Saturday, October 6, 2007

An Old Fogey's Guide to Music Critics

All right, I said the unsayable in a prior posting. But I said it and I’m glad. There’s nothing wrong with using critics as a source of information, and, indeed, even opinion. It’s just that you have to bear in mind that what they say is subjective. Think of every sentence they write as being preceded with the phrase “My opinion is…”. After all, if he hates something that you like, does that mean you’re wrong? Of course not, unless he’s me.

Their opinions are like landmarks that tell you how far away you are from your own destination. If someone you agree with a lot raves about a new CD, you might be close to land, it’s just that you may never go anywhere different.

So, here are some of my suggestions for using critics:

Ignore most of what they have to say. Look for enthusiasm. Everything else, including good reviews, is just an autopsy.

Even a positive review can reveal that the writer hasn’t really lived with the CD. A lot of them just slap it on, and if it passes the time, they will tell you that it’s fine. But that’s a load of crap, because they get their CDs for free, and you have to pay for yours. Plus, they’re getting paid for this, so they can afford to waste a lot of time. You’re not. You have a real job.

AMG is a great informational resource, but sometimes the reviews simply summarize the common wisdom. What you need is a unique voice that reflects thought and passion, even if you don’t agree with everything they say.

When a new CD comes out that everyone is raving about, just wait until the commotion dies down, it’s not going anywhere. The world is full of impatient idiots who just have to see a movie the day it comes out. There’s always another, better DVD you can rent. It’s the same with music. All of the CDs worth owning didn’t just come out today.

If you can hold out, wait until you see some year end lists and polls. Personal lists are good for gauging the critic. Polls are better for actual CD choices, since it balances out the various tastes of individual critics. But then again there is the overall thrust of the poll itself, which carries with it it’s own emphasis on certain genres, etc. You can weigh things like the source of the poll and the cross-section of voices. If you despise rap music, maybe you shouldn’t buy the Source’s pick for CD of the Year. Dip in for a while. Find out if they’re your kind of people. If so, you can use it as a guide, but only as a guide!

When you find critics who actually seem to listen closely, and think about what they are listening to, and who say something thoughtful, then you should consider checking out one of their recommendations.

And since nothing is ever certain, you just may not like it. Don’t fret. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just a learning process. You’re placing them on your map. If you always agree with a critic, one of you is a wimp. I’ve even used certain critics whose tastes differed so drastically from mine to get interested in music that they hated. (Yes, there are some idiots out there whose negative review can only increase my interest in a CD. No, I’m not too spiteful…)

One thing to keep in mind about critics who seem dismissive of something you like a lot: they hear a lot of music. Maybe the band that sounds new and fresh to you sounds like a hundred other bands they’ve already heard. This does not mean that your response is invalid. It just means that you can judge originality better when you’ve gotten a better grasp of the overall landscape. If you haven’t heard music like this before, then it’s fresh to you. So enjoy the music, but you might want to check out whoever the critic thinks is being ripped off/imitated.

So in sum, critics are people, too. They have tastes, prejudices and blind spots. They sometimes think they are stating fact when they are only giving their own opinion. The worst ones murder to dissect, substituting analysis for feeling, and logic for what, against all logic, works. But the best ones open you up to something you might never have tried, and help you love music again.

So now you have a healthy (dis)respect for the role of the critic and the way they can help guide you through the morass of current pop music. This does not mean that you’re obligated to admit it in public, however. It’ll just be our little secret.

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