Ted Gioia: “Music Criticism Has Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting”

220px-Ted_GioiaA 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.

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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?

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3 comments

  1. Gioia’s argument rests on the idea that authoritative criticism and/or technical analysis guides musical taste and production and not the other way around. The provincialism of Gioia’s approach, as well as Arnold’s for that matter, assumes that average listeners cannot discern good taste unless that discernment is provided to them. These privileged assumptions about who holds the keys to a better “aural culture” makes sweeping generalizations about individual listeners and discounts what popular music can and does say about its own moment. It also ignores past and emerging music that rejects predominating technical definitions of achievement of its time (re: pretty much every genre of music ever before it was commodified and domesticated within theoretical and critical frameworks). You’re correct to assume Gioia is taking up a 150 year old argument, because he is, and its its interesting to see how this critic is vying for power with these same claims when as critics we should understand that music, cultural trends, and influence are never a one-way street.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Callie! I agree that both Gioia and Arnold can be fairly charged with elitism, but I think they’re also right to suggest that experts (of music, of culture) should disseminate what they deem the best works. Because he acknowledges that his favorite critics often disagreed with each other, and, additionally, that he often disagreed with them, Gioia avoids, I think, making sweeping generalizations about individual listening choices. Rather than calling for one “best” type of music, he fiercely advocates for the “best” type of criticism: one marked by intellectual rigor.

      Though Gioia never mentions this, there’s a ton of great music just waiting to be discovered, and it should be the critics’ job to share that music with the masses. He laments that so many critics have abandoned this very role of informing the public. So I don’t think that Gioia would reject an intelligent discussion of pop (or any genre for that matter), but would only critique the psuedo-criticism of articles like “Drake’s YOLO Estate,” since they worship the celebrity-artist and essentially ignore his music. I think Gioia rightly observes that when critics feed the masses this empty, quickly disposable, junk foody criticism, people will either consume it (which is unhealthy for our minds and culture at large) or reject it (which leads to apathy from “discerning listeners”).

  2. Gioia’s position that popular music criticism should become more technical seems almost like a call to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction from Joseph Kerman’s concern over scholarly music criticism in 1980 which called for a change in musicology. Surely Gioia is familiar with Kerman’s historic article, “How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out.” (http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic133047.files/Kerman_1980.pdf)

    Kerman opens the article by discussing how music scholars have distanced themselves from music “criticism” because they viewed music criticism as the purview of journalists. He wrote of scholars’ view of music critics: “The music critic’s stock-in-trade consists of the aesthetic question begged, the critical aphorism undeveloped, the snap judgment” (311). Kerman points to this attitude as contributing to music scholars’ general avoidance of historical and cultural studies in favor of analysis. In response to this rising critique of music scholarship, the new musicology emerged. The new musicology distinguished itself by considering the culture and context surrounding music and especially by considering these to be valid influences on interpreting music.

    Gioia seems to say that popular music critics/journalists have earned the academic snubbing that Kerman describes all too well. As music scholarship has swung the pendulum toward the cultural, historical, and even biographical in the past 35 years, Gioia wants popular music criticism to swing back toward the technical. If both extremes make for limited and limiting views of music, somewhere in the middle is probably ideal.

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