When music was expensive and required effort to acquire, people did their research before choosing to buy an album or single. This meant turning to the record review section of magazines like Rolling rock, Spin, Mojo, Q, or dozens of others.
Each had a staff of reviewers whose job it was to pick the music and offer opinions on whether a particular release was worth your time and money. Some of these journals even published the collected works of their critics.
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Music lovers trust — dependent on – the writings of Robert Christgau (Rolling Stone, Billboard, Village Voice, Playboy), Lisa Robinson (CREEM, The NME, Rock Scene, Vanity Fair), Nick Kent (The NME, The Face), David Fricke (Rolling rock), Paul Morley (The NME, BLITZ), Greil Marcus (Village Voice, Rolling Stone), and of course, Lester Bangs (CREEM, Rolling Stone), who probably did more to elevate rock criticism to a respectable art form than anyone else.
They and others have helped fans connect more with the music, taught us about the star-making mechanism, and helped us make sense of things.
Old school record reviews were not only enlightening but also entertaining. Take, for example, this review of Lou Reed’s — ahem – hard to hear, I take the record out of my contract, Metal Machine Music. Appeared in CREAM magazine in 1975.
And we didn’t just value their opinions. contributed to culture. In 1971, Dave Marsh was the first to use the word “punk” to describe a certain kind of raw rock’n’roll in a CREEM article about ? and the Mysteries. Stuart Maconie of the BBC is credited with popularizing the term “Britpop”. Chrissie Hynde applied lessons learned from her time as a journalist Then me in the formation of The Pretenders. Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys did the same after working on the Smash Hits.
One of the first types of online music sites involved posting reviews (or at least opinions) of new releases. Perhaps the most famous and infamous of these was Rake, which made it clear that they had no problem skewering anything thrown their way. Best/worst review to appear in her publications — a 2006 review of Jet’s Shine On album — he had no words at all. The message, however, was very, very clear.
Critics had to be fearless in their opinions, unafraid to call them as they saw them. Dave Marsh, for example, was consistently scathing about John Bonham’s abilities as a drummer, even though he was lauded as one of the greatest of all time. Lester Bangs hated Black Sabbath, calling the lyrics on their debut album “useless”.
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Jon Landau, the critic who would later become enamored with Bruce Springsteen and eventually become his manager, wrote of Jimi Hendrix: “Despite Jimi’s musical brilliance and the group’s absolute precision, the poor quality of the songs and the nonsense of the lyrics come in too often. the way.”
And then there’s JD Constantine writing about a 1985 album by a band called GTR. His one-word assessment? “SHT.” Ouch.
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Today, however, the landscape is different, largely due to social media, as pointed out by Thomas Hobbs writing in The Telegraph. “Browsing the review section of the NME website in 2022 witnesses four out of five write-ups tending to label every other artist as a ‘genius’, almost all of the songs as ‘purgative’ and eschewing criticism.”
Why; Backlash from fans, especially those organized into die-hard evangelists and brand protectors of artists like Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, BTS and Harry Styles. Say one negative thing and the Beyhive, Swifties, Little Monsters, ARMYs and Stylers will try to destroy you on Twitter or in the comments section of any online post. These “stans”—obsessive, zealous, fanatical fans of a certain celebrity—will stop at nothing to make sure you realize that you’re not only wrong, but stupid, thoughtless, tasteless, and worthless.
I learned about this firsthand when I made an ill-advised, ill-advised reference to Kim Kardashian on Twitter. Even though I had sober second thoughts and deleted the post after 15 minutes, the backlash continued for a week. Some of the things written and inferred were not just hurtful but vicious, like I was responsible for a mass slaughter of puppies. No amount of mea culpaing to the Twitter mob seemed to work. Eventually, the commotion died down, but the lesson was learned.
Then, a few years ago, I wrote a post critical of Taylor Swift’s whining about how she couldn’t get her masters’ rights. In it, I referred to Taylor as “Tay-Tay,” a diminutive often used affectionately by fans. The backlash was fierce, with at least one person asking for an apology, retraction, and some level of physical flogging for my sexist, degrading treatment of the Big Woman.
Attacking critics who say something fans disagree with has become a blood sport. This toxic fandom has even seen some critics receive death threats, so it’s no wonder critics have become, well, less critical. Who needs this kind of grief and abuse?
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Another issue is access. Reporters and managers track what is written about their clients like the NSA tracks Al Qaeda. Say something negative and you risk being cut off not only by the artist you criticized but by other artists on their roster. Yes, they are mean and have long memories. If a music journalist doesn’t have access, then a big part of what they do for a living evaporates. And if they acquiesce to the pressure, how is the journalist supposed to tell the truth?
So what does this mean for the future of music journalism? I’ve noticed solutions where reviewers post recommendations for music they like instead of posting reviews of releases. There will always be those who have the fortitude to stand up to the hordes of stans out there, and thank goodness for that.
But I worry that an important form of serious art criticism is in decline as it is bullied to death by those who have refused to accept a discouraging word about the objects of their obsessions.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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