Russell Carlson      John Corbett      Julian Cowley      Stefan Gijssels      Walter Horn      Hugh Jarrid      Chris Kelsey      Budd Kopman      Jon Morgan      Harvey Pekar      Alexandre Pierrepont      Massimo Ricci      Dan Warburton      Kevin Whitehead     

Although some musicians have misguidedly applauded me for first-class critic-bashing, that isn’t the goal of this section. In general critics have been as fair to me as to anyone, most love the music, and they work within a flawed, underfunded system. The idea here is to examine critics’ work as openly as they discuss ours.

Ideally a piece of arts criticism can stand alone as a work of literature. Articles by masters such as David Denby (film) or Calvin Trillin (food) are engaging even to the reader who has no intention of consuming the product under review. For those who do choose to watch, read, eat, look at, or listen to the subject of a review, the criticism should deepen the experience of watching, reading, eating or whatever.

It is a sacred duty to be a critic in any field, including my particular interest: music. Not only can a critic affect the professional course of a musician’s life, the critic may actually affect how people listen to music. What I find interesting, and distressing, is that potential importance of the critics’ role has no apparent relationship to their abilities or training. In fact, for many publications, and especially blogs, the only qualification for a music critic is the willingness to be a music critic. The reason is purely economic. Many smaller publications offer only token payment, if any at all. These hobbyist critics and perhaps even many of the pros do this work for the love of the music. They listen to staggering quantities of recordings. They write for near to nothing and then in their off hours blog and comment on blogs about the same stuff. God love them for that.

The bigger publications pay better, of course, and their critics are more polished. But too often avant-jazz critics are stumped as to what to say. They rely on two depressingly common strategies. The first is simple affect. “I liked this. I didn’t like that.” They function as a Consumer Reports for music. What could be less interesting? The other is to offer blow-by-blow descriptions of the music in allegorical language. “Lowe then enters like sparks careening from a welder’s torch. Reacting with alarm, Drake parries with snare-drum thunderclaps and floor-tom canon blasts. Soon…” and so on and on and on.

Each critic is evaluated for his or her body of work rather than for individual reviews. The rating system is divided into two components: reviewership and musicianship (where known), each on a scale of zero to five upturned noses.

Why am I qualified to critique critics? I studied the topic of criticism, and conducted experiments on how reading criticism affected listening, as part of my graduate research. I have been reviewed and interviewed often enough to be exposed to some critics’ strengths and weaknesses (don’t get me started on…, well just don’t get me started). And if they can, why can’t I?”


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