Music criticism is defined as “the intellectual activity of formulating judgements on the value and degree of excellence of individual works of music, or whole groups or genres”. As a journalist first and critic second, I find that the market for music critics has become heavily oversaturated, as social media has given everyone a platform to speak about any topic they choose with the same assumed authority as a published writer. Even established publications are literally hiring “any geek off the streets” to write about music, so it’s difficult to tell who you should be listening to and who you shouldn’t, but there are a lot of folks who have questioned the relevance of music critics at all in a world where you no longer have to buy albums with no idea what they sound like first.
The typical rebuttal in social media when you say you disliked an album or don’t care for an artist is often a crisp “it’s not for you” or “music is subjective”. This usually tells me that people don’t understand music criticism and/or that they don’t understand the point of social media. Obviously, if I’m tweeting dislike about something from my personal account, it isn’t being presented as anything other than my personal opinion. Saying a song sucks isn’t the same as saying the milk has gone bad, although depending on your passion, it might put a similar taste in your mouth (story of my life). The difference is when the person with the opinion has a background that qualifies them to give a slightly more educated opinion, which is where critics come in.
One strength that I think every critic should have is the ability to compartmentalize their personal likes and dislikes apart from their ability to appreciate music for what it is as much as possible. Example: I don’t like Eminem’s music and I never have. His content doesn’t interest me and I don’t care for his delivery on more than one verse at a time. That being said, I can still point out that technically, he’s an incredible MC – I just don’t want to hear his music. I can gather from that assessment that I should either avoid reviewing his work or review it from a space where I’m ignoring my personal preferences in favor of music appreciation and critique. So at least for this critic, there’s a difference between listening as a fan and listening as a critic and I think it’s an honest critic’s duty to divulge that difference to their audience.
I believe we need music critics now more than ever – real critics. I don’t mean the Complex intern who hasn’t heard anything outside the Billboard top 40 since 2010. I don’t mean the overzealous teen who’s so excited about an album he tweets that it’s a classic within two minutes of the first song. I also don’t mean that “real” critics should be limited to a handful of people who have heard every album ever and have multiple degrees to show you why you should listen to them. By “real” critics, I mean writers and content creators with discerning taste who can give you a sensible argument about why something is good outside of “IT’S LIT!”
The Internet has allowed me a voice I never thought I would have had in 1999 when I was preparing for college and dismissing journalism as a field to pursue (back then, if you wanted to write for rap, you basically had three magazines to try your luck with). I was able to build a website. Though there are some checks to be had here and there for appearances or the random donation, I thank my lucky stars I’m still able to write content as I see fit, without having my brand turn into another click-farming rap dung heap. That being said, I always want the best for anything I listen to and I want the best for this culture. While it isn’t always the case, that’s the spirit any worthwhile music critic should be approaching this with.
There is unfortunately always going to be enmity between artists and critics, primarily centering around artists questioning music critics’ right to comment on their work (you’ll notice this usually comes from artists who have been lambasted by critics in the past). It’s my argument that in the modern day, you can depend more on qualified music critics’ critiques of music than you can on the average listener, simply because the average listener is no longer accustomed to care about or assess the staying power of a piece of music. T-Pain once said he prefers to pay attention to people’s reactions on Twitter instead of reading reviews (“I’m still rich…it’s not gonna change anything”). He goes on to criticize both bloggers and critics, implying that people who write bad things about his music approached his work with the intention of finding something wrong with it. He implies that negative reviews make blogs exciting and that’s why people write them. Granted, negative reviews are often found to be more entertaining than positive reviews, but that’s just human nature. However, ignoring negative criticism and only listening to adoring fans is a recipe for stagnation. Somewhere among the critics just out for blood are people who are there to push the culture forward and pointing out the bad as you see it is part of that. The intelligent artist will take the time to sift through the negative and find the constructive criticism in hopes of improving their craft.
While an album review or critique of the culture might be one person’s opinion, the ideal music critic knows their music in a way that the average listener doesn’t and they know enough about music history to determine whether something is going to change the game entirely or tank into obscurity even if it’s currently being eaten up by today’s super-fickle music fan. As an artist, it’s up to you to decide whether or not to pay attention to music critics or not, but know that the opinion of the average fan is often based in how they feel today, not on whether they’ll still be coming back to your album in 5-10 years. Music critique is about creating a discussion surrounding the music, which in turn ensures that there’s a push for innovation and excellence. Those who just want to know if a song feels good for the moment can just check what’s popular on iTunes or check the album sales/streams. Those who wish to seek out critical thinking about music will seek out music critics. The two can exist almost completely separately, as there have always been critically acclaimed albums that didn’t sell well, at least initially. There are also records no critic would acknowledge with a straight face that have sold extremely well (think Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”, anyone?) – yet these technically successful records and albums usually won’t be remembered for their significance in music history because their success had more to do with pop culture than it did with actually being “good”.
I don’t pay attention to music critics because I need to be told how to feel about what I’m listening to. I read music reviews and listen to critics because I’m curious to know what others got out of it who might approach music in the same way I do – with some knowledge of the history of the genre, the standards that have been previously set, and a genuine concern for/vested interest in where music is headed in the future. Perhaps the critic can unpack something different than I was able to. Ultimately, as a music fan, you either want to think critically about music and seek out those discussions or you don’t and it’s really that simple.