Back when music was expensive and required effort to acquire, people did their research before opting to purchase an album or single. This involved turning to the record reviews section of magazines like rolling stone, twirl, Mojo, Q, or dozens more.
Each had a review team whose job it was to separate the music and give their opinion on whether a specific release was worth your time and money. Some of these magazines even published the collected works of their critics.
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Music Fans Trust — depended 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 Frick (rolling stone), Paul Morley (The NME, BLITZ), GreilMarcus (Voice of the Village, Rolling Stone), and of course, Lester Bangs (CREEM, Rolling stone), who probably did more than anyone else to elevate rock criticism to a respected art form.
They and others helped fans connect more to the music, taught us the star-making machinery, and helped us make sense of things.
The old school record reviews were not only informative but also entertaining. Take, for example, this review by Lou Reed – um — exit from contract difficult to listen to, get me out of my record, Music of metal machines. He appeared in CREAM reviewed in 1975.
And it wasn’t just their opinions that we valued; they contributed to the culture. In 1971, Dave Marsh was the first to use the word “punk” to describe a certain type of raw rock’n’roll in a CREEM article on ? and the Mysterians. The BBC’s Stuart Maconie is credited with popularizing the term “Britpop”. Chrissie Hynde has applied lessons learned from her time as a journalist to then me to the formation of The Pretenders. Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys did the same after working at Shattering Blows.
One of the earliest types of online music sites involved posting reviews (or at least opinions) about new releases. Perhaps the most famous and notorious of them was Fork, which was a clear indication that they had no trouble skewering anything that came their way. The best/worst review to have appeared among his publications – a review from Jet’s in 2006 Shine on album – had no words. The message was very, very clear.
Critics were meant to be fearless in their opinions, unafraid to call them what they saw them. Dave Marsh, for example, kept talking about John Bonham’s skills as a drummer even as he was hailed as one of the greatest of all time. Lester Bangs hated Black Sabbath, calling their debut album’s lyrics “dumb”.
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Jon Landau, the critic who would later rave about Bruce Springsteen and eventually become his manager, wrote this about Jimi Hendrix: “Despite Jimi’s musical brilliance and the band’s utter precision, the poor quality of the songs and the inanity of words too often gets in the way.”
And then there’s JD Constantine writing on a 1985 album by a band called GTR. His evaluation in a word? “SHT.” Ouch.
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Today, however, the landscape is different, largely due to social media, as Thomas Hobbs pointed out in The Telegraph. “Scrolling through the reviews section of NME’s website in 2022 is to witness four out of five articles that tend to call all other artists ‘genius’, almost all songs ‘cathartic’ and avoid The critics. .”
Why? Fan blowback, especially those organized as hardcore 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, ARMY and Stylers will look to destroy you on Twitter or in the comment section of any online post. These “stans” – obsessive, zealous and highly motivated fans of a particular celebrity – will stop at nothing to make sure you understand that you are not only wrong, but that you are stupid, thoughtless, tasteless and worthless.
I learned this first hand when I made a flippant and misguided reference to Kim Kardashian on Twitter. Even though I had sober second thought and deleted the post after 15 minutes, the counterattacks continued for a week. Some of the things that were written and deduced were not just hurtful but vicious, like I was responsible for a puppy slaughter. No amount of mea culpa-ing seemed to work on the Twitter crowd. Eventually the uproar died down, but the lesson was learned.
Then, a few years ago, I wrote an article criticizing Taylor Swift’s whining about not being able to acquire the rights to her masters. In it, I referred to Taylor as “Tay-Tay”, a decrease often used affectionately by fans. The backlash has been fierce, with at least one person calling for an apology, retraction, and some level of physical flogging for my sexist and demeaning treatment of The Great Woman.
Attacking critics for saying 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 heartbreak and abuse?
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Another issue is access. Publicists and managers follow what is written about their clients like the NSA follows al-Qaeda. Say something negative and you risk being cut off not only from the artist you criticized, but also from other artists on their list. Yes, they are resentful and have long memories. If a music journalist doesn’t have access to it, then a lot of their work evaporates. And if they accept 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 workarounds where reviewers post recommendations of music they like rather than posting reviews of releases. There will always be those brave enough to stand up to the crowds of stans there, and thank goodness for that.
But I fear that an important form of serious art criticism is in decline as it is bullied to death by those who 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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