Music journalism: you’re doing it wrong

Pop Rhetoric

by Will Burgess

Feb 19, 2013

Last week, the New York Times’ credibility was called into question when reporter John Broder’s negative review of the Tesla Model S, an electric car, was challenged by none other than the company’s CEO, Elon Musk. The story caused a stir in the press, simply because the subjects of mainstream critics’ appraisal rarely critique back, or at least not with such vitriol—Musk called the story “fake,” published data logs that contradicted Broder’s account of his test drive, and accused him of changing facts to suit his opinion. In a failed attempt to re-direct the resultant public backlash, the Times’ public editor linked a discussion on Reddit, but its commenters eventually accused Broder of being influenced by oil lobbies.

It’s common, and easy to bash old media these days; and publishers of ‘new media’ are eager to oust their predecessors as the final word in criticism. While there has been a certain democratization of commentary, with Twitter opinions abounding, people still enjoy reading an authoritative take on pop culture. Recognizing this, publishers such as VICE and Pitchfork are willing to pander to the skeptics. VICE co-founder Shane Smith summed up this strategy, recently stating: “I think that its[sic] a changing of the guard in media and its about time … f**k the mainstream media, we can tell our own stories now.”

Unlike car reviews, music criticism doesn’t receive much fact-checking. Alternative cultural journalists get away with a good deal. When weighing in on topics that have been thoroughly digested by the opinionated blogosphere, there is an incentive to write in extremes, or at the very least employ disjointed metaphors to add spice to a review. VICE’s music channel Noisey has recently given up on serious album reviews, and instead, publishes crude, juvenile rants by a guy named The Kid Mero, who was likely hired to shake up a bland catalogue of middling reviews occasionally punctuated by an A plus (for Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange “Finally, an album with the deserved weight to make the music industry cave in on itself”), an F minus, or sometimes both simultaneously (for DJ Khaled’s Kiss The Ring). Pitchfork Media, another influential cultural commentator, has lately been manufacturing its own little controversies by publishing reviews that give Childish Gambino’s Camp a 1.6 out of 10 and Chief Keef’s Finally Rich a 7.5. Both rappers, with opposite personalities and styles, were exploited by Noisey in an awkward ‘back and forth’ interview, where the more articulate Gambino tried to elicit more than a few words from the mumbling Keef. Pitchfork, however, took the exploitation to an extreme, by taking the quiet 17-year-old to freestyle at a gun range, while he was on probation for gun related charges. This culminated in a 60-day jail sentence for Keef, and an eventual retraction by Pitchfork.

One might defend these outlets by saying that they need controversy to attract views—after all, both provide free content, and have a proudly anti-corporate stance. But while no one is accusing them of being influenced by Big Oil, VICE has its own record label, VICE Records, which is affiliated with acts such as Justice and Snoop Lion, and holds a partnership with CNN. Pitchfork, meanwhile, moonlights as a concert promoter for its Pitchfork Music Festival. In a cutthroat moment for media, reviews may not pay the bills, but in conflict of interest cases like these, I’ve lost just as much faith in their critics’ opinions as Musk has lost in those of the Times.

One critic that stands out in the sea of noise that is online music commentary is Anthony Fantano, who runs the video blog The Needle Drop, and calls himself the internet’s “busiest music nerd.” He reviews a variety of genres, consistently churns out thoughtful reviews, and most importantly, is prevented by the blog’s video format from employing flowery metaphors with a straight face; instead, he comments in depth about the structure and pace of an album, the context of its release, and ultimately, whether or not he found it entertaining. In a media atmosphere cluttered with commentary fluff, the no-nonsense approach appeals to Fantano’s 100,000 YouTube subscribers. The independent and personal nature of the reviews lend to Fantano’s credibility, while the legacy, professionalism, and broad reach of the New York Times supports theirs. Ultimately, the consistency and quality of both types of commentary are strong points. Where criticism falls apart, however, is when an outlet attempts to combine personal candor and humour with professional weight, when neither is present in their writing.

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