The role of the critic in the era of hype

Suppose I wrote a review of your next recording that went like this:

“The new Dogslayer album is a standard set of pop songs of average quality, played competently but without distinction by the band. The guitarist and drummer zigzag between performances that are capable and others that feel merely adequate. The singer hits his marks, but imparts little personality to the songs. The lyrics are neither embarrassing nor illuminating. Fans of the genre’s conventions will enjoy their effective discharge here. The set is pleasant but forgettable, and will leave no lasting mark on the consciousness of its listeners.”

You wouldn’t much like that, huh? You might even hunt me down; beat me profusely about the mouth and cheeks. I wouldn’t blame you: a review like that, particularly if it was reprinted on a high-profile music website, could really harm a band’s career.

But wait a second: when was the last time you saw a review like that on a high-profile music website? I’m not talking about a bad review, now; those come with their own special cache. I’m talking about a review that says that a particular record is average. Not a disaster, not an affront to the senses, not even mediocre; but average.

Thousands of albums were released last year. I played on some of them, you played on some of them, they were duplicated or replicated, handed to a publicist or a go-fer, slipped into a padded envelope or encoded for digital transfer, and sent out to critics to evaluate. Almost all of those albums were average. This is indisputable; it’s a mathematical fact. This is no indie rock Lake Wobegon we inhabit here. On any qualitative scale, there’s a midpoint, and most everything is going to coalesce around that midpoint.

Artists are imitative people. For every musical visionary, there are a hundred other rockers who aspire to put out competent, wholly unremarkable reiterations of stuff they’ve already heard before. The entire musical-recommendation algorithm system is based on these imitative rockers: they are the datapoints in the web of association that’s supposed to anticipate consumer demand. If the Dogslayer album sounds disturbingly like MGMT, well, great!, MGMT has moved some albums; we’ll put a line in the press release that says RIYL: MGMT. Nobody who has logged time in the clubs will dispute that most bands play straight to audience expectation by presenting familiar sounds in familiar packages. They’re chasing success, sure, but they’re doing so by mimicking other artists who have resonated for listeners, not by breaking any new ground. In a very real sense, these bands are trying to be average.

This is perfectly fine. Entertainment does not, usually, require extraordinary measures; in fact, it’s often the case that extraordinary measures get in the way of entertainment. I find pop music immensely entertaining, which means that I’m probably going to find an average pop record amusing. I don’t need every album I play to be The Hissing Of Summer Lawns or even Prinzhorn Dance School. That would, frankly, drive me insane. I’m happy to spin a little Dogslayer now and then.

The trouble arrives when I am asked to assess the Dogslayer album. That’s because it is, like a good ninety per cent of what the critic gets, an average album, a nice little in-genre exercise. The members of the band are probably NYC music lifers who never gave critical response a second thought; they’re concerned with plugging in, cranking it up, and moving the crowd. But then they got popular and graduated to the Bowery stage — and with that came a manager, and an agent, and, inevitably, a publicist. The publicist’s job is, among other things, to attach to the album something that reads a little like this:

“You have in your hands the stunning debut release from the multi-talented, multi-ethnic, multi-orgasmic DOGSLAYER — the band that shook Brooklyn so hard they now call it Shooklyn. Chances are, you’ve heard the buzz about their sold-out performance with Horsefeeler at Bowery Ballroom, a show that Derek Stark of called “heavy as a hammer, light as a rock and twice as solid”. But even if you were one of the lucky few to get in, nothing will prepare you for the sheer musical force of Bitterteeth. Recorded by Derek “Brick” Spank (first cousin to Dave Longstreth!) on the very same mixing board that Joy Division used to make the B-side to “Transmission”, the album envelops listeners in gossamer guitar, shimmering synthesizer, heavenly glockenspiel, delicately-struck drums, and the caramel voice of the incomparable Derek Bok III. Not since the heyday of MGMT has a band so effortlessly melded pop and rock to create sonic pop rocks. Shake it up, and feel your head explode…”

And so on. The first thing that the responsible critic does when receiving her copy of Bitterteeth in the mail is chuck this propaganda in the trash can. But even good critics aren’t responsible every day; some days, they’ll be tired and cranky and looking to make rent, and they’ll be cursing the day they agreed to take on another review. Just a quick peek at the PR materials couldn’t hurt, right? Two beers later, and Dave Longstreth and the Joy Division mixing board have found their way into the piece; one whisky, and the Bowery show has snuck in there too, as has the heavenly glockenspiel, the pull-quote from the website that the writer has never heard of before, and copious comparisons to MGMT.

At this point, it is the responsibility of the editor to say “hold it, now, you’re not evaluating, you’re rehashing press-release copy.” You’re chuckling bitterly now, but magazine editors used to do this; they didn’t always have the best taste, but they were decent watchdogs against rampant grade inflation. They may have been cokeheads and assholes, but they had some concept of journalistic integrity. Go back and look at Dave Marsh’s record-rating guides for Rolling Stone. Sure, he went over the top for some personal favorites (all critics should), but he was always willing to give the average record an average review. That didn’t mean he hated it — it meant it was willfully, purposefully anodyne, and he was calling a spade a spade.

Since then, the landscape has changed. Well, that’s an understatement: what I mean to say is that the landscape has been torn asunder by earthquakes registering 8.0 plus on the Richter scale. Web traffic is driven by posted premieres and exclusive streams, which means that any upstart capable of cultivating a tight relationship with an indie label’s marketing department can set himself up as an influencer. Many popular music sites are now in so tight with the big “indie” agents and publicists that it’s impossible to tell where the promotion ends and the journalism begins. Sometimes the journalism doesn’t begin: the site becomes a repository for commercial messages and label sales pitches.

Hyperbole tends to feed on itself. More disturbingly, it tends to encourage cliche repetition, and chase out oddball dissent. In 2013, the Internet looks like one gigantic PR Newswire. Almost all of the reviews I read on the Internet these days are unadulterated hype. Sometimes it’s hype rewritten by really good writers; they’ll figure out a way to re-word the main points of the press release in the graceful language they learned in seminars at the 92nd Street YMCA. More frequently, it’ll be hype rewritten by okay writers. They’ll try to disguise what they’re doing, but the dry bones always poke through the carcass.

In a climate like this, Dogslayer accumulates empty rave after empty rave. The band picks up so many interchangeable rave reviews, in fact, that they begin to think that they’re entitled to all the superlatives that their (paid) publicist has picked out for them. Without really noticing it, the members of Dogslayer have come to believe that the job of the critic is to ditto the positive notice they’ve already gotten. So many of the reviews say the exact same thing, cite the exact same influences — this must be how it works, right? Do you see what’s happened? The critic can no longer praise Dogslayer. All she can do is repeat what’s already been said or insult the band. Any deviation from the script written by the publicist will be taken as a weird affront to the myth that the label is building around the group. Should she trash the one-sheet and attempt to evaluate the record fairly, free from hyperbole, her review will be received as a pan. More than that, it’ll be received as an unwelcome deviation from consensus, a mar on the Metacritic score, bitter and contrarian.

Our hypothetical independent critic doesn’t like hurting people’s feelings, and despite my rep, neither do I. I hate it that it’s come to this — that bands and audiences now believe that the role of the critic is to be the publicist’s validator and attache. As music marketers have become increasingly precious guardians of the conventional wisdom surrounding their wards, bands have rarely had to cope with reviews that call them what most of them truly are: average.

Part of the problem is that as money has flowed in, careerism has overwhelmed the so-called “indie” music. Many prominent indie rockers are in their thirties: they’re not looking to rule the world with their music, they’re looking to make a respectable middle income. There is no shame in this, but it again confounds the critic. When you’re twenty years old, you tend to be surrounded by other twenty year olds with crazy dreams. They’re living in warehouses and eating rats, all so they can make art; it’s horrible, sure, but they’re young and healthy. You can poke holes in their pretensions, and they’re resilient enough to bounce back. Thirty year old musicians are different. They’ve got families to feed, bills to pay, and interpersonal responsibilities to attend to. That lukewarm review — that refusal to play minor-league ball with the starmaking apparatus designed by the publicist — is potentially taking the food out of the mouth of the guitar player’s newborn kid. That doesn’t feel quite so nifty to do. I don’t relish the prospect of undercutting the moneymaker-myths that musicians in their thirties rely on to get by. They’re dumb, but I understand why they’re essential.

In the 21st century, the critic is on the ropes. She no longer feels welcome to speak her mind about “indie” projects; every time she does, she bruises and bewilders some aging musician who is expecting not wild worship, but a boost to his career prospects. In the big musical clearing-houses that drive mass opinion, she’s been replaced by the marketer and the associative algorithm — and nobody really minds. PR copy takes the place of evaluative reviews, and that’s cool with readers. As databases continue to be refined and patterns of music consumption are further studied and tracked, it’ll be the algorithms that make recommendations, and the uploaded opinions of millions of listeners who define conventional wisdom. The critic is getting squeezed out.

What the critic needs to do is untether herself from the expectation that she’s there to make a recommendation to buyers. This will be hard to do — but it must be done if the critic is to survive. I once wrote in the Christmas Abstract that in America, every list is a shopping list. The critic needs to come up with a different kind of list: one that reflects her idiosyncratic and personal tastes. When the critic echoes conventional wisdom and the recommendations of the algorithm and the publicist, she needs to step back and ask herself what part of her singular God-given mind has gotten gummed up in the machine. Then she needs to about-face and march off in the other direction, and stake out narrative territory based on her own experiences, her own personality, and her own crazy whims.