Music Critics: Snobby Jerks, Or Snobby Jerks With Actual Power?

Aug 22nd, 2007 // 22 Comments

welcometothevoice.jpgToday, Marketwatch media columnist Jon Friedman takes a look at the scourge of music critics–those elitist bastards who, as one can see by the sales records smashed by the likes of Lucinda Williams and Aimee Mann, control what sort of music gets popular–and their effect on the career of Steve Nieve, the Attractions keyboardist who recently wrote the opera Welcome to the Voice to almost no critical response. Friedman rants about the album for a bit, name-drops Robert Wyatt (!), and lets Nieve sigh about how there’s “no ‘Steve Nieve’ section” in the few remaining record stores that are left. Then, at the end of the column, Friedman drops this bomb:

MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: Do music critics help you decide what’s good or are they merely blowhards?
WEDNESDAY PET PEEVE: Critics who care more about showing how smart they are instead of helping the readers understand the arts.

Well, you know, one of my pet peeves involves writers who are trying to big-up the work of artists they like, then take it as a personal affront when people don’t respond the same way. But nobody asked me.

Seriously, though–while Friedman’s column (which will probably reach a lot more people than a 60-word blurb about the record in Entertainment Weekly‘s ever-shrinking music section) is the first I’d heard of Voice, it’s a little bit of a leap to say that “blowhard” music critics who are only interested in “showing how smart they are” is the primary reason for the near-radio silence regarding it. Not that critics are completely innocent of that behavior, but there’s an elephant in the room here that Friedman’s gracefully sidestepping, and that’s the fact that Voice is an opera–sure, it’s one by a musician who has a devoted cult following, and it features some boldfaced names, but it’s still an opera.

You’d think a media critic would know that, as part of the general shrinking of music-writing space over the past few years, classical coverage has been decimated by newspapers and magazines in favor of music that “the people” (the elitist people?) want; the only new releases in that genre to get coverage on a mass scale at all are by pop stars like Paul McCartney and Billy Joel, both of whom appeal to the mass much more than even Elvis Costello. And really, an opera by Steve freaking Nieve–with Robert Wyatt getting top billing over Costello, at that!–would be catnip for these straw-man critics who are obsessed with the idea of peacocking their smarts, or at least their encyclopedic knowledge of early Attractions bootlegs, all over the page.

The chicken-and-egg scenarios that Friedman’s completely misunderstanding here–do critics write like elitists, thus alienating readers? do readers not care about music writing anyway, thus allowing critics to fall back on old habits? does the increased categorization of music mean that things that don’t fit into any one genre fall by the wayside? does the “please the reader” mandate in a lot of arts coverage now have the same effect? should some Pitchfork writer just give the damn thing a 6.1 so Friedman will quit complaining?–are legion, but they all boil down to one thing: He’s pretty much clueless. But hey, at least there are some people out there who think that music critics still matter!

Media lip service hurts a rock ‘n’ roll hall of famer [Marketwatch]


  1. KarenUhOh

    I’d try looking in the Stevie Niecks rack.

  2. mackro

    Steve Nieve’s opera may not have been popular at the time, but each of the hundred economist journalists who followed his work made his or her own influential opera.

  3. gonzosmom

    Critics of the arts are elitist? Sweet Jesus, Mary and Elvis Mitchell.

  4. EnoIsGod


  5. Lucas Jensen

    Okay, so this article also doesn’t mention what kind of publicity machine was behind the opera, etc. etc. I think he gives critics too much power. It’s really editors and editorial decisions that make the big impact, and even then, it ain’t music WRITING in general that’s getting people to listen to new music. That would file sharing, the Disney Channel…

  6. The Notorious T

    Everyone knows that a Pitchfork 6.1 means “We hated it but are afraid to say so because this band has `cred’.” Gotta aim for a 7 to placate anyone.

  7. natepatrin

    Dude, of course music critics are blowhards! I mean, sometimes they use words with four syllables.

  8. Ned Raggett

    What? No. I cry.

  9. the rich girls are weeping

    Er, does anyone else find Friedman’s writing completely incomprehensible? Or is it just me?

    And, why isn’t Freidman blaming the label PR, or Nieve’s PR people and management (if they exist at all)? I mean, surely the two of them don’t actually think that if you put an album out there people will automatically jump with glee to listen just because of the names associated with said project? No disrespect to Nieve, but just being an Attraction and a Rock’n'Roll Hall-of-Famer doesn’t automatically give you a bye out of doing the PR thing. Sheesh.

    Because, really, we all know the best way to get your stuff out there is to offer an “exclusive” track or interview or both to the Forkcast.

    Also, in case anyone wasn’t paying attention, there’s no audience for modern opera, btw. No matter who’s involved.

  10. revmatty

    You hit the point right on, but I’d like to emphasize it a bit more: This isn’t some breakout album by a member of a popular band. It’s an OPERA. It probably did get reviewed in the classical music magazines (they still print Gramophone, don’t they?). But you don’t generally see Rolling Stone or even the NYT reviewing the lesser works of Johann Christoph Bach or the latest CD by Tan Dun. The author is an idiot.

  11. Anonymous

    Friedman’s argument went from terrible to hilarious after this gem:

    In fact, in the current Rolling Stone, Deryck Whibley of Sum 41 listed “Radio Radio” as his personal No. 1 song in the “My List” category.

    A seal of approval from the guy who wrote “Fat Lip”: music’s highest honor.

  12. Ned Raggett

    We might also be overlooking an important point — what the HECK is with that cover photo?

  13. NickEddy

    Holy shit! Steve Nieve finally wrote an OPERA!!

    Seriously! Ever since his piano on “Long Honeymoon,” I’ve wondered why he hasn’t collaborated on an opera with someone.

    And he got a reunited Bronski Beat in it??


  14. Paperboy 2000

    YouSendIt link for the Robert Wyatt track?

  15. Lucas Jensen

    @TheNotoriousT: Everybody knows that? That’s ridiculous. If they hated it, it’d get less than a 5. Trust me, it’s happened to me recently. I do think there is a bit of big bands get big scores going on there recently, though.

  16. annkpowers

    Something bothered me about this Friedman nonsense, and now I’ve figured it out. I actually REVIEWED “Welcome to the Voice” when it was in workshop at Town Hall in New York in 2000. It was a positive review, for the NEW YORK TIMES. Didn’t that help Nieve? Did Friedman do any kind of Google search to see if the piece HAD been reviewed? And btw I don’t recall ever being serviced the recorded version. So missed opportunity there I guess. This smarty-pants show-off pop critic would have been happy to write about it.

  17. backseat_driver10023

    do people even read what these critics say

  18. flathead

    we always read what we say!

  19. remarkie


  20. edisdead

    dang even a casual google search shows a review also ran in NYT sister paper Boston Globe. whatever Friedman is smoking, pass it this way!

  21. FunkyJ

    I’m sick of this rubbish.

    It’s the same with games reviewing. “Does the press help game devs, or do they hinder the,?”


    Look, lets be brutally honest here – the only reason we write reviews is we get free music/games/movies/tickets.

    And the only reason other people read our work is because they’re bored.


    Now move along please. There’s absolutely nothing else to analyse or think about here.

  22. nonce


    Yeah, all of the hot-shit opera composers of today, while they may have name recognition for people who read Pitchfork, etc. (people like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams, Laurie Anderson*, Robert Ashley, and, uh, Tom Waits**), they’re mostly not getting constant coverage.

    Also: wasn’t there a 15-year dryspell for Aimee Mann before critics picked her up again?

    And: If Elvis Costello pimped out his band members a bit more, more people would know who Steve Nieve is in the first place.

    Finally: no matter what it is, if I pick up a CD and the cover prominently lists Sting as a participant, I’m dropping that shit like a hot lute, critical praise or no.

    *If you count Anderson’s USA as an opera. I do.
    **Worked on operas in the ’90s with William Burroughs and King of Slo-Mo Robert Wilson.

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