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Confessions of a lousy critic

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Ann Powers, the excellent music critic for the LA Times (and once a fellow contributor to Seattle's semi-legendary The Rocket) posted this link on Facebook, with the following disclaimer:

I hesitate to share this ridiculous dismissal of the field to which I am devoted and about which I am so passionate, but I guess I do so to say, okay, then, perhaps this writer should never approach the subject of music again, because every act of writing about culture involves some kind of critical assessment, and he... is against that process...

She refers to this piece by Steve Almond in the Boston Globe, appearing under the headline "Love music, hold the criticism," in which Almond recalls securing a paying gig as a know-nothing El Paso newspaper music critic during the "heyday of Hair Metal," whose "only qualifications... consisted of a willingness to work nights and hit my deadlines":

My standard template was to start off with a bad pun then proceed to the concert set list, with each song title modified by at least three adjectives. If I was feeling ambitious, I described the lead singer's hair.

Wretched as I was, I loved being a music critic. I got to feel like a big shot, the one guy whose opinion (no matter how misbegotten) mattered.

But one night, he says, at an MC Hammer show, he had an epiphany:

I dutifully spent the evening scribbling witty insults in my reporter's notebook. But at a certain point (after I'd fulfilled my quota of witty insults) I turned my attention to the folks all around me. They were enthralled. And what I realized as I gazed at them was this: I was totally missing the point. [...]

I'd come up against a concept I've since come to think of as the Music Critic Paradox: the simple fact that even the best critics -- the ones, unlike me, with actual training and talent -- can't begin to capture what it feels like to listen to music. [...]

It was as if my critic credibility depended on my not being fooled into actually enjoying myself.

He was missing the point, all right. In other words, as I commented in reply to Ann, what we learn from this is that Steve Almond was, by definition and his own admission, a bad critic -- and now he's projecting his old attitudes onto everyone else. If he thought his job was to "not be fooled into enjoying myself," then he wasn't being a critic, he was just being an idiot. (And a jerk, too.) He not only couldn't write good criticism, he hadn't read any -- or else he'd know how much of it is, in fact, able to "capture what it feels like" (and what it sounds like and what it means and why it matters)...

I can't help but wonder why readers in El Paso (and editors and publishers) didn't take notice of this and point this out to someone. (Maybe they did and he's just not writing about memories he doesn't like.) Maybe they didn't know what a critic was, or what they should expect from one. Because why else would they put up with that shite -- unless they were vicariously enjoying sharing his feelings of contempt and superiority, too?

It didn't take long for Glenn Kenny, experienced in music and film criticism, to respond ("Almond, no joy"), noting that

an increasing number of self-proclaimed critics not only don't read other criticism but actually don't know what criticism is, as a form. Another, perhaps even more disturbing current it points to is the reflexive notion of criticism as a bad-faith enterprise. "Criticizing a particular band or song might make you, and some of your readers, feel smart and sophisticated," tsk-tsks Almond. (Yeah, take that, George Bernard Shaw.) [...]

The resentment towards critics and criticism that I seem to encounter more and more frequently seems to stem from a conviction that "If I disagree with what you have to say, you're just not worth engaging on any level," combined with "And stop trying to sell me that bill of goods while you're at it." And, as I said, I just do not get it. Do you?

(Reminder: We're talking about Steve Almond, not "Armond.") A few of America's other heavyweight music critics chimed in here, too. Robert Christgau observes that Almond

perfectly exemplifies the indifference of arts editors to the quality of their popular music criticism. I mean, Almond actually seems to define "critic" the way hip-hoppers do, as "guy who says bad stuff about me." He's right. He should never have gotten the job in the first place.

And Tom Moon (I love reading Tom Moon) writes:

The comments that follow Almond's piece are instructive. Mostly the usual prattle about critics not "liking" stuff the public likes, being out of step to the point of cluelessness, etc.

One Professor Wombat, though, offers clarity: "The best criticism makes connections, shows me a different or larger way to look at an artwork, gives a historical context, points out subtleties of structure and image I've missed....The critical enterprise is not of itself incorrect or wrong. But it doesn't often challenge, rather than illuminate, my initial response to a work as good or bad."

Dingdingding!

Seems to me this notion of perspective and context is key. The net is flooded with "music critics" who speak with enchanting glibness about their reactions to a work, how it links up with their personal love trauma and life narrative, etc. That approach has sorta poisoned the well: To devote space to the personal in a discussion of a work that some soul took a year or more to create is too often downright arrogant and not at all illuminating.

But that type of writing is what passes for criticism anymore. It doesn't help develop discernment, doesn't make connections, doesn't live up to Wombat's notion of "challenging" the reader's thinking.

Sigh.

Why do people let that kind of writing pass for criticism? (That's not entirely a rhetorical question, though I will offer one answer to it.) Because some people -- like Almond himself -- aren't interested in critical appreciation of music, or movies, or politics, or anything else. And you're never going to persuade them that they should be. All they want, according to Almond, is to be made to "dance or weep or laugh":

Criticizing a particular band or song might make you, and some of your readers, feel smart or sophisticated. But it rarely does anything to advance the cause of art. After all, you can't rescind the pleasure someone derives from a particular piece of music. All you can do is deride that pleasure, which strikes me as a fairly stingy way to make a living.

I myself still write about music a good deal. But I devote myself almost exclusively to spreading the gospel of those bands that I love. As for the bands I don't like (and there are still plenty of those) I tend to assume someone else will.

He is so right about this: "you can't rescind the pleasure someone derives from" a piece of art or entertainment -- even by derision. But why is he even thinking along those lines? Oh, we already established that: He's a bad critic who is only familiar with bad criticism and doesn't recognize what good criticism is.

Further proof is his attitude of "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." If you cared about music -- or food or movies or sex or politics or anything at all -- you would know that passions run in both directions. To feel intense love is also to know intense hatred. If you don't care enough about something to hate the worst in it, then you aren't capable of appreciating the best. You're either numb or have no standards (which is the same thing). So, to say you will only write about what you like is vacuous, dishonest, one-dimensional. If you care enough to write about something, you can't ignore a whole part of your sensibility. Your yin is shapeless and meaningless without your yang. Dammit.

Remember: Those who can, write. Those who can't, dance.

Meanwhile, Almond is promoting a new book called "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life." If this piece is a sample of his credibility, knowledge or enthusiasm for music... I'll assume someone else will read it.

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