Apparently when I wondered where all the music critics were, they were in Seattle, contemplating their own relevance. This morning Ryan at Catbirdseat points to Eric Grandy’s summation of last weekend’s EMP Pop Music Conference for the Stranger. Grady begins his overview with a provocative lead:
During the final event in a long weekend of geeking out about music, an open discussion about “The Future of Thinking About Music For a Living,” Pitchfork news editor Amy Phillips stood up in a Thermals t-shirt and told a room full of critical and academic heavies that they are basically dinosaurs. “Kids don’t care about Robert Christgau or Simon Reynolds,” she said (Christgau had left to catch a plane, but Reynolds was still there, and he seemed rather unconcerned about these “kids”). Phillips went on to say that kids want their music (and presumably their musical discourse) fast, yesterday even, that they want to hear their own voices online, and that critics no longer have the “luxury” of taking time to think about music.
Unfortunately Grandy continues with a general overview and doesn’t really address this point, which he himself bolded. (The comments section seems to be getting into this discussion, however.) Catbird, meanwhile, agrees with Phillips.
But the sad part of this situation isn’t the part about the fading of the “thoughtful” critic, it’s the part about the “kids” wanting their music (and their musical discourse) fast. Not only do critics no longer have the luxury of taking time to think about music, they don’t even have time to LISTEN to music anymore. But in today’s age, why should they? The kids are barely listening to it themselves. Music has become a sort of online baseball-bubblegum-cards scene-- cheap and disposable, with people more interested in filling out their checklists and talking statistics than investing the time to listen to some music.
This is a great conversation to have. Where to begin? Shall I call bullshit on Phillips, Catbird, or the kids first?
Why the gloss? Why “the kids”? Who says the kids don’t want musical discourse? Point us to the website that is giving us musical discourse and see what the kids say. Just go to any message board and you’ll see that “the kids” want to talk about music. They’re not so dense that all they do is right-click all damn day. Just because that’s the content blogs supply does not mean that’s the only content the kids “want.”
And what is this about critics not having “the ‘luxury’ of taking time to think about music”? Not everyone scours the internet for full album leaks. Personally I’m a little bummed to see Battles’ new album already being reviewed and hailed as a possible contender for best of the year when it’s still three weeks away from hitting stores. Does this somehow negate “critics”—Phillips is likely referring to print critics, but in my view that doesn’t really matter—from properly covering the album? Who do the critics think they’re writing for? If they’re trying to turn Gorilla vs. Bear onto something new, they’re fighting a lost cause. But if they have any regard for musical discourse, then it shouldn’t matter what the blogs covered yesterday vs. today.
Not to mention: for all the right-clicking that does go on out there, the simple fact of economics still remains. Many of us don’t buy an album the day it comes out. We’ve gotta wait ‘til payday just like our parents did. Sometimes ‘til next payday. By the time we’ve actually had the chance to process a full album, the mp3 blogs have left it well behind. So we google for the musical discourse we missed—because most of it was written three months before the plebes could get their hands on it—and what do you know, all we find are a bunch of hyperbolic posts about how it’s the best thing ever, because most blogs were more interested in being first than best. Go figure: for all the figurative ink spilled, there was no discourse.
In my post earlier this week there were some thoughtful comments on this very issue. A common sentiment that came up was that since blogging is not a full-time job, music bloggers should not be expected to “be negative.” Sorry, but that’s bullshit. First of all, critical discourse does not necessarily mean being negative. It means being thoughtful. Second, I can respect the fact that people have families and jobs and that blogging is a hobby, not a job. Same goes for me. And if you want to be an mp3 blog and dedicate yourself to digging up new wonderful stuff and that’s it, then that’s fine. That type of blog serves a crucial purpose, and if tomorrow they all stopped posting a myriad mp3 files and instead started waxing philosophical on Feist’s Adult Contemporification of indie rock (dibs on that post!), then a lot of great music would be lost.
If that’s the blog you want to write, great. But don’t use your job or family as an excuse for your content. It’s a simple matter of quantity vs. quality. Many blogs overwhelm with “good” music that, surprise surprise, people don’t actually listen to. For every mp3 you post, with a short little blurb about how great it is—because it’s your blog and you only have the time to post what you like—well, that’s three, four, five minutes out of my life lost to listening a decent but not spectacular nor terribly interesting band. Seriously: if you expect me to take more time to listen to your blog post than it takes you to compose it, then something’s not quite right.
This is obviously a topic with many layers up for debate. I know I’ve only scratched the surface. (Ryan Catbird makes a great point about how money affects mp3 blogs in the comments section in my previous post, for instance.) I’d love to get more comments. Even more, I’d love to see you other bloggers take up the subject on your own sites to really get the conversation going.
[Update: Phil Ford at Dial M for Musicology has a post up about the EMP Conference, and a lot of what he claims went on at the conference is what I wish would happen online. It also flies in the face of Phillips's statement:
The goal of the EMP conference was always to get the two sides to rub off against one another, which is pretty much what happened.... The best sessions... were neither exactly “academic” nor “journalistic.” What one heard at these sessions was intellectual music writing—music writing that represents that middle ground between academia and journalism that everyone has been saying doesn’t exist anymore, can’t exist anymore, died with the passing of Partisan Review’s glory years, etc. What I got out of this year’s Pop Music Conference was, ultimately, the sense that right now pop music is a ground on which the best thinking and writing in and on our culture is taking place
Good! Yes! Now let’s get tell those thinkers and writers to get on the net.]