The Rainbow Connection: Are Music Critics Too Tolerant?

mariasci | November 24, 2008 9:30 am

Peter Suderman scans the sidebar of Metacritic’s music section and points out that “Nearly all of the review averages are positive or very positive, and almost none of them are straightforward pans,” a state that stands in stark contrast to the film section and its panoply of bad reviews. Why is that? Well, there are many more albums released than movies, and since a publication can only run so many reviews, critics naturally tend to pick albums they like. But there’s also the fact that music critics–who as a group can be said to be of the indie mindset–can always seem to find a way to like things. In a reaction to Friday’s post about the nature of lists, Marc Hogan noted that “the perspective generally afforded under the ‘indie rock’ audience umbrella is wider than for other genres.” But is that really a good thing?

As I mention in a comment on Suderman’s blog post, that difference between movies and music goes beyond the number of releases. Ever week, some movies that are released that are trying to reach as broad an audience as possible, and so these all get reviewed. But very few albums are released that aim at anything broader than their obvious audience, whether that demographic likes metal or rap or indie or teenpop or parent-pop or tweenpop. So when you review an album, it seems odd to place it in any context other than its target audience. Yes, Cradle of Filth would be annoying to most David Archuleta fans, and vice versa. But it’s hard to say that this makes either one objectively bad. The indie audience and the critics that spring from it have become so catholic in their tastes that they can see the good in almost anything that’s not bad on a very basic technical level. (And even that’s not an absolute barrier, given that critical darling Times New Viking sound like they’re recorded by pointing a digital dictaphone at a twenty-year-old boombox).

An example: I hate the Arcade Fire. If you asked me my opinion of them, I would say that they’re a very bad band doing horrible things that make me want to punch puppies. But were I to write a review of an Arcade Fire album–which is unlikely in the first place, since my hatred isn’t so active as to make me bother engaging with them–I would probably not write that. The fact is, I know too many other critics whose tastes otherwise match mine and who I greatly respect that really like the Arcade Fire. Moreover, my tastes are so catholic that I know exactly why I hate the Arcade Fire: I hate them because I hate U2; I hate them because they’re meaningful-core. And at that point my opinion on them becomes no different than it would of a bluegrass band. I’m not too fond of bluegrass either, but I wouldn’t feel at all qualified to write a negative review of a bluegrass band just because I didn’t like the genre. Since I don’t like bluegrass and/or bands that sound like U2, I don’t know enough about them to have an informed opinion, and since the audience for my review would be people that are highly informed, it seems awfully presumptuous of me to offer a lesser-informed opinion as the definitive one. My hypothetical Arcade Fire review, then, would consist of a lot of description, context, and the reactions of others, with a brief mention of the fact that I didn’t like it. But then, their albums aren’t even that bad; they just annoy me. They are one of the bands I hate most right now, but I would be hard-pressed to actually pan their album.

Maybe this isn’t a problem other people face, but the general phenomenon is widespread. We all know someone who likes the things we hate, and who seems like a smart person. Similarly, most things we like are probably hated by someone else who’s a reasonable and decent person. At that point, what is there to argue about? As facile as it may seem, vigorous criticism seems to require that critics divide things up into virtuous and evil, and that other critics disagree with that. Indeed, the phenomenon Hogan describes comes out of just such a critical conflagration:

Saw a post on a hip-hop blog the other day of Drake’s Lykke Li remix, and the blogger (Shake on 2dopeboyz, I think?) was sort of sheepishly saying that a lot of his readers would think it was totally lame but the people with more adventurous tastes would like it. That’s like what people used to say in the comment sections of blogs a few years ago when p4k would rate, like, Clipse or T.I. or Lil Wayne, sure, but I think the average person who shares the broad aesthetic generally defined as “indie” nowadays has a more open mind, more varied tastes. I mean, look at, like, John Darnielle, someone who probably wouldn’t ever describe himself as “indie” but is certainly something of a contemporary standard-bearer— loves metal and R. Kelly. …Whom Bonnie Prince Billy covers.

This didn’t just happen, as far as I know. It came out of a deliberate critical effort to get the indie audience and music critics as a whole to accept the legitimacy of non-rock genres, and as Hogan says, this mostly succeeded. These were the infamous popism/rockism debates, and it seems like critics think of them with some embarrassment these days. Fair enough, I guess: they did get a bit ideological and purist and then imploded, scattering everyone to their niche corners. But they produced a whole lot of good new writing and critics and forced people to take sides. We like to think of such things as irrational and overblown, of course, but that seems like we might be taking ourselves too seriously. What’s really to be lost from going too far in public? A certain degree of cool, perhaps, but not if it’s executed with enough style.

Since I lack such style, though, let me not go too far. I am by no means arguing that indie’s acceptance of these other genres isn’t a very good thing. It’s really nice now not to have to clear my throat for a paragraph before discussing Britney, or for rap critics not to have to field (as many) complaints that betray a basic unfamiliarity with the conventions of the genre. And I’m glad that indie is opening itself up to new influences, or at least admitting its uncool influences rather that stowing them away in some dark corner, waiting for the oral history twenty years after the debut comes out to reveal your secret Bob Seger infatuation. But I wonder if a genre that by dint of its name lacks a connection to a specific sound isn’t losing something in the process.

What is “indie”? What does it stand for? What does it mean? It’s nice that critics, who tend to come out of an indie or punk mindset, have been able to take things outside those areas seriously. But you can make a good argument that indie was defined for a long time by its opposition to pop, by its lack of tolerance for things outside what it considered acceptable. Certainly that set of options was constantly shifting, subject to the ebb and flow of style and consensus. But there was, at least, a set. If all restraints really are loosed from indie, as Hogan seems to be saying, then what holds it together anymore, other than a shared affection for Sonic Youth? If eclecticism becomes the rubric, what happens to older indie values like experimentation, difficulty, thoughtfulness, or cleverness? These seem like unimpeachable virtues, but as we know from accepting pop, they’re just one option among many. Still, they play their part in the system, and if they wash out with the tide, the system will be worse off as a result. Is this the kind of thing that could be rescued with one of those embarrassing, irrational, uncool critical conflagrations? Maybe, but it’s hard to see what it would emerge around. As long as the music fails to provide us with anything solid to grab onto, there’s are sides to take. Other than, you know, for or against goddamn BoingBoing.

In Praise of Negative Reviews [The Confabulum]