humanities

A Paratextual Art: Music Criticism in the Age of Free Labour

Simon Price A Parasitic But Necessary Art

As an amateur music critic, I read Simon Price’s reaction to both Will Self’s review of Mark Kermode’s book Hatchet Job, and to the related concern of the recent laying off of all of The Independent’s arts critics, “A Parasitic But Necessary Art,” with interest. The gist of Self’s argument is that arts critics have outworn their use in the digital age and that the average person doesn’t need them anyway because s/he doesn’t have the time to engage with their criticism and would rather consult crowdsourced recommendations to help her/him choose the art s/he will consume. Price argues against Self’s conception of the unnecessary critic and presents his profession as an important one of “informed subjectivity,” and I would agree with the value of a good critic who works within Price’s terms. However, the market doesn’t necessarily value, nor reward critics in the same way. And in these neoliberal times, the market rules in every realm, in places it has no business being the gatekeeper, and the so-called “democratizing” Internet has been used as the utopian sop for those unhappy with the state of sanctioned media, often overlooking the fact that most of the contents of the Internet are either just as market-driven, or operating on affective labour of volunteers. Self’s cynical perspective makes more sense in such a context.

What has happened to music criticism in the last couple of decades? I can only answer as a music fan who has been actively reading music criticism for just over a decade. Clearly the music press itself has declined and in many cases shut down, leaving a handful of British publications hanging on by a thread and even fewer in North America. In their place, music websites like Pitchfork, Stereogum, Drowned in Sound, and The Quietus have assembled massive teams of writers to keep the content coming 24/7 rather than weekly or monthly. I assume that remuneration for the writers on these sites is modest if available at all, and so the actual living of music journalists and critics has become a scarcity. In the process, the music critic “stars” have passed into history; I certainly can’t name any music critics who have come along in the last decade that would be as recognizable as Paul Morley, Simon Reynolds, Julie Burchill, or Simon Price himself. Not that I want to romanticize the old guard too much (I have no warm and fuzzy ideas about Nick Kent slinking around commando in his tatty leather trousers), but as Price says, one of the major problems is the lack of personality, style, and voice in most published music criticism these days. Music criticism has fragmented along with the rest of the post-post-modern world, so we all just cling to the names we already know, or to the few anonymous bloggers we manage to trust, who may abandon their blogs within a year or two due to other life pressures.

Though Price generously states that “the amateurs’ freedom from industry pressure means that they’re immune, at least in theory, to the catastrophic loss of nerve which has afflicted the professional music press,” I don’t believe that most amateurs writing about music in blogs and e-zines are serving a terribly critical purpose. On the whole, music blogs read, at best, like fanzines, at worst, like press releases. Many blogs consist of posts that are blurbs taken straight from the news release bumf that floods their inboxes. It’s lazy, but perhaps no less so than many newspapers have traditionally done to fill space. Quantity over quality often wins the day, as the Internet medium itself imposes immediacy and currency as the measure of reputability and significance. The room for thoughtfulness and thoroughness is shrinking beneath the pressures of 24/7 streaming content, and your website ostensibly loses credibility via infrequent updates with new content (at this rate, our blog is at rock bottom of the credibility scale). The webpage format, let alone the blog post, is not conducive to lengthy in-depth discussion (our blog fails on this account, too; we may as well have called it tl;dr).

Speaking from my own experience, which is admittedly limited to the last four years of blogging, bloggers often just don’t have the time to spend on music they don’t like. For many of us, music blogging is not so much affective labour, as it is disaffected labour, or work we do because our “real” work isn’t what we would have chosen for an ideal career. Call it the Kafka life of after-work, unrecognized toil. Even though I consider James Murphy to be my spirit animal, I have a hard time believing that I will kickstart my new dazzling writing career in my thirties. I could very well savage numerous albums on a daily basis (perhaps not as elegantly as someone like Neil Kulkarni), but I feel as though the exercise would eventually bore readers and myself, and the sheer time wasted on mediocrity would outweigh the potential catharsis. Whilst the big music publications may not be able to afford to take risks, the amateur critics cannot afford the time. We must also consider the idealistic, altruistic stance that bloggers and independent music websites take, standing up to challenge the mainstream whilst championing little-known artists, often preaching to the converted. It’s an insular world of happy promotion and obscure discoveries, but it hardly seems substantial or influential, at least not in the way music criticism and journalism often used to operate. It also doesn’t quite seem like a way forward.

It’s not just arts criticism that’s lost its currency, but critical thinking itself. The same arguments levelled against arts criticism are being used in academia. In much the same way as the “death of music criticism” has been circulating in the past decade, so has the “death of the humanities.” Price says the job of good critics is to provide effective analysis and contextualization for the art they’re writing about, and the same could be said about academic scholars, especially those who work in areas outside of the STEM (science/technology/engineering/medicine) disciplines. Sadly, often the defence for the humanities is framed by the very neoliberal terms that are strangling them: they are said to be helpful for those interested in globalized business and politics, or for interpreting the reams of data being generated every second (the connection between the humanities and technology has become further substantiated with the trendy new discipline of digital humanities, of which I’m still quite sceptical). This quantification of the study of what it means to be a human is missing the point. Not everything about the human experience should be justified by how it fares in the marketplace, or how it advances “practical” infrastructure, or how it manages Big Data. Perhaps there’s an issue of semantics here. What would happen if we used “creators” and “experiencers” instead of “producers” and “consumers” in relation to culture? Words matter.

Of course this is not to say that music criticism and academia are often regarded as the best-suited bedfellows. As the NME reader backlash against the esoterica of Paul Morley and Ian Penman shows, there’s always been some trepidation where music criticism and intellectualism meet, and unfortunately, the reaction to challenging, potentially alienating, work can be accusations of “pretension.” Though I can see how semiotic and post-structuralist theory and popular music may sit more easily together in an academic journal, I’d much rather see this kind of challenge in the music press than the underwhelming, soulless detritus found in much of the music criticism today. For all their flaws, Morley and Penman provoked a reaction, which is more exciting than anemic disinterest and acceptance. Music and the music press should ideally be reflective of each other and in dialogue, and I think the post-punk of the late 70s and early 80s did speak intelligently (or argued – see The Cure’s “Desperate Journalist”) in conversation with the likes of Morley and Penman. Sadly, the music being championed by the music press now is equally reflective of the articles and reviews written about them. The lowest common denominator propping up the bottom line.

I suppose it’s needless to say that I’m on the side of the humanities and arts criticism; I just don’t see any effective way to shift the current prevailing attitude towards them. My hope is that as long as there are humans, there are bound to be humans interested in their own meaning and who can’t help but express their ideas in interesting ways. To me, all good arts criticism allows for a second level of engagement and enjoyment of the art itself. Criticism becomes one of the many paratexts, just as important as music videos, album covers, and memorabilia, and often serves as an important piece of the artists’ archives and mythos. Since eighty percent of musicians and songwriters often can’t articulately explain their art or their intentions, critics become very important interpreters and interlocutors, making connections between the seemingly disparate and inspiring you to investigate further art and ideas. Music critics’ subjectivity is their most important quality; it is that personal response that interacts with your own personal response, making criticism a key component of the music fan experience. Admittedly, I appreciate this subjectivity more than a critic’s technical knowledge of music. Often you become a fan of particular critics just as much as a fan of the music being discussed. Is there hope for professional arts criticism, or the humanities in general? Simon Price concludes his essay with the warning that “A world with uncriticised art gets the art it deserves.” Another way of putting the situation would be you get what you pay for. And there’s only so much free labour that music lovers can perform in a world dependent on market logic.

A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun – Manic Street Preachers

Over the Border – Saint Etienne

Kill Yr Idols – Sonic Youth

Mere Pseud Mag. Ed. – The Fall

Desperate Journalist – The Cure

There Is Nothing Wrong With Hating Rock Critics – of Montreal

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