Chris Dahlen over at Pitchfork has a very interesting column about the future of music criticism. He argues that in the Internet age, criticism is becoming largely irrelevant when Last.fm charts and the Hype Machine show what people are really interested in. Yet, this only tells us to like something and ignores the why offered by good criticism. I think Dahlen’s opinions are well-argued, but what he leaves out is that by giving up on “professional” criticism and giving in to mass opinion as the arbiter of taste, you’re left with the lowest common denominator.
Take blogging, an area where standards should presumably be higher – unique people with unique tastes expressing themselves. Problem is, while many of us do talk about fringe artists, where we overlap is the more pedestrian stuff. One need look no further than the Hype Machine’s popular tracks and most blogged artists or the favorite albums discussion on the Elbo.ws blogger message board — who are we talking about? The biggest buzz bands of the year are Band of Horses, Beirut (two half-baked records with a handful of great songs) and past-their-prime mainstays such as Belle & Sebastian, Yo La Tengo and Cat Power.
Now, I like all of those records! Some of them I like a lot! So I blogged on all of them and so did everybody else, and this becomes the overall taste of the tastemakers — not the more deserving Maritimes or Chad VanGaalens. Unlike a site like Pitchfork, which can influence a few thousand people to download (if not buy) a record, blogs only really have strength in numbers; unfortunately, this is also their greatest weakness.
Fringe artists and genres are exactly that — the fringe. When the mainstream co-opts them, something is always lost in translation; Death Cab for Cutie and the Decemberists are good enough bands, but they’re hardly the powerhouses that less-recognized indie-rockers like The Microphones or The Wrens are or were. There are a few rare exceptions to this (the Arcade Fire and even the first Strokes album come to mind) but turn on your radio or MTV and see if you can stomach more than a couple songs. It’s the job of criticism to champion the unrecognized underdog and cut through the bullshit and rosy love-fests surrounding the more inflated, accessible acts and in that respect, critics will always be necessary — no matter how antiquated they may become.
Dahlen’s own review today of Joanna Newsom’s Ys seems to betray this awareness, as he virtually ignores the record itself — the lengthy songs, the pristine sound and the unimpeachable recording pedigree behind it, and any discussion of the killer melodies of “Emily” — in favor of focusing on, analyzing and subsequently wholeheartedly endorsing Newsom’s lyricism. This is obviously a review meant to persuade, and while the fat 9.4 hovering at the top of the page assists a bit in that regard, it’s a perfect example of a critic flexing what muscle his profession still has left.