Friday, February 17, 2012

The Crisis of Music Journalism

"Music journalists." "Rock critics." "Music critics."

What do these people even really do?

I was reading an article in the New York Times yesterday on that band Sleigh Bells. They are really bad and corny (see playing in front of a massive American flag on stage while using a Jackson guitar) but that's not the point. Also the issue of hardcore washup hipsters (see the guitar player having been in Poison the Well but "grown up" and moved to Williamsburg from Florida) is not the point. What IS the point is the article itself - what the writer says, how she says it and why I think she says it.

Basically, the concept of music criticism has long since run out of steam. I have felt this for quite some time, but have not been able to articulate it until reading this article. I feel like there are two things going on here. There really hasn’t been anything good or exciting going on in pop or rock music for a long time. Like probably ten years or so. Secondly, rock critics have been trying to make their own niches for many decades at this point. There is really only so much you can say about music that actually makes sense and is grounded in reality. After a while, you get out into esoteric spaceland and start putting your creative writing skills to work without much connection to what is actually on that record. There are a ton of rock and pop critics, with countless more having come since blogs hit big, and they are all in competition with each other. Just as in so many other fields, you have to make yourself stand out. There is a problem here though. A real one.

You see, when you merge the two issues – a lack of interesting music and a glut of critics who ran out of anything original to say a long time ago – you get a whole lot of emptiness. Take this Sleigh Bells article for example. The way this woman writes about them, they just sound like the most interesting band in the world:

FIRST came the recorded sound: drums and riffs, some demonically heavy marching band. Next, a couple of guys with guitars, who immediately started messing with their pedals in the darkened club. Two minutes later there was Alexis Krauss, with ripped jeans and a distinct saunter. She raised her arms as she reached the microphone, the black-haired queen of this stage. White lights exploded behind her, over a wall of Marshall stacks…

Sounds pretty exciting.

The new record is unmistakably Sleigh Bells, with dense but bigger production that puts Ms. Krauss’s voice into sweet relief over Mr. Miller’s dark metal peals. It is even more guitar driven — Mr. Miller discovered a model, the Jackson USA Soloist, that he loves — and more narrative and lyrical, with a crisper focus on arrangements and harmony over beats.

And then you hear it. Not very exciting anymore. It’s actually pretty boring. I don’t mean to single out Sleigh Bells. It’s not like they’re the worst band in the world. There are vast chasms of yawn inducing, download and delete bands. But Sleigh Bells is the impetus for this.

So why is this? Why does the writer speak of the band like this? I argue that she doesn’t have much of a choice. She can’t just say that they’re shit. If you only ever write that bands are garbage, you won’t make it too far in the journalism biz. So you are left writing positively of bands that often are garbage. What do you do? Make things up. Who cares, right? You can’t get fired for exaggeration like you can in fact-based journalism. You take your creative abilities and run with them. Run far. Like a marathon far. I guess part of it is that she is writing for the New York Times, where 95% of the readership doesn’t know a thing about underground music. This a novelty for them.

But this is a really common thing, the overselling and overhyping of music, where everything is so overblown. I read shit like this all the time. The band will sound really great and exciting and like I said above, then I hear it. And I wonder what the hell the author was listening to. I imagine that it’s the same thing, but they have to find something to say about it.