Journalistic criticism isn’t our usual forte but a recent article by Alexis Petredis in The Guardian has riled Alex, and he felt compelled to write a response.
Last Wednesday Alexis Petridis had an article in The Guardian giving advice on writing album reviews. Whilst I’m sure that I could learn a lot about style following much of his sound advice he hit a particular nerve of mine in his line, ‘I’m not big on close textual reading of the music in a major-triads-in-12/8-time sense’. I find the general lack of actual detailed and engaged criticism in the music press to be deeply frustrating. Music reviews in large swathes of the press tend to consist of base subjective response and flowery metaphors. The 38 word review of PJ Harvey’s latest album quoted from The Express by Petridis is at the bum end of this trend. It’s more space-filler for a bad newspaper rather than an actual review with any actual criticism. Music, like any other artistic medium, deserves genuine criticism which in turn requires considered and close reading of the sounds (the text) themselves.
I believe the need for a clarification of the critic’s role is heightened by the changes in the ways we receive, think about and collectively respond to music brought about by the internet. Petridis rightly points out that the role that music critics used to possess of advising readers whether or not an album was worth the time or money has been largely undermined by the immediate availability of music on the internet. Why should I bother reading a review telling us whether or not it’s worth seeking out and listening to an album when in the amount of time it takes to read the review I could find, and start listening to, the album and start making up my own mind about whether or not it’s worth my while listening to it?
Of course, a good source of recommendation and collation is becoming ever-more valuable to help you pick your way through the deluge of content on the internet. Scott McCloud’s blog is indispensable in navigating the world of webcomics. However, whilst recommendation is still part of the critic’s role and The Guardian’s output, it hardly the entirety. Although The Guardian does highlight individual artists and bands a sizeable chunk of their weekly music insert is devoted to reviewing and criticising the week’s releases.
I don’t think Petridis follows the implications of the internet on the role of critics to their conclusion. Set against a backdrop of crowdsourcing and a myriad of music blogs the critic needs to justify her role as distinct and apart from the sheer mass of online opinion about any piece of music. If an album review is just the critic’s opinion why should we pay it any more attention than any commentator on a Guardian album review? The ludicrously short Express review lambasted by Petridis basically consisted of, ‘I didn’t like it’. This basic expression of personal taste explains, and to some extent justifies, the common online response of, ‘I never read reviews. I like what I like and critics like what they like’.
So the role of the critic should not be and is not to simply state a subjective opinion. Instead the (professional) critic can only justify her continued existence by embodying her role as an informed voice that can offer alternate and insightful, close readings of the text. Obviously subjectivity can never, and probably should never, be completely excised from any review. However, a critic, in order to justify their authoritative position, must be able to qualify their opinions by actually appealing to the music. A statement along the lines of, ‘the feel of Beach House’s song Better Times is one of a hazy, half-remembered summer’s evening’ is vague and unsubstantiated in comparison to ‘a sense of hazy uncertainty is created in Beach House’s Better Times through the use of vocal reverb and the unexpected chord of A flat, in the chorus, stepping outside the key of B flat major that has up to this point remained unchallenged.’
The use of technical language, such as this, does bring with it several problems. Talking about B flat keys and A flat chords could well be charged with being alienating. I recognise that very few people have had the training in western classical harmony that I have. However, any amateur music making, whether it be learning an instrument in school, learning songs on a guitar, playing in a band or making music on a computer, is likely to give some level of technical literacy, although the forms that technical knowledge can take are as wide as the myriad ways in which people make music. In my previous example I could have just said, ‘an unexpected chord’ and gotten most of my point across (although I could have also spent a lot longer talking about the specific effect of that particular unexpected chord rather than any other unexpected chord). Even if we do consider harmonic detail to be too alienating, there are plenty of other aspects of music, such as texture, timbre, tempo and (to some extent) rhythm, that do not have the same sort of technical language surrounding them, which critics can appeal to in their arguments.
Another potential problem with a greater degree of technical language in criticism might be that it leads to a dry, academic and fundamentally dull style of writing. Whilst I’m not sure that this necessarily is the case, even if it was I would be willing to sacrifice a stylistic finesse for a more substantial and genuinely critical content. Above all else, including stylistic concerns, an album review should be meaningful.
Alex would like to thank Jack for his help and advice.