Tag Archives: music criticism

Music Critics have Stopped Yelling at Clouds

When I was younger, a big part of why I read music writing was to have my biases and prejudices reinforced by reading a negative piece about a band I didn’t like. At the time (late nineties), there were plenty of music writers, at least in the UK, willing to oblige, including more than a few who made this kind combative writing into a shtick.

Whether or not I agreed with their published opinions week to week, I usually enjoyed the writing. It wasn’t just that it seemed invigorating and funny. It went deeper than that. Music fandom seemed much more tribal then, and the need to actively police the boundaries of your tastes much more pressing. It was only natural that, to do this, you’d need to vigorously put the boot in on stuff that you found wanting as well as simply praise the things you liked. Or you’d need to read other people doing it on your behalf.

Now, in truth this stuff doesn’t tend to have a great shelf life. Bands oftentimes have longer careers than writers, unless you’re Robert Christgau or something, and yesterday’s roiling controversies look like piffling little storms in teacups just a few years on. So it’s not a huge surprise that this kind of writing has all but disappeared from pro (which in Internet terms means ad-supported) and amateur publications. The few practitioners I was aware of who made it a significant part of their online personas 10 years or so ago are no longer being published on a regular basis. The trend is more towards the evaluative and the pseudo-objective, with serious (non-click bait) writing as concerned with how a new work fits into the arc of a given artist’s career, or the music landscape in general, as it is with critiquing the music itself. And when you can hear the record for yourself with a click or two and form your own opinions, why would a writer spend time doing that? Who would want them to?

This kind of writing feels like a mature and sensible response to the situation we have now. And it always behoves writers to remember that a) opinions about art are only opinions, and b) even given that, little music that we hear will strike us as either really great or really terrible. Most of it is in the middle, and contains something redeeming, whether it’s in the quality of the mix, the attention to detail in the arrangement, the technical proficiency of the singer or whatever.

For me, I can only find it within myself to be angry at records that seem insultingly cynical, and that’s fairly rare*. More than ever, too, I’m aware that new artists (and writers) are for the most part a decade younger than me. Maybe their first album isn’t very good, but if there’s something in it, there’s always the chance that they can take it, develop it and grow. Who would have known in 1982 that Talk Talk would one day make Spirit of Eden?

On the I Love Music message board over the last couple of days, a few regularly published music writers have been discussing all this stuff, with some really interesting perspectives thrown up by those who are “in the game”, so to speak, work with editors regularly and are affected on a day-to-day basis by issues like: will X record company put us on a blacklist for panning their new artist’s debut, and, will running a “meh” review get us more clicks or fewer than a more obviously positive or negative review. These are issues I feel grateful not to have to face. Taken all together, they make it pretty clear that massively negative reviews haven’t just disappeared because music writers as a breed have gotten more fair-minded. There’s a complex web of issues here.**

For what it’s worth, I still enjoy reading negative reviews and opinions about a band or artist if the writer has done the work of engaging with their music and isn’t just being controversial to generate clicks, or infamy. That said, as I get older and more reflective myself, the less knee-jerk tone of modern criticism does seem to be a net gain.

*I think Mercy by Duffy was the last time a single actively made me angry on this score, and that was 10 years ago. But still, the effrontery of it was outrageous. A straight rewrite of Rehab and replace the “No, no no”s with “Yeah, yeah, yeah”s. It was breathtakingly cynical, especially when performer and cowriter openly admitted the album was already recorded but was missing a first single. Hall of shame stuff from performer and writer Steve Booker.

**A few days ago, Pitchfork ran a review of the new Arcade Fire record where the writer seemed wounded personally by the band’s new music. He professed only to like one or two songs, and those not without reservation. It reads like, at most, a 2-star review (out of five), yet the published score out of 10 was 5.6. Like I said, a complex web of issues going on here. It’s been a while since I read that negative-seeming a review on a big online music site, though.

Then Play Long is No More

Over the last eight years the most consistently acute and compelling music writing has come from Marcello Carlin at his blog Then Play Long*.

In 2008 Carlin set himself the task of writing about every UK number-one album in chronological order, starting from the very first, Elvis is Back! – the sort of foolhardy task only someone utterly besotted with music would ever set themselves. There have been times when Carlin’s labours were obviously bringing him little pleasure, as he slogged though the Black & White Minstrels records, or 101 Strings, or the Top of the Pops series. And yet he carried on, buoyed by the prospect of writing about the good records, or finding something unexpectedly commendable about a record that seemed unpromising at first.

It takes little away from Carlin to say that, while he’s strong on the records’ context (both social and in the context of the artists’ body of work), his great strength as a music writer is that he can combine formal analysis with a more subjective, associative response. Put more simply, he can tell you how a record makes him feel, and then have a good stab at explaining what it is in the music that makes him feel that way.

I wrote a piece a couple of years ago after Ted Gioia’s jeremiad about modern music writing on The Daily Beast, and pointed out that the sort of criticism Gioia was calling out for was in fact alive and well and living on the internet. Taken together, Then Play Long, Chris O’Leary’s David Bowie blog (Pushing Ahead of the Dame, now published in book form as Rebel Rebel) and Tom Ewing’s Popular were my exhibit A. (Cards on the table, those guys’ work was my model when I started this blog.)

Problem is, O’Leary’s work always had a built-in end date, and after this week’s sad news, we know what that will be. Blackstar, a mopping up of whatever live and/or previously unreleased stuff the Bowie estate sanctions for public consumption, then that will be it. Reliable, dependable Popular rumbles on, often with long hiatuses while Ewing gets on with the business of everyday life, but over the course of the next few years, I’ll find myself reading more and more pieces about songs I never knowlingly heard. I lost contact with pop in the early noughties, and never really found my way back to it.

Today, Carlin announced that he’d written the last Then Play Long entry (he fast-fowarded to Blackstar, currently topping the UK album chart, and many others worldwide, I suspect), and would now be putting the blog to rest. This saddens me a lot, as there’s no one else out there who can do what he does, but the job of work he undertook when he started that thing was immense, and no one should feel beholden to finish something just because they started it. As he says, there’s 600 records between today’s entry and the Carpenters compilation he covered in the previous piece. I wouldn’t take that on, and can well understand why he doesn’t want to either.

So this is a thank you to Marcello, whom I’ve never met, for all that wonderful writing, all that insight and analysis. I hope he still continues to write about music in some form. In the meantime, if you’ve ever read one of my pieces and enjoyed it, head over to Then Play Long to see how it’s really done.

Then Play Long

*Many entries were written by Carlin’s wife Lena Friesen, but Carlin started the blog and wrote probably half a dozen or so entries for every one of Friesen’s, so I’ve always thought of it as primarily his blog. And really, it was Carlin’s writing that spoke to me. Nevertheless, he always acknowledged when an idea or association in one of his pieces came from her, and it’s clear that fans of the blog owe a large debt to both Marcello and Lena.