20 September 2015

Dying Critics

The announcement that the New Musical Express is being turned into a free-sheet given away in tube stations, student refectories and record shops prompted one television station to call in a Pop Music Journalist for interview.  For over half a century the NME (its title cleverly contrived to create a mnemonic reflecting its anti-establishment, rebellious character) was the arbiter and leader of taste and fashion in the pop music world and its writers were regarded by many as the ultimate authorities in commenting on the genre.  The journalist interviewed on television clearly felt that the magazine, even in its new free format, had no future because “people don’t look to music journalists and critics to tell them what to think about a song or to govern their tastes in music; they can go online and read countless reviews from their peers which are far more relevant to them”. 

That’s all true, and it is a widespread perception that with so many download sites offering so much music and with so many online reviews to read there is no need for the professional opinion-former, taste-arbiter or music critic.  Who needs to go through the effort of getting hold of a newspaper or magazine and reading through columns of someone else’s ideas when you can click a button and read bite-sized morsels of thought from “real-life” individuals?

In the arena of Pop music, where appreciation of a piece of music is largely governed by personal taste, I doubt that the semi-literate and largely incoherent words strung loosely together as “customer reviews” on download sites really offer much of value to the reader; even if the writers obviously like to get something off their chests.  In the world of Classical music, where appreciation of a piece of music is a far more complex and multi-faceted thing, there remains a real need (if not an actual demand) for comment and analysis at a level which goes far beyond the goblets of dismembered grammar which adorn those sites where, perhaps, a majority of enthusiasts go to access their music.

Taste is a very personal thing, and to an extent there is little point in anyone trying to convince another to like a particular piece of music or a particular performance.  Taste is the product of an intricate mix of social and ethnic roots, family background, education, intelligence and experience.  Everyone’s taste is valid and to be respected even where it differs radically from someone else’s.  Given that, can there ever be validity in promoting one person’s taste above another; which is what the online “customer reviews”, be they for airlines, hotels, restaurants, sex partners or music, do? 

For example, do any of these comments, taken at random from a YouTube video of Zara Larsson, offer any kind of valid insight into the music or its performance?

This is literally the best thing i have ever seen and heard
Simply one word, Wow.
loved it so much!! I love her voice, it's so amazing
This was shot in Iceland, or some place that looks exactly like Iceland. Cool song :)
FUCK THIS IS THE BEST SONG AND MUSIC VIDEO EEEVVVEEERRR!!!!!!!!!:D:D:D<3<3<3<3<3<3

All these sad souls, it seems to me, simply feel the need to indulge in the narcissistic practice of inflicting their taste on the world.  It isn’t much better (if at all) in the Classical music arena.  Again, taken at random, I found a YouTube clip of someone called Han Kim playing the clarinet.  I’m not sure that any of these comments have any relevance to what I heard.

he's good i play clarinet too
If u dont like Asians dont say it no one likes white people and i rather be an Asian then a white milky person
Everyone like white people everyone hates u
FUCKING GOALS IM ABOUT TO GRADUATE HIGH SCHOOL CANT SIGHT READ FOR SHIT AND THE HIGHEST LEVEL OF MUSIC I CAN PLAY IS A GRADE 4 SOMEONE SHOOT ME. YET IM SUPPOSED TO GET A SCHOLARSHIP KEEP DREAMING MOM AND DAD😂😂😑😑😑

And this is the kind of valid music criticism which our Pop Music Journalist feels is appropriate to replace the columns of thought-provoking prose which was, for so long, the stuff of NME?

Genuine criticism, in any field, has to transcend the limitations of individual taste and try to encourage people to think differently or, at least, approach the reception of a musical piece or performance from a different standpoint.  To do that, critics need to call on a wide-ranging experience, knowledge, understanding and impartiality to give credibility, authority and substance to their writing without imposing an individual taste on those who do not share it. 

The death, yesterday, of the art critic Brian Sewell (him of the infinitely tight vowels and delicately manicured consonants) robbed us of one of the last true critics; a man whose immense knowledge and love of his subject allowed him to utter damning and often harsh criticism without any hint that he was trying to force his own opinion on his readership.  We certainly knew what he liked and what he did not like, but we understood where he was coming from, and even if we vehemently disagreed, we took note of his words and certainly re-considered our own opinions; even if ultimately we did not change them.


It is indeed a very sad day when his kind of intelligent, considered and focused criticism is replaced by the wit and wisdom of the likes of Claus Marboe Sigersmark or, God forbid, Alison Dilaurentis 

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