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be-honest-and-unmercifulPoptimist #19

I’ve been meaning to write more about music, to give music reviews and whatnots, but I’ve been discouraged. Mostly because I have been out of the loop and scared that the best the music world has to offer is Lil’ Wayne. But above all, my shyness about music writing comes from the fear that music criticism doesn’t matter in this new world of MP3 blogs, Last.fm scrobbles, and enthusiast Amazon.com reviewers.

Not that I would dare call myself a critic. I don’t have that kind of pedigree and I’m very far from having any sort of authoritah, but I think I have interesting things to say about the music I like. Maybe it’s my self conscious nature, but I give a lot of thought to what is it that I like or don’t like, about not just music, but many consumables, and I’m sure that I can write three paragraphs about it.

It’s not that I’m against the “crowd sourced” system either. I think it’s a great thing that more people get to be exposed to music that they wouldn’t have any other way. It’s no longer necessary to be subscribed to the Village Voice Magazine to learn about Jazz or to Wire Magazine to understand intellectually what’s so great about Autechre.


I have a hunch that critics still matter. I have this gut feeling and even a tinge of certainty, that all those people who downloaded those free Radiohead and NIN albums don’t listen to them as much.

For all the greatness of the “crowd sourced” world of the likes and dislikes, the diggs and undiggs, it works for the most part on a mob rule mentality. That is, it doesn’t care and it isn’t its job to filter the quality from the crap. It leaves the filtering for you to deal with if you want to. Of course, very little people are up for that.

So what happens is a system where everyone is a critic but not. Not critics in the sense of professionals who’s job is to detach themselves as much as possible from social influences to give you the most possible objective opinion about something, but the total opposite of that. These new critics, or filterers, are driven more by “social currency”(recognition, more followers, “friends”) and the way they accomplish this is not necessarily by focusing on quality, but quantity.

This is when the act of scrobbling to Last.fm becomes something very similar to a Digg submission, when the MP3 blog gets less and less words, and when the Amazon.com reviewer hopes to increase his reviewing rank. And really, why write anything in a MP3 blog when people can just listen to it? Its obvious that I like it because I’m posting it, right?

But wait.

How can you really tell when someone really likes something on the web? I’m sure that most people that use these web services to share their musical taste do really enjoy what they share, but you can also bet your ass that many are also faking likes. 

The featured link at the top is an essay from Pitchforkmedia that deals with this subject and concludes that yes, the critic’s role has been diminished somewhat, but we still need them.

A quote from the Fork:

[It] can seem repellent if you buy into an ideal of taste as a purely personal quality, an enlightened judgment that takes you outside the network. And this is where the critic comes in– a figure who can step beyond the compromised mesh to exercise taste in this sense, and pronounce a more measured judgment. To re-enter the network, to submit to its social pull on your opinions, is to betray your critical integrity. 

Or is it? Another epithet that gets thrown at critics is “elitist”, and if you spend much time on the net it’s easy to detect a frustration with the very notion that an individual should get a pulpit to tell anyone else what’s good or bad. Not a feeling that particular critics are hacks, or that they’re giving a favorite act a raw deal, or even that they’re corrupt– more a sense that the mere existence of rock criticism is somehow absurd and offensive.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this networked system where sharing musical taste is super simple and easy. Music will always be experienced socially, offline or online. It isn’t either like the mainstream media, TV or Radio, where it’s shoving down your throat the same 5 artist all the time. On the web, you will definitely be exposed to way much more variety. The problem is that as a filtering system, it will always lend itself to inauthenticity.

Concluding paragraph from the Fork:

So the role of criticism in the networked, free music era isn’t to act as an authority or arbiter, it’s to be one triangulation point among many so fans can better make their own, highly social, judgements about music. This is a humbler position to be in, for certain, and not an “elitist” one. But it’s important enough that even if fans are more candid about their own networked tastes, “pretending to like” will remain the ultimate critical sin.

In sum.

I’m sure we can do a little better than just import everywhere the Last.fm feed of our top tracks from the past 7 days.