Music criticism now lifestyle criticism


I await the MTV news coverage of this devolvement of music reporting into mere lifestyle reporting.

This informative piece is a good response to the dailybeast piece:

…music’s been a tool of self-definition for many years.

Hell, I noticed that back in high school. You know, the twentieth century?


My wife got a free subscription to Rolling Stone somehow. I know it’s never been a strictly music magazine, but I was still struck by how much space they devote to politics and lifestyle articles and how little to music. Every issue has some 4 page piece on what the GOP is destroying today.

That said, I’ve always found music reviews to be even less useful than movie reviews. Music is so subjective that it’s almost impossible to find critics that match your tastes, and the ones that really try to be objective end up saying nothing at all. These days it’s not that hard to get previews of music, even stuff that doesn’t get played on a loop 24/7 on Clearchannel radio. An actual personal listen is the only reliable way to determine if a particular piece of music is worthwhile to me.


meh, I could not give less of a shit about the personal lives of pop stars, but mainstream music mags weren’t where you found anything interesting in the way of new music when I was still spinning back in the 80s. (Though I subscribed to Rolling Stone for a very long time BECAUSE of their politics and pop culture reporting). New Music Express is probably the glorious exception, but I’ve been reading it online since forever.

Meanwhile music bloggers tend to delve into local scenes, influences, similar acts, etc. The stuff that people interested in music and not celebrity care about using to explore.

I used to subscribe to a lot of music magazines, but not anymore. They either died, or switched to a digital format that pushed more advertising in front of my eyeballs than I could tolerate. But, the list of publications I miss isn’t short.

Ego Trip
Grand Slam
Spin (print)
Guitar One
Word Up! Magazine
ICE Magazine

An even more in depth review/opinion/mixing piece on Katy Perry can be found here:

Really, pop music is all in the delivery, so sometimes getting into the theory only goes so far.

Without research, anecdotal knowledge, or proof, I can guess that “mainstream” music criticism hadn’t changed much from the time of Frank Sinatra, in the “good ol’ days.” Chalk this article up to “People are not writing what I want them to write.”

Jeez, this is a tough topic, and a dear one to me, but it really should be said that its pretty hard to review pop music as an art form when its commercial interests are so blatant.
Not that it can’t be done, but to review music just on aestethic values or on tonal qualities almost misses the point, doesnt it?
Lets say we talk about the chord progression in “A hard Rain’s gonna fall” by Bob Dylan, we’ve learned nothing.
Lets say we talk about the lyrics to “Diamonds” by Rihanna, we’ve almost wasted our time.
There’s a core to every song that lies somewhere between style and substance, all of which is rendered meaningful by the listener, this listener subjectivity is so important in pop music that I dont know of an actual attempt to create a language of music criticism that isn’t designed to sell albums.
We’ve had this for movies for a while, even though its a pretty cemmercial enterprise as well yet it is quite possible to analyze a movie like Need for speed in a critical manner.

The only people I see who are objective when discussing pop music are people involved in creating it (Check out Dave pensado’s podcast, yet they are not attempting to take a stance on the good and the bad, they usually focus on creating something and focusing on presenting it as best as possible. They do not attempt to criticize music or songs or albums, I suppose that this is in part because people who work in the music industry will work on a country track one day and a commercial jingle the nex, followed by a death metal album, music as identity is not an issue for them.

Having said that, its a really sad comment on criticism as a profession in general when people confuse advertising for criticism.

Some of the folks commenting on the linked article posit that an investigation into the technical production of popular songs would be more revealing than dissecting the harmonic structure.

I have to agree: We have generations of people that understand and are interested in the methods used to create visual illusions in movies. But play them any pop music from the last 50 years and they scarcely notice how artificial it all is and was.

At this point in time, music technology is indistinguishable from magic. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go strap on the bastard offspring of a tiger and a motorcycle engine and bang out a few chords.

Where has Ted Gioia been since, oh, the 1920s or so?** Well, let’s reduce that to the '60s, so I don’t have to get into how journalism treated movie and radio stars from the silents period forward. As soon as there was a kid-culture demographic to address, marketers addressed it, and pop music was one of the ways to do so. And from the '50s onward, kid culture was strongly defined by music, a connection that got enormously stronger in the late '60s. Rolling Stone was not just a music magazine–it was a music-centric youth culture magazine (I subscribed from the time it looked like a supermarket tabloid). The more fashion/trend-sensitive teenybopper magazines were cleaned-up, no-politics versions of Rolling Stone. (Rock and roll without the drugs and sex? Or with the sex carefully packaged, anyway).

Music journalism has never been monolithic–there were magazines dedicated to publishing lyrics of current hits or to reviewing specific genres (or recordings in general), or dedicated to instruments. But it’s hard to restrict coverage of “music” to some body of technical information (unless the focus really is on musicianship)–hell, even Sing Out! always located itself politically.

As for the Slate “response” to Gioia’s grumble, notice the comment thread division between music-nerd hair-splitting (which I actually kinda dig) and “so what” responses. An audience that does not consist of musicians or the musically-literate doesn’t much care about how the effects it enjoys are produced. It cares about the artist’s life and background or relationships or anecdotes about the celebrity world. This applies across the artistic board–my wife writes fiction, and one of the questions she always gets about a story is “Did something like this happen to you?” Only fellow writers (or MFA students) will ask about rhetoric or imagery or the influence of X or Y.

** Actually, I sympathize with much of the body of Gioia’s piece–I spent a dozen years doing music journalism, and it was always a niche-y business, now made economically marginal by a combination of the drastic rearrangement of the media environment (especially in the magazine world) and the relentless corporatization and commodification of everything that surrounds the music. But that commodification has been going on since my late parents were kids 80-some years ago. And it wasn’t new even then, only enormously accelerated by radio and the recording industry.

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Well, the list of sites that apply analysis to pop music might take me all day.

Hasn’t most music criticism been about taste/lifestyle since at least the 1960s? As a musician, a highly technical piece about harmonic structure and such is of little use to me - I can figure that out myself. It would mostly just remind me of being in school. For a non-musician, why would you care?

Anyway, I always thought music critics were mostly useless (to me), because it’s just their subjective opinion. And there are a myriad of reasons why an individual would or would not enjoy music that have little to do with its arcane technical aspects. But this type of writing also sort of comes from a bygone era, where you would read the review of a record in Rolling Stone or Downbeat to try and figure out if you would go get an album when it came out. Now you can just listen to it first for yourself, and anything written about it is by nature just an opinion piece.

I enjoy interviews with artist/producers that have a unique sound discussing their production process, or background about how the group formed, etc., but I couldn’t care less about a blowhard jazz historian waxing poetic about tasteful syncopation, the nuances of harmonic modulation and his loathing of autotune. Get over yourself, Ted Gioia

At its best, this kind of writing helps you figure out if you’re making sense of the music. In my side of the field (which isn’t popular music), I have a fair collection of scores, but making sense of them was aided immensely by writers like, say, Douglas Jarman on Berg, or Charles Rosen on Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Plentiful analyses and examples in these books, but clearly written (so that even someone who can’t read the examples will get the gist) and done in the aid of aesthetic insights. This kind of criticism/music history/musicology is rather more plentiful on the “serious (or classical) music” side (I don’t like either term, but they’re what we have) than on the popular one.

Yeah, I have my own insights, but they had others that I didn’t have, and that’s why I read their works. Does that hinder me as a composer? Can’t say that it does: getting insights from critics doesn’t make my own music worse; it makes it better. The trick here is remembering that I bring something of my own to the discussion, thus it’s not an acceptance of the critic’s words as gospel, but as a goad to refine my own understanding.

The rest of it is ephemeral. Recording techniques used? Fine, but what does the band do onstage? A piece of music isn’t really frozen in time or in one form, not even for those of us who write out our notes. Personal trivia? Why would I want to know? Lifestyle? Who cares? I like, say, Jeff Beck, but I’m not into hot rods in the same way - his music is accomplished and wide-ranging, and that is what interests me. If I got some further insight into his songwriting through an article, now that would be interesting.


Do you think what you learned in school was all that’s needed to understand harmonic structure? Label the chords and you’ve got it? A (Heaven forfend!) critic is guaranteed not to have insights that you haven’t already worked out? It’s guaranteed that he can’t communicate these to a layman?

It’s the only reason I buy the magazine. Their music coverage is fucking appalling.

Last issue? Justin Fucking Bieber. This issue? Kiss.

If you’re over 12 and under 70, Rolling Stone doesn’t cover music you listen to.

Not even really interested in the political reporting there anymore - Taibbi is leaving for Omidyar’s organisation. (Xeni’s coverage: Matt Taibbi becomes latest badass journalist to join Omidyar’s First Look Media)

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