A few days ago on The Daily Beast, the prominent music critic Ted Gioia posted a scathing critique of modern mainstream music criticism, arguing that it has devolved from thoughtful analyses of sound into “lifestyle reporting,” or gimmicky reports of celebrity culture. Lamenting that “music journalism has retreated into a permanent TMZ-zone, where paparazzi and prattlers, not critics, set the tone,” Gioia concludes that lifestyle-driven criticism “poisons our aural culture.” He demands a critical shift from tabloid-y gossip columns to technical analyses of music (with its accompanying jargon), hoping that authentic talent can once again be acknowledged and celebrated by the masses and national media. This well-written article raises many questions: first, is he right? Has music criticism degenerated? Also, does Gioia subordinate cultural analyses to technical analyses of music? If so, is he wrong for doing so?
I, for one, agree with Gioia’s assessment of modern mainstream criticism. I emphasize mainstream because so many fantastic websites —like Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes, and countless others — consistently provide rich and insightful criticism of modern music. Perhaps Gioia does not stress these sites enough, and his critics have been quick to fault him for this, but I think he makes a strong point that there is too much “background noise” obscuring today’s best criticism. Gioia explains that listeners often have neither the time nor the patience to sift through myriad blogs and magazines to find some hidden musical gems, and he rightly observes that many “discerning consumers who care about music and have good ears” will give up their search for new music “because they can’t find reliable critics to guide them.” I’ve heard this complaint many times before, which is part of my motivation to blog about music (though my audience isn’t exactly what one would call the masses…).
Some of Gioia’s critics have challenged him for requesting more technical analyses of music and have questioned his research of pop criticism. These critics have points. But, to respond to the first critique, I think Gioia stresses technical studies of music to counteract the music criticism that lacks any substantive analysis; after all, he insists that critics too often subordinate music to the celebrity producing it. Does the music even matter to many critics? Gioia seems skeptical. If we must stress technical knowledge to ensure that critics privilege sound over celebrity, then so be it.
The second objection to Gioia’s argument is stronger, since Gioia does not actually provide many examples of “lifestyle reporting.” But as I flip through the free copies of Rolling Stone that Ticketmaster inexplicably keeps sending me, I am also dismayed at its imbalance between celebrity culture and music. In the most recent issue, for instance, there’s a feature on corrupt Wall Street practices, an article on Drake’s “YOLO estate” (it’s seriously named that — wish I were joking), a tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman, and, under a “Rock & Roll” heading, a piece called “Seth Meyers Does the 30 Rock Shuffle.” If you’re actually looking for a discussion of music, there are two articles on Pete Seeger and St. Vincent, and if you go to the very last pages, you’ll find some record reviews (where the word “badass” — one of Gioia’s examples of words that exemplify thoughtless pseudo-criticism — appears in the first paragraph of the first review.) Yes, maybe Gioia’s being a little grumpy here, and yes, maybe his pursuit of criticism could have been more thorough (he admits “I’ve just spent a very depressing afternoon looking through the leading music periodicals. And what did I learn? Pretty much what I expected”), but America’s top music magazine demonstrates the very deemphasis of music he condemns.
Gioia’s argument is also important in the ways that it transcends music criticism. Most strikingly, he links this “degeneration” to a larger decay in culture; it disturbs Gioia that Americans prefer the empty, gossipy prattle of TMZ to incisive interpretations of art. And it is disturbing — a frightening sign of our times. In many ways, Gioia resembles Matthew Arnold, who insists in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864) that critics must direct society towards “touchstones” — the world’s best art, which will enrich and edify the masses. When critics fail to uphold their role, culture inexorably degenerates into anarchy. Invoking similar anxieties, Gioia warns that the criticism which “poisons our aural culture” leaks into other sectors of our society.
That said, Gioia still ends his article hopefully, for all is not lost — at least not yet. When the critic considers serious art seriously, Gioia and Arnold remind us, culture can flourish. It’s time for similarly thoughtful critics to stop attacking Gioia and address this degenerating culture.
Thinking about Gioia has raised further questions about the role of the academy in reviving music criticism. Do we have a responsibility to reverse this “degenerative” critical trend? Should our work reach out to the masses or is it, like the writings of indie bloggers, intended mostly for niche audiences?