Writer Steve Almond caught some hell a couple of weeks ago for a pre-release segment from his upcoming book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, which outlined his brief, miserable career as a music critic. After establishing his bona fides as a bad critic (“If I was feeling ambitious, I described the lead singer’s hair”), Almond described the moment when he knew he was in the wrong profession, at an MC Hammer concert:
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.
The very idea of music criticism — of applying some objective standard to the experience of listening to music — suddenly struck me as petty and irrelevant. I spent several more months as a critic, but my essential belief in the pursuit evaporated.
Now, critics have always been a pretty defensive bunch, mainly because it’s always been pretty difficult to pinpoint the purpose of what we do. In fact, there are some critics — some really well-known ones, in fact — who publicly cop to their belief that professional criticism is essentially worthless. My own opinion on the subject has wavered over the last 20 years. But Almond’s essay arrived at a particularly sensitive time; writers have been losing their jobs at a frightening rate for years now, and when an institution like Variety’s Todd McCarthy isn’t safe — or when Stephanie Zacharek leaves her longtime gig at Salon by saying it’s “nearly impossible for a smart, experienced professional to make a living wage as a journalist or editor” — well, you know. To lift a phrase from Positive K, critics ain’t trying to hear that, see?
And so the pitchforks and torches have come out, with people saying Almond sucked as a critic (which is kind of dumb, since he cheerfully admitted it) or penning anti-Almond editorials. Which is unfortunate, I think, because however you feel about this particular excerpt of the book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is a hellaciously entertaining read — one that speaks the language of the passionate music fan in funny, down-to-earth language, one that shares Almond’s life-changing enthusiasm for music via a series of anecdotes about his many years as, in his words, a Drooling Fanatic. The life of a music lover (or Drooling Fanatic, whatever) can be kind of lonely, because music can be a lot more all-consuming than most pursuits, and you can go years without meeting someone who really speaks the language of the liner notes-obsessing fanatic — but Almond’s book offers rush after rush of recognition.
It also has practically nothing to do with the essay everyone’s up in arms about. I mean, yeah, it serves as a kind of introduction to Almond’s embrace of music’s utter subjectivity, but it really has nothing to do with the book’s point — you read the essay and you come away thinking Almond is launching a broadside against criticism, but really, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is all about love. Personally speaking, it actually did a little to remind me of why I’m in this crazy business to begin with, and reconnect me with the Drooling Fanatic at my core. (Also, it made me wish I could have a few beers with Almond, which is probably about the highest compliment I can pay — we love a lot of the same artists, including Joe Henry and David Baerwald.)
Do I disagree with Almond’s statement that criticism is essentially useless? Well, yes. His point goes back to that famous quote that says writing about music is like dancing about architecture — that it’s impossible to really capture what music means, how it makes you feel. His examples, essentially, are himself at the low end and Sasha Frere-Jones at the other, with the caveat that although Frere-Jones is a fine writer, his descriptions of the music are too clinical to really get at the heart of the matter. And if Steve Almond and Sasha Frere-Jones were the only music critics in existence, then he’d have a point — but they aren’t. Not by a long shot.
What I think Almond misses is that critics, even at their absolute worst, generate discussion about art. Yes, enjoyment of music, film, and literature is wholly subjective, but opinions generate opinions — in some cases, the further afield the better, as Armond White‘s editors could tell you. And this discussion is even more fun to have on the Internet, despite the embittered protestations of old guard scribes like Richard Schickel, who once famously compared blogging to finger-painting. I think what these guys — and Almond — miss is that the essential ingredient of a good critic is passion. This is what people respond to in typo-ridden, punctuation-deficient music blogs like Captains Dead — it isn’t the writing, per se, which is as unfortunate as it is understandable. It’s the shared love. It’s the possibility of forging an instant connection with someone who shares your passion. And lack of passion is what probably makes Stephen Thomas Erlewine such a miserable hack.
So that’s what makes a good critic. What makes a great critic is a little more complicated, and I think it’s a combination of depth of experience, understanding of musical context, and a grasp of the good old-fashioned rules of grammar. It’s what makes guys like Thom Jurek (who I never miss an opportunity to make fun of, but I’m a jerk) more of a “great” than a “good” critic, and I think it’s what makes Rex Reed — who’s actually a technically sound writer — something of a barely readable hack. I suspect Steve Almond has spent more time with the Erlewines and Reeds of the world than the Jureks and Captains, and I also suspect that either he or his publisher (correctly) spotted an opportunity to drum up pre-release publicity by doling out a pointlessly inflammatory piece of the book. It’s just too bad, because all this hullabaloo has distracted from the real point of what’s actually a very warm-hearted and terribly well-written book — a book that I think could have helped generate discussion about the ways we respond to art, and how criticism in general is in a state of flux.
Are we still dancing about architecture? Sure, but before, even the most widely read critics were dancing alone, and now, to risk a seriously cheesy statement, we’re doing it with partners. We’re engaging with our readers in ways that simply weren’t possible before. The decimation of the professional critic class is horrifying, but there’s less money everywhere; jobs have been drying up for a long time now, and to make a bogeyman of the blogosphere is misguided. Now we’re in the early stages of a culture of critics, and instead of dismissing all bloggers with a contemptuous sniff, I think it’s important to recognize the infusion of passion this brings to the discipline, even as we identify the meritocratic nature of the Web. In other words: Yes, blogger culture has given a forum to plenty of shitty writers. But that forum isn’t particularly useful for anyone without an audience, and you aren’t going to build one if you aren’t saying anything of value. Look at sites like Addicted to Vinyl, the wonderful music lover’s outpost run by our pal (and Popdose contributor) Matt Wardlaw. Look at Dave Steed’s amazing Bottom Feeders series. Without the Web, they probably wouldn’t exist, and neither Dave nor Matt are “real” critics — but they have something valuable to say about music, and their readers add immeasurably to the conversation. I think this helps balance out the commodification of the arts we’ve seen as a byproduct from stuff like on-demand cable, mp3s and iPods, and that’s only a good thing.
Steve Almond is scheduled to be a guest on the next episode of the Popdose podcast, and I’ll try and discuss some of this with him then, in between mother jokes and stories about Joe Henry and Bob Schneider. In the meantime, who are your favorite critics? And how do you feel about the future of cultural commentary?