Sunday, February 17, 2019

writing about music #4

a 2014 interview with Jerry Thackray aka Everett True aka The Legend, for an academic study of criticism he was writing

How did you gain authority as a music critic (i.e why and how where you chosen to write about music)?

The music press in the UK was a machine for the creation of that sort of authority – it was self-selecting -- a certain kind of personality and sense of (in print, if not person) confidence was what was attracted to the music press, and it was what prospered there –  you were rewarded for emphatic-ness and categorical-ness, taking strong stances pro and con various things, seizing on a new band or scene and hyping it. So diffidence and tentativeness tended to not thrive in that context.

But writers who came up through that school (the UK music press) often find it hard to translate that kind of charismatic (in print, not in person) model of criticism to other fields of journalism, where there is a more measured tone and a pretence of objectivity – most don’t manage to make the transition and those who do really have to tone it down for the less shouty environs of newspapers and “proper” magazines

What is the role of the music critic?

That’s rather a big question there Everett! People could write a long essay or a small book about it.

It’s much the same as other arts critics – assessing what’s good and bad  in terms of recordings, individual artists, or genres versus the rest of the genrescape;  tracking the evolution of a particular artist; looking for the wider significance or resonance of a recording/artist/genre; making connections between music and other art forms or what’s going on in culture or society or politics; pattern-recognition (spotting the emergence of trends, new genres, etc). 

What’s different about rock criticism as a tradition is that it has tended (historically) to have more role for a kind of prophetic or messianic mode, as in the “I have seen the future of...”.   There have been critics who have adopted that mode with the other arts – Clement Greenberg with art,  certain literary critics probably – but it’s been less common, I think.

Also, rock/pop/etc are hybrid art forms, so there is a lot of levels on which you can appraise or analyse it – music, but also lyrics, persona, performance/theatrics/gesture, visual presentation (clothes, video, record packaging) etc etc.  That helps to account for the huge diversity of critical approaches

In what way are power relations around traditional taste-maker critics changing from print to web 2.0 environments? Were these power relations around traditional taste-maker criticism already changing before the advent of web 2.0 environments?

Obviously the power of critics to guide taste, direct the discourse, and introduce the public to new bands or genres has diminished considerably. That was already in process before the Web took off, as the number of  print music publications, specialist magazines and fanzines kept expanding, but it has certainly diminished dramatically more with the rise of blogs and webzines and message boards and all the other web forums.

Can one critic still wield the same power as they did during the heyday of the UK and US music press?

That’s a rhetorical question if ever I saw one. You know the answer to that!

I think there were several heydays, each successively smaller than the other.

The heyday of the early-mid Seventies, of MM as the progressive paper selling 200 thousand a week, and then being eclipsed by NME, being more glam oriented.  (Although it was Melody Maker  where Bowie revealed to the world he was “gay” and MM that first pushed Roxy Music). 

Then the second heyday would be punk, with all three papers—MM and Sounds were actually slightly quicker off the mark than NME, but NME eventually “owned” the story--being the principal forum in which punk’s existence was revealed to the wider world and where its meaning was thrashed out and fought over.  That heyday carried on into postpunk and New Pop. 

Then the last heyday would be that  period in which you and I were involved—Pixies/My Bloody Valentine/Sonic Youth/etc;  Madchester with Stones Roses and the Mondays; shoegaze; grunge with Nirvana et al,

Britpop seemed like the triumph of the weekly music press but was really it’s death knell, or perhaps a Pyrhhic victory in so far as “the story” got so big it left the music papers behind.

If you read something like Nick Kent’s review of Television’s Marquee Moon in NME, which was a 1977 cover story even though there was no interview with the band,  there’s a tremendous sense of the writer stepping out onto a stage, confident that he’s addressing a huge audience, and that he has the ability to “deliver the news”, which is that Television are one of the most important bands of the era and this is an album that will change rock.  And largely through press raves the album was a chart hit and the band even had some singles in the Top 30.

That sort of confidence and conviction—that you’ve come into the possession of the truth and that there’s a readership who are ready to be accept it—runs all through the music press through these successive heydays, from writers like Richard Williams and Michael Watts through Charles Shaar Murray, Ian McDonald and Nick Kent through Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons Gary Bushell and Jon Savage through Paul Morley, ian Penman, Chris Bohn, Dave McCullough through to our own moment with figures like Steven Wells, the Stud Bros, and in the twilight of that last heyday Neil Kulkarni. 

But I think the basis for that self-belief gradually shriveled in ratio to the circulation of the music papers, and also the number of rival sources of opinion and news about music.

Who are the gatekeepers in web 2.0 environments?

I don’t know if there are gate-keepers in the old sense, but clearly there’s concentrations of influence – Pitchfork.  

Do you read music criticism in print publications anymore? If not, where do you go for critical opinion?

I tend to mostly read print publications that I write for, which means I get sent them in most cases.  But I do pick up issues of magazines like Spin and Mojo and Uncut if there is a story inside or a cover feature that particularly grabs me.

I also read print publications that have a strong presence on the web like the Guardian Music section, or Village Voice and other alternative weeklies in the America. And there is often interesting stuff on music in newspapers like New York Times, New Yorker, New York magazine,  or places like Frieze and Artforum

That said, most of the opinion and news I follow is on the web these days, either from webzines like Quietus, FACT, Pitchfork, etc, or it is bloggers.

The main problem is that there is too much stuff to process – if it’s web, I tend to either save it for later (a later that never comes) or just read it too fast. When you relied on print magazines, you had them lying around the house and you would often reread things so they would have a deeper impact. And even if it was just read once, the reading was less frantic and the words would seem to penetrate your mind more. Of course in those days I was also more impressionable.  

How do people engage with music criticism?

I couldn’t say, that would involve sociological research I’d have thought.  There’s many different levels from cursory, skeptical interest to fanatical taking-it-too-serious.

Judging by the comments in comments boxes, often they haven’t read the piece – I have had people complain about genre overview types pieces I’ve done that “you didn’t mention [artist X]” when in fact, if they had actually bothered to click on the second page of the story, they would find a mention of that very artist! Often they are so impatient to express an opinion they’ve just read the “dek” (I think in the UK, the word is “standfirst” – the bit of blurb, written by the editor, below the headline) and not the piece itself, which is generally a lot of more nuanced and less inflammatory than the headline and dek.   But hopefully comments-boxers are not typical of all readers!

What differentiates opinion from criticism?

An attempt at argument and at persuading the reader to your point of view. But also a different mode of address, in which there is some gesture towards the idea of truth, that this is really is how things “are”.  

Most criticism, when it comes down to it, is largely a rationalization of subjective taste, and the universalization of a very particular perspective. But that rationalization and that universalization are what it’s all about! The mental effort, and the self-belief, involved in doing that are what separates criticism from just mouthing off about your preferences or dislikes. The effort and the self-belief hopefully generates an energized or stylish piece of prose.

Does music criticism have economic and/or entertainment and/or sociological value?

Economic value – to whom?  If you mean towards the exponents, then it’s steadily being deprofessionalized. For the industry, there might be value in the sense that the music press has always had a role in the generation of meaning and significance, which is actually a more effective way of getting people to part with money than just pleasure/use-value. 

Entertainment – for some, yes. I think the best music writing always had some element of flash or style to it. Not necessarily jokes, but the kind of entertainment value of watching anybody – a sportsman or rapper or whatever—do something well. The pleasure of language being flexed energetically or in unusual ways.

Sociological? You mean that it can actually tell you stuff about society and the role of music in it? Possibly. Critical discourse is a slightly more disciplined and focused form of fan discourse, and fan discourse I would have thought was pretty valuable if you were trying to work out the social context and purpose of a music form or scene was.

Is it possible to become influential as a music critic via web 2.0 environments?

Yes but you’ve got the odds stacked against you.

Most of the critics operating today who could be considered influential came up through the old print media and still write for them primarily, or they graduated to print after apprenticing in web land. 

One thing I would observe finally is that the web-reared generation don’t seem to want to be influential in the same way that the music writers that we grew up on wanted to be, or the way we wanted to be.   I think if you look at our peer group – figures like Swells, Stubbs, Studs, etc – we had inherited this excessive (and probably already beginning to be outmoded) sense of the power of critics to shape opinion, grant exposure to the righteous music, do damage to the unrighteous music,  etc.   There was a confidence that the way you saw things was a truth that could be communicated to others and be taken up by them.  In contrast, the Web 2.0 generation are lot more diffident. They tend to eschew the very personalized, subjective approach (Bangs, Morley,  yourself) and to write “objectively”, as if simply describing the attributes of the things they’re writing about.  But it is an objectivity that avoids making large claims about the significance of the music or what it’s impact could / should be.  The new breed’s tone is generally a lot less exhortatory and “you MUST hear this”. Even on blogs, which you’d think would be a natural home for shouty, “this is my truth”  type writing, the tone tends to be more quiet and ruminative. Perhaps they are just have a more realistic sense of things. 

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