In Defense of the Critic

Chris Neal | November 15th, 2010

Kevin J. Coyne over at Country Universe caused a ripple in the space-time continuum of the country music blogoverse a couple of weeks ago with his ruthless takedown of Sugarland’s latest. “The Incredible Machine is a terrible album, an unmitigated disaster that manages to fail in ways that shouldn’t even be possible,” he wrote, concluding his thorough unpacking of what he saw as the album’s myriad flaws before concluding with a damning one-and-a-half-star rating.

What followed in the comments was almost unprecedented in my experience of reading (and writing) negative reviews and the attendant reader commentary: a general consensus that Coyne was pretty much right. The response he received included a bare minimum of Sugarland superfans making their cases for the album’s virtues, mostly by recounting how well the new songs go down live. There were a few folks whose feelings about the polarizing album reflected my own: I’m still a fan and look forward to seeing what they come up with next, but this is my least favorite of the duo/trio/band/whatever’s slim but impressive catalog. And then there were those among Coyne’s commenters who turned this review-and-reaction cycle into that most rare of situations. Here were discriminating listeners paying attention to the opinion of a critic whose work they know and trust, and deciding publicly to skip Machine and spend their hard-earned money elsewhere.

In the information age, the relationship between professional critic and reader has become so complex and frayed that it’s difficult for either party to know what is expected, or what to expect, from the other. That used to be a pretty simple exchange. Back in the day, the very fact that one had earned a position as a critic at an organ capable of reaching the entire country was de facto proof of one’s value as an analyst. As such, they earned strong responses from fans and artists alike. Acts like Billy Joel and Don Henley have in the past been known for launching into onstage tirades about unflattering reviews. Toby Keith once took up four minutes and two seconds of a major-label album’s valuable running time deriding a small-time newspaper reviewer in song (“The Critic”). Artists on the receiving end of poor reviews have always dismissed them as meaningless—only the fans’ opinions matter, critics are elitists, writers are just frustrated musicians, and so on and so forth. Mind you, I have yet to find an artist or fan who has ever said the same upon reading an overwhelmingly positive review.

Still, you know what opinions are like, and that everyone has one—the difference is that now everyone can share their own particular scent with the world with a few clicks of the mouse. Given this nonstop flurry of information, the value of the critic is both diminished and amplified. When I was growing up in rural Virginia, my exposure to music was limited to my family’s record collection and the crackling sounds from the three radio stations we could pick up in Possum Hollow (that’s right, and the second word is pronounced “holler”). So during our weekly sojourns to the grocery store I searched the racks for magazines I could trust, whose writers’ sound opinions could actually convince me to buy albums that I had never heard. Thankfully, this is no longer the case—in the internet age, one could theoretically spend all of one’s waking hours listening to great music that will never be played on the radio, or indeed never be written about in a magazine. Today the power to bypass the gatekeeper is decisively in your hands. There is no reason to buy an album (or, in these single-serving days, a track) without at least sampling it. You don’t have to trust any ink-stained (or, given the death of print, pixel-stained) wretch to tell you what to listen to.

Just as there have never been so many opinions at your disposal as a listener, there have never been so many quality opinions at your disposal. There have never been so many well-informed and well-articulated opinions at your disposal, and the barrier to entry is no longer employment at a newspaper or magazine but the bloody-minded determination and audacity required to start a blog. But taking advantage of all those sources to guide your own buying and listening habits requires a degree of effort that audiences of previous generations didn’t have to worry about. You can find critics whose tastes and values mirror your own to a degree that a listener even 20 years ago could not have imagined, but you’ll have to do a lot of clicking and reading to figure out just which ones are for you.

No matter whom you wind up trusting or rejecting, I can assure you that the goal from this side of the computer screen remains the same as it ever was. This particular critic, at heart, just wants to connect you with music that will enrich your life the way my favorite music has enriched mine. For each of those consumers who read Coyne’s Sugarland review and elected to keep their money in their pockets, there are others who will respond positively to the album’s more sympathetic critics and part with that cash with a satisfied mind. I still recall how a decade ago, just after I moved to Nashville, I wrote a review of Steve Holy’s Blue Moon album. I was charmed by its mix of contemporary country and old-school Roy Orbison operatic touches, and described what I liked about it as best I could. A few weeks later I got a letter from a reader who said she had bought Blue Moon based strictly on that review, and was elated to have discovered her new favorite album. Each piece of music we love is like a dear friend, and to introduce someone to a new friend is an honor indeed.

  1. Bob
    November 15, 2010 at 6:42 am

    Good article. I would add that if the price is right, a consumer may ignore the trusted critic if the artist has previously put out only good music. I should’ve listened to Kevin but at least it didn’t cost me much.

    You mentioned giving Steve Holy’s Blue Moon cd a good review a decade ago. I saw Holy in concert about 5 years ago. He’s a great singer and entertainer but probably not country enough for some.

  2. Paul W Dennis
    November 15, 2010 at 7:46 am

    While it is true that is possible to sample nearly all new releases the fact remains that critical reviews often bring to the reader’s attention, music that the reader might not have thought to sample.

    Also, some samples are much easier to locate than others so that without something to trigger the search (a review, a friend’s recommendation, etc.), the existence of the recording may be largely unknown.This is particularly true in the case of new artists, but also true for artists outside of country radio’s usual limited playlists

    Your comment “… Artists on the receiving end of poor reviews have always dismissed them as meaningless—only the fans’ opinions matter, critics are elitists, writers are just frustrated musicians, and so on and so forth. Mind you, I have yet to find an artist or fan who has ever said the same upon reading an overwhelmingly positive review …” is so true.

  3. Ben Foster
    November 15, 2010 at 8:38 am

    I enjoyed this piece very much. SO true. There have been quite a few times when I’ve written a negative review (It never happens on the positive reviews) when people make their tired old claim that I only became a critic because I don’t have the talent for a music career so I’m taking bitter pot shots at those who do. I became a critic because I love music and I love to write. Besides, you can’t necessarily assume that a critic has no musical talent. Some are very talented musically.

    Anway, your post very well sums up some of the most satisfying aspects of reviewing music. While I’ll gladly give my opinion on the new Taylor Swift hit, it’s also nice to be able to tell people about this great new song on Mary Chapin Carpenter’s new album, which they’ll probably never hear on the radio, and never would have heard of otherwise.

  4. the pistolero
    November 15, 2010 at 9:36 am

    It’s not so much the critics themselves I personally have a problem with; it’s the sense of elitism that at least some in traditional media have vis-a-vis what they do. I don’t understand why an Amazon review from a fan of a band would be any less credible than, say, a review in a big-city newspaper from someone who’s not a even a fan of the genre whose music he/she is reviewing, let alone the band.

  5. Ollie
    November 15, 2010 at 9:55 am

    I don’t know for certain if it is true of Amazon “fan” reviews of albums but many (obviously not all or even most) Amazon “fan” reviews of books are written by PR flacks or employees of publishing companies. I suspect that at least some music “fan” reviews on Amazon are also written by professionals paid to promote the artist or album.

  6. Rick
    November 15, 2010 at 10:58 am

    When critics whose taste I respect praise a new album, that will motivate me to try to listem to a track or two to see if I’m interested but that’s about it. I will typically only “buy blind” on inexpensive used CDs because if they lack merit I’ll just toss them in the trash and feel no remorse. The local “Wherehouse” music store allows exchanges on used CD purchases, so there’e no risk of being stuck with a doggy album.

    Mostly I rely on the opinions of music exchange pals I have in Australia, Canada, England, and here in the US to put me onto unfamiliar artists whom I’m prone to like. Finding friends who have very similar tastes in music who are active in seeking out quality new music comes in real handy.

    As for album reviews, I enjoy reading them for the intrinsic literary entertainment value alone even if I have no interest in the artist or the music, which is most of the time. Fine writing style with a personal flair coupled with interesting and humorous turns of a phrase are always a pleasure to read regardless of the subject matter. That reminds me, any chance of The 9513 getting P.J. O’Rourke to contribute something now and then? (lol)

  7. BAMBI
    November 15, 2010 at 11:52 am

    An amazon fan review is never so articulate or as informative as a professional review. Generally the reviews from the people that bother to post are positive, as they are “fans” and bought the product/ album. And worse than unconditional enthusiasm for the product or album is the fact that these reviews usually say little more than “Best Album ever. And you suck if you don’t like it,” with little description or reasoning. Of course, a professional critic writes better.

    While I may not have found a critic whose tastes match mine exactly, it’s easy to find professional ones who are knowledgeable and more familiar with the genre than the typical fans. (They listen to more music, are exposed to more obscure tracks, are more used to analyzing what they hear). I return to these critics to read their reviews no necessarily because I expect to agree with their opinions, but because I can respect their opinions and use their well written reviews to get an idea of whether I might be interested in an album/song/artist/whatever.

    A great review might even get you to appreciate nuances of a song you would otherwise gloss over, or get you to listen to a song a different way. The same way literary criticism can affect the way you read Shakespeare.

    Critics are more important than ever just because of the sheer volume of music available for download. How else do you know where to start listening? Critics can introduce you to music you might not otherwise know even existed, (If you rely on Amazon reviews you pretty much have to know what you’re looking for), and weed out all the stuff that would just be a waste of time. I do feel music critics “connect [me] with music that will enrich [my] life.”

  8. M.C.
    November 15, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Pistolero–One big difference between Amazon reviews and professional critics comes from the anonymity of online reviewers. As Ollie noted, an anonymous review can be from someone associated with what’s being reviewed, or as Bambi said, a fan site can lead people to reviews, and the positive comments suddenly pile up without any attempt at perspective or context.
    Similarly, someone with an ax to grind might criticize something without any concern for accuracy or artistry. It’s easy to do when you don’t have to attach a real name to your words.
    Also, professional critics usually have editors, and believe me, we all can use good editors and fact checkers from time to time. Most professional publications have a system built into the process that provides checks and balances, so to speak. That obviously isn’t the case online, where everything from petty name-calling (hello Rick!) to false information flourishes.
    Anyway, good piece Chris.

  9. the pistolero
    November 15, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    And worse than unconditional enthusiasm for the product or album is the fact that these reviews usually say little more than “Best Album ever. And you suck if you don’t like it,”

    While I see many of those reviews and thus agree with you to an extent, I don’t think that’s always the case. A lot of it depends on the genre and said genre’s audience. If you read the reviews of, say, an Iron Maiden album, they’re going to go into much more detail than “this album rules.” Some of those reviews can be just as informative as those of any newspaper critic. There’s some wheat along with the chaff in those reviews, and you have to learn to distinguish one from the other, but it’s really not that difficult. To each his own, but I just don’t see the Authorized Critics being dethroned as a bad thing. Like I said at my blog, the whole idea just smacks of elitism to me:

    “Listen to me. My tastes are refined and diverse.”

    Left unsaid, of course, seems to be, “…and they should be the standard by which good music and bad music is determined.”

  10. Barry Mazor
    November 15, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    The word “elitist” sure gets tossed around like crazy these days.

    Pistolero–are you suggesting that there’s no such thing as tastes being refined–in the sense, of, oh, more educated by experience with a vast amount of music for comparison, by experience in reviewing itself–and plain old actually knowing more about what’s going on in the way a piece of music works than somebody else?

    Are you suggesting that there’s no such thing as education and experience on a matter like this, or relative capability, talent even, for making a case for whatever a writer may believe–or that, by implication, education and yep, getting to know more than someone else on a given topic is inherently elitist and oh, just makes people who know less feel bad?

    .

  11. Jon
    November 15, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Well, here’s the thing. If one’s idea of what a critic does encompasses nothing more than dishing up explicit or implicit statements of taste, then sure, Pistolero has a point. But while that idea of the critic’s job is depressingly widespread, it’s an exceedingly impoverished one. And once your notion of what a critic does (or ought to do) expands beyond that point, then what Barry says comes into play.

    But what I don’t quite get here – sorry, Chris – is how this piece constitutes a defense of the critic. It starts out like it might be one, discussing an exceedingly (maybe excessively?) negative review and the way readers might respond to it, but slides from that into a discussion of the thrill and value of a positive review – of turning a reader on to something he or she might otherwise miss. And I don’t see any reason to think that needs a defense.

  12. Ollie
    November 15, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    Just as Pistolero notes in reference to amazon.com reviews that “[t]here’s some wheat along with the chaff in those reviews, and you have to learn to distinguish one from the other, but it’s really not that difficult,” the same can be said of reviews by critics who work for the traditional media in big cities.

    Also, I’m not sure which word gets tossed around more often lately– “elitism” or “socialism.”

  13. Chris N.
    November 15, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Perhaps a more accurate title would have been “A Reminder That What I Do Has Not Yet Been Rendered Completely Useless.”

    (Although I don’t actually do a lot of reviews anymore. Most of my time is spent on straight-up music journalism — or as I like to call it, “music” “journalism.”)

  14. Jon
    November 15, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Music journalism: infinitely preferable to reviewing.

  15. Vicki
    November 15, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    As a member of Carrie’s fan club, and a music educator, when I hear Carrie sing flat as she did on Mama’s song at the CMA awards on the “he is GOOOOOOD” part and if the phrasing is off (the stop, breathe, start and then sing the last word in a phrase), I share it. But if you share that on the club site or other areas where Carrie fans are rabid, you are deemed a “Carrie hater”. Which I’m not. I’m just being honest to what I have heard. I imagine that is what a music critic faces daily.

  16. the pistolero
    November 15, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    Pistolero–are you suggesting that there’s no such thing as tastes being refined

    No. I just think that’s a lot more subjective than a lot of people. And how do we really know that the hypothetical critic here listens to and appreciates a wide variety of music? How do we know the critic doesn’t harbor a bias against certain genres or subgenres of music?

    Or would you say there’s a valid reason for bands like Rush and Bad Company not being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

  17. the pistolero
    November 15, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    I should note that I agree the same can definitely be said of the newspaper critics as I said of the Amazon reviewers. But I don’t understand why one group is dismissed out of hand while the other is given so much credibility. They’re humans just like everyone else. And I’ve seen plenty of negative reviews on any album you’d care to name, all within context of the respective artists’ catalogs.

    Also, I find it supremely ironic that newspaper critics are being defended on a blog — after all, newspaper reporters and columnists are still dismissing bloggers as every bit the “amateur” that you (collectively speaking) dismiss the Amazon reviewers to be.

  18. Chris N.
    November 15, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Rush and Bad Company aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because Jann Wenner doesn’t like them. See also Kiss, Iron Maiden and many others. The J. Geils Band, on the other hand, is on the shortlist this year — led by frontman Peter Wolf, good friend of Jann Wenner.

    The Country Music Hall of Fame handles its induction process so much better than the RRHOF that one would hope the latter would be ashamed.

  19. Barry Mazor
    November 15, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    You know what a critic thinks, and his or biases, by reading. And it used to, at least, be possible in addition to get some idea of their background and credibility from the demands of the publications and editors that hired them. Sometimes it still is.

    I mean, how do we know anything? Evidence! Plus the goods sense to sift it.

  20. Chris N.
    November 15, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    I know it’s a pain, but it can be helpful in the long run to learn the biases of the critics you read. Everyone has them, and everyone wears them on their sleeves, so it’s not that difficult. For example, always be leery when Roger Ebert starts going on about Neve Campbell — it’s clear from his writing that he’s smitten with her, so he may not be the best judge of her acting.

    For my part, I love seeing my own biases confounded. If an act I don’t care for makes a record that I enjoy, it’s a pleasure to write about that. When I push play on any album, no matter who made it, I’m hoping it’s a masterpiece.

  21. the pistolero
    November 15, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Rush and Bad Company aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because Jann Wenner doesn’t like them. See also Kiss, Iron Maiden and many others.

    Precisely. And then there was Rolling Stone‘s 2002 “Women in Rock” issue, which featured, among others, Britney Spears, Mandy Moore and Pink. Why should music journalists who claim such artists are “rock” artists be given any credibility whatsoever? I realize not all of them think like that (and I also realize we’re getting into the whole what-is-insert-genre-here argument), but just the same, why should they be considered among the supreme arbiters of what’s good and what isn’t?

  22. WAYNOE
    November 15, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    “Back in the day, the very fact that one had earned a position as a critic…”

    How does one earn this position? It isn’t by knowledge of the subject as some critics of country music readily admit that they have not been listening very long.

    By the way, I don’t agree with Coyne. He agrees with ME! Sugarland sucks.

  23. Barry Mazor
    November 15, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    It’s that free market, Waynoe. You earned the position by first being hired on the basis of what some editor took to be your promise as a writer. And that was, at the beginning, usually on the basis of a submitted audition sort of sample, or college paper work or something like that. Writing on spec. And you worked your way through a lot if work to a larger publication, and a larger one, and pubs kept asking, because you were getting a response, and the gigs would get more demanding, and had more recognition attached, so maybe you got a book or other media exposure.

    It was called “working your way up,” a quaint notion, no doubt. But that’s what earned has meant.

  24. Matt Bjorke
    November 16, 2010 at 12:31 am

    Chris N: When I push play on any album, no matter who made it, I’m hoping it’s a masterpiece.

    Which is something I hope for all the time. I may like a lot but very few albums are truly ‘masterpieces’ but that hope is always there.

  25. bob
    November 16, 2010 at 8:31 am

    critics, Do you think they ever written a song in there life, probably not. Maybe they should try it. they might then have a clue
    http://www.nashvillecalifornia.com

  26. stormy
    November 16, 2010 at 9:50 am

    I have written song lyrics, for the character in my novel who wants to be a singer.

  27. Jon
    November 16, 2010 at 10:03 am

    @Stormy So, does that mean you’re adding “aspiring songwriter” to “aspiring critic” on your resume? Because if so, you might want to consider that songs have, you know, music to go along with the lyrics.

    But, of course, even if a critic claims, like Jim Malec, to have written songs, or even if a critic actually *has* written them and had them recorded by actual recording artists, pointing to that is a lousy response to the argument that a person who hasn’t written songs (never mind written them successfully) can’t legitimately critique them. That argument is akin to arguing that a person who hasn’t cooked can’t eat a meal and evaluate it; that a person who hasn’t built a car can’t drive a car and critique it; that a person who hasn’t built a toilet can’t take a dump in one and comment on its utility. If you can hear a song, you can have an opinion of it. That’s not to say that opinions can be more or less informed, but the depth that one brings to such an evaluation can come from many sources.

  28. stormy
    November 16, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Jon: No, I do not not aspire to be a songwriter as well as a published critic. But the singer in my novel has to sing something, right?

  29. Jon
    November 16, 2010 at 11:09 am

    @Stormy So, then, your fictional song lyrics really have nothing to do whatsoever with this discussion.

  30. Noeller
    November 16, 2010 at 11:34 am

    @Bob: “Eunuchs in a whorehouse” argument!!

  31. Chris N.
    November 16, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    For the record, I’ve written loads of songs, and I rather like quite a few of them myself – but I always thought of myself as a prose writer first and foremost, and chose to focus on developing that talent instead. I discovered I could get just as much creative satisfaction out of that, and eventually my urge to write songs waned. But I assure you I understand the mechanics of songwriting, at least on a basic level.

    Doesn’t really matter anyway. Pauline Kael never made a movie, as far as I can recall, but for my money she was the finest film critic to ever take up a pen. The critic’s job is to evaluate the result of a process, not the process itself.

  32. stormy
    November 16, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    JOn: Lyrics are lyrics.

  33. Noeller
    November 16, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    FWIW, the entire reason I started frequenting this site was Malec’s reviews. The more sarcastic and biting, the better.

    I definitely use various critics’ reviews as a basis for my music purchases. It’s not the sole reason, but it definitely plays a big part!

  34. Leeann Ward
    November 16, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Great article, Chris.

    Critics that I trust to have sensibilities similar to mine certainly help to inform my music choices, as they help me focus my attention on what I might like out of the huge amount of music that is available. As somebody who critiques music, I definitely have my biases, but as Chris pointed out, I’m happy to have them confounded. The most recent example is Toby Keith’s new album. I’m not his biggest fan based on his last few albums, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed his latest project. As a result, I’ve been happy to be wrong about an album that I initially assumed I wouldn’t like. In some ways, something like that is more interesting than simply having my opinions affirmed.

    And, Waynnoe, Kevin does not agree with you, because he doesn’t think that Sugarland sucks, which is clear from his review.

  35. Thomas
    November 16, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    …you’re my absolute favourite critic when it comes to christmas albums, leeann.

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