dereliction of duty.

So I think that Gioia should read music criticism more carefully. I believe he’ll be comforted. In the Daily Beast piece, Giaio goes on about how great it was that critics like Leonard Feather and Robert Palmer “were musicians themselves” — and the same is true of, for instance, Sasha Frere-Jones and the Times’ chief pop critic, Jon Pareles. Frere-Jones was a professional bassist. Pareles played jazz flute and piano, and has a music degree from Yale. I’ve seen Pareles taking notes at concerts — in musical notation, on cocktail napkins.

Of course, there are dozens of other excellent music writers with less prestigious posts than the Times and The New Yorker; Gioia should seek them out too. Inveighing against rock critics is a reliable easy play — even more of a gimme than cracking jokes about lawyers or dentists — but if Gioia pushes past the clichés, he’ll find that popular music writing today is as rich and variegated as it has ever been. He’ll also find that the verities hold. Whether you’re flinging around “tripped out” and “freaky” or “B sus 9” and “pentatonic scale,” what really matters are the old cornerstones: clean writing, keen thinking, rigorous reporting. Ted Gioia is enough of a pro to recognize those qualities when he sees them. I wonder: If he stepped back and gave his Daily Beast piece a good, long, dispassionate once-over, would he find it wanting?