the end of criticism
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
The Rhapsody music service has an association with Robert Christgau. They include some of his short album reviews when you search for music, and they feature an occasional "Dynamic Playlist" of songs Christgau has recently included in his Consumer Guide. I was visiting the Rhapsody support forums today ... while it is the best streaming music service around, its software is buggy and its customer service mostly non-existent, so your best bet when a problem surfaces is to ask other users ... and I noticed someone had started a thread on Christgau. The initial post set the tone:
Robert Christgau is the worst critic to ever write about ANY type of entertainment. His reviews have always shown him to be a pompous fool who believes that anything he doesn't like is garbage and anyone who likes what he doesn't has no taste. I'm an educated person but I still can't figure out what he's saying in half of his reviews. Please don't put his inanities on this website anymore. I really enjoy my Rhapsody but if I see one more of his scathing reviews of an album I really like I'm afraid I will put my fist through my computer screen.
As of this writing, the thread has grown to four pages. Almost every comment has been anti-Christgau. OK, he's an idiosyncratic writer, I'll give you that, although his ability to compress words in such a way that a few dozen of them result in an insightful analysis is pretty remarkable. But the venom is quite intense, as the above post shows.
As you read through the messages, it becomes clear that it's not just Xgau that the writers hate. They hate the very idea of criticism. Note the problem described above: what gets the writer's ire is that Christgau dares to give bad reviews to albums the writer liked. Apparently, the sole function of a music writer should be to list the tracks on the album and then get out of the way.
I think this relates to the growth of artificial intelligence software that predicts our taste preferences. These programs don't exist to help you appreciate art ... they exist to help you find the stuff that already agrees with your tastes. They assume that the listener doesn't want to be challenged. The rhetoric suggests otherwise, of course ... they always claim that their method is the best way to discover "new" music. But by "new" they mean "things that are like all the other stuff you already like, only you haven't heard it yet."
This holds true no matter what method is used to offer recommendations. Some rely on a vast database of music, collated against your declared tastes and the tastes of other like you. These programs ascertain that you like X and Y, and find X and Y songs you haven't heard. Pandora uses a different model, in that they have music experts categorizing music by breaking songs down to their components, so that Song X isn't a ballad by Y but is instead a song with a certain number of beats per minute, played in a certain key, with a certain kind of vocal. If you like that song, they will give you more songs with similar beats, keys, vocals. Since their criteria are outside the social aspect of music listening, Pandora will at times cough up a song by an artist you hate, but their logic is that you should get over the hate, because the truth is, you'll like this song. Whatever the method, the point of Pandora, like all the rest, is to identify music that matches your already-existing tastes, and to make recommendations based on that. There is no room here for negativity ... these systems don't tell what not to listen to, but what you will enjoy listening to. Nor is there any attempt at critical analysis ... it doesn't matter what the socio-political context is, or how a song fits into an artist's career, or anything like that. All that matters is that it makes you feel good because it's like what you already know.
MOG goes about this a bit differently, in that they allow you to decide which MOG users you trust. Then MOG tells you what those trusted users are listening to, the idea being if you trust Joe or Jane and Joe or Jane likes Song X, you will give it a try based on your trust of their opinion. This is a bit of an improvement, I suppose, in that you pick your own taste-makers instead of just letting the software do it. But the results are the same yet again: MOG recommendations lead you to music you will like, rather than warn you off of music you won't like.
MOG's format does allow for a more varied recommendation list, though. You might decide you trust Jane, who likes EuroDisco, and so you'll give a listen to a song she likes even though you don't care for EuroDisco yourself. MOG also allows for critical analysis, via the blog portion of the MOG experience. You can read a lot of intelligent commentary about music when you wander around MOG. My guess is people like the Rhapsody subscriber at the top of this post wouldn't much care for MOG, where people have opinions and are willing to state them.
That's what it comes down to, in the end. People like the Christgau haters want a world where everyone has an opinion and no one listens to anyone else's thoughts. No one ever says a bad thing about any piece of music, because it might hurt the feelings not just of the artist but of the person who likes the song. It's like all those Carpenters fans who tell me to shut up ... what they are really saying is "how dare you say something negative about a thing I love?" They are rejecting the notion of criticism.
You hit the proverbial nail on the head here. I think there are still people out there who want to learn about music through criticism -- I have students who do -- but that's becoming a smaller and smaller niche. At some point I want to tie this line of argument into something I've been working on -- forever, it seems -- about Carrie Brownstein's criticism of the everybody's-a-critic mentality fostered by new media. The strange thing, to me, is that she takes issue with the impulse to offer an opinion, rather than the fact that the people taken by that impulse are not typically open to others' opinions. Maybe she's complaining about the same general state of affairs that you're depicting. I have to think about this some more.
Posted by: Charlie Bertsch | Tuesday, December 11, 2007 at 09:43 PM
Remember when Rolling Stone actually published negative reviews of famous artists' albums? I still remember Greil Marcus' scathing review of Dylan's "Street-Legal," and Dave Marsh's harsh pan of Bob Seger's "Against the Wind." And if there are two artists that those critics loved more than Dylan and Seger, I'd be shocked (OK, Marsh loves Springsteen more than Seger, but it's close).
And can you imagine how folks would react today to Lester Bangs?
It's ironic that the RS record section has gotten a welcome boost recently from none other than Christgau himself.
Posted by: Jeff | Tuesday, December 11, 2007 at 09:55 PM