Music critic curmudgeon tells blogs & twitter to get off his lawn

The familiar complaints of old media curmudgeons bemoaning the rise of the unwashed, pajama-clad blogger tribe, have now reached the rarified domain of music criticism, with a much-forwarded entertaining rant about how blogs and twitter are ruining music.

Christopher Weingarten, a critic at the Village Voice and other publications runs through every curmudgeonly cliche in the book, raising arguments that have been swatted down for a decade by Jay Rosen and other internet-age thinkers: bloggers in pajamas, echo chamber, 140-character essays, nostalgia for savviness, all of it. Critiquing Weingarten’s arguments is like shooting fish in a barrel (in the words of some original internet ranters). I kind of hate to contribute to the negative energy, but Weingarten’s rant is getting an undue level of cheering given the retro content. So here goes.

Bloggers in pajamas
Weingarten’s first complaint is that swarms of bloggers came from nowhere to do for free, and with less quality, what music critics used to do for money. This is the “bloggers in pajamas” argument, thousands of people posting rumors and blather on the internet from their parents’ basements. Sure, the internet enables people to post junk, but also provided a platform for new projects and voices – Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, Marcy Wheeler a superb investigative analyst who blogs at Firedoglake, strong local voices such as West Seattle Blog and more. The fact that it’s easy to publish doesn’t negate or prevent powerful new voices from arising.

The echo chamber
One of the early critiques of the blogosphere is that the internet would give rise to an echo chamber where people would listen only to the voices that re-inforced their pre-conceptions. There’s a similar concern that on the internet, people self-segregate into groups for hiphop, reggaeton, viking metal, and then don’t cross the boundaries. The thing is that hasn’t turned out to be true with respect to news and politics. A Pew Internet and American Life study in 2004 found “Wired Americans are more aware than non-internet users of all kinds of arguments, even those that challenge their preferred candidates and issue positions.”

With online music, my personal experience is that the social network helps extend preferences as well as re-enforce them. Plus, I don’t see why it’s bad thing to go to a reggaeton expert for reviews of reggaeton music. It is delightful to search the internet and find people who know about the topic they are discussing. All too often, general-purpose mainstream critics write reviews of musicians and types of music that they don’t know well and/or don’t like much.

Fans are fans!
A more interesting critique is that people who aren’t professional critics write like fans. In music blogs, “You can find out about new bands without cranky snarky stuff.” The jaded tone of the professional critic is a music-world analog to the news journalism “church of the savvy” as described by Jay Rosen. In an attempt to be “objective”, news journalists adopt a savvy, cynical attitude that can keep them from seeing the real story – for example, when “horse race” coverage predominates over actually covering the differing records and policies of politicians. Internet-style journalists don’t pretend to be dispassionate and free of opinion. They disclose their beliefs and desires, and are more credible for it.

Now, simple-minded music fandom is not very interesting. Look at youtube or shoutbox comments and you can see fans saying unedifying things like “awesome song!” and “best solo evar!”. Educated fandom on the other hand, involves discussing the sound, emotion, influences, performances – from the perspective of someone who continues to be excited and moved by the music. It’s interesting that when musicians talk about their heroes, mentors, who they’re listening to, they sound like fans, not like jaded critics.

Weingarten alleges that there has been a loss of venues to explain *why* a piece of music is good or bad is nonsense – “google: band review” will often find informed and insightful reviews and opinions about pretty obscure acts. What is actually missing is is better tools and venues for fans to have intelligent discussion. Currently, the intelligent discussion seems to be fragmented in harder-to-find online forums.

Loss of elite status
Music criticism was dominated by a handful of elite voices back when you needed an expensive printing press or radio license or TV channel to get the word out, just as opinion columnists like Tom Friedman and David Brooks used to have more exclusive status. These days, there’s no longer an exclusive club of arbiters. I understand why Weingarten cares that his elite status is devalued, but not why anyone else should care. There was also nostalgia when the rise of printing enabled members of the hoi polloi to read and write. From the view of history, there is very little sorrow for the monks’ monopoly.

Crowd sourcing killed punk rock
The reason to lament the loss of the elite, says Weingarten, is that “people have awful taste.” If opinions about music are left up to people who aren’t professional critics, then the only thing left will be mediocrity. The thing is that the internet isn’t just “people” it’s a ton of individuals with widely varying tastes, backgrounds, and expressive skill. The beauty is that on the internet, you are not forced to pay attention to people you think are mediocre or dull. On Twitter you choose who to follow. You choose which blogs to read, based on your evaluation of taste. Unlike the mass media world, you’re not stuck with a handful of magazines and radio stations.

Not only that, the argument that he makes is applies even more strongly mass market hit-based model that’s being replaced. “All this music that rises to the middle – boring, bland white people with guitars.” Remember the good old days of clearchannel radio? You couldn’t possibly get any more bland than that. It was the mass market model that drove extreme homogenization of music, and it’s the “long tail” on the internet that is facilitating the recovery of things that have audiences smaller than mega-popular.

Down with Guitars!
To prove his point about value of being jaded and opinionated, Weingarten makes a point of trashing “guitar bands”. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never been particularly fashionable. Clearly I missed the memo to purge guitars from my iTunes, and can’t say I regret it. This probably puts me into one of the many categories of listeners that he disdains. (To be a slightly less snarky, there is plenty of boring music with guitars, synthesizers, fiddles, horns, you name the instrument used in popular music. Picking on an instrument as the epitome of dull seems philistine to me.)

Shakespeare in 140 characters
If you can’t beat them join them – Weingarten is taking his music criticism to Twitter. There, Weingarten subscribes to the absurd fallacy that writers now need to compress their writing into 140 character chunks. Following this fallacy, Weingarten is spending this year writing 1000 reviews of albums on Twitter in 140 characters or less. Social media savvy folk know that Twitter is the new headline — when you have something extended to say, you don’t write 100 tweets, you write an essay and post a link to it from Twitter.

Compressing his reviews to 140 characters this limits Weingarten to the tone of savviness and snark that bedevils the critic tribe. Recent examples of snark:
473: Major Lazer/Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do: Bug-style dancehall dumbed down for people that wear scarves in the summer.#4
472: Cheap Trick/The Latest: There’s more to power-pop than just hooks.#3

Let’s say out of those 1000 recordings he likes 50. I’d much rather he write longer posts on the 50 and link to them. Unless there’s some really interesting reason he doesn’t like something, I don’t want to read it.

Discovery and aggregation
So, what to do now that new bands are being discovered by people on blogs and Twitter. One of the roles that critics can continue to play is to aggregate information discovered around the web. This, too, is displeasing to Weingarten, who looks back fondly on the time that critics helped spot bands.

Web-savvy journalists from Dan GIllmor to Josh Marshall and others take happy advantage of the state of affairs where, in Gillmor’s words “My readers are smarter than I am”. They realize that their readers include people with information and expertise, and rely on their broad community for tips, fact-checks. If Weingarten respected his audience more, he might be happier about picking up information from readers.

Weingarten’s rant applies to music criticism the full range of fallacious, self-interested arguments by old media journalists lamenting the decline of their once-privileged position. The arguments are even inconsistent — the internet is somehow leading bland homogenization and narrow specialization at the same time. Critics on the internet don’t bother to explain “why”, and the response is 140-character reviews.

There are real challenges and opportunities in the new world of social media influenced music. I don’t see Christopher Weingarten articulating compelling problem definitions or solutions. In a world where everyone is trying to understand and adapt to new conditions, I don’t want to be too hard on Weingarten. It would be easier to be more generous if his rant didn’t take aim at the listening public and many of its subcultures. Attacking fans instead of adapting only increased the depth of the music industry’s woes. In music distribution, initiatives like Trent Reznor’s to reach out to fans are working a lot better than strategies attacking fans. Hopefully as more people engage and innovate, we’ll see the music commentary equivalent of this superb presentation by Michael Masnick on Trent Reznor’s innovations in music distribution.

Updated last paragraph to sound less hard on Weingarten and harsher on fan-bashing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *