How The Internet Is Reshaping Music Criticism

Download Audio

We speak with Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers, who has sifted through interviews, reviews, blogs and even a speech to find today's most provocative pieces of music criticism.

She's collected her favorites in a new anthology titled, "Best Music Writing 2010," excerpted below.  Ann walks us through some of the most colorful selections, and she explains how the Internet has expanded the world of musical criticism.

Best Music Writing 2010
By Ann Powers

Here’s a conversation I have at least once a week.

“What do you do?” says the nice acquaintance—a mom I’ve met at a bowling party, maybe, or one of my husband’s colleagues at the university where he teaches, encountered in the wine line at some professional to-do.

“I’m a music writer,” I say.

“Oh, that must be fun,” my interlocutor replies. Blank stare. “So . . . what does that mean?”

After we determine that, yes, I’ve met Prince, and certainly I’ve lost some hearing going to so many concerts, the conversation usually dries up. Beyond mentioning their favorite artists, if they have any, and asking me what I’m listening to lately (answer: everything, that’s my job), most people just don’t have a lot to say about music. On a daily basis, it’s background for them, even if it’s also sometimes meant the world.

Don’t tell me this is because I’m in my forties, past the age of loving music to distraction. It’s not only true of the parental set I know from squiring around my six-year-old. I’ve had the same discussion with fourteen-year-olds, college kids, even the boho professionals who work in related fields like arts programming or librarianship. These friends respect my labor in the pop trenches and are curious about my world; most would never invoke the cliché about writing/music/dancing/architecture that justifies anti-intellectualism and reinforces an outdated high-low cultural divide. Most admire what I do, in the abstract. They just can’t see their own way into my song-soaked, rhythm-crazy view of the world.

Which is funny, because many of them live there, too. I constantly witness people engaging in the same practice that occupies so much of my life, simply without committing their acts to text. Real-life examples: when Rebecca talks to her son Walter about what makes that new Avett Brothers record so much better than the last one, that’s thinking hard about music. So are Pauline’s breakdown of how the drums inspire the martial moves in her capoeira class, Greg’s argument, with DVD examples, of what makes a great Bollywood soundtrack, and Kathy’s morning-after report of the U2 concert at the Rose Bowl.

Not to mention all the arguments: about what Obama should have on his iPod, whether garage rock is different than punk rock, if Cher should be forgiven for introducing Auto-Tune to the world, which Al Green album is the best, why rap is in decline (or is it?). And the personal stuff. There’s a lifetime inside a simple statement like, “My kid loves the Ramones!” Music writing solidifies these passionate exchanges about the sounds that help us define and express our feelings, feel our bodies, and keep moving through life.

Music itself is a call that demands response. It organizes desire, sorrow, and joy into a form both primal—the ear is the first sense organ to begin working when we are in the womb—and intensely communal; in every known culture, some form of music has been a constant in everyday life. Making music or listening to it is part of how we grow; sharing music is what helps us create community. You don’t have to be a musician, or even a major music geek, to exist within that realm. Musical expertise, the star-fan division of labor so prevalent in the classic rock era is, after all, a relatively new concept. “A couple of generations ago, before television, many families would sit around and play music together for entertainment,” wrote scientist and musician Daniel J. Levitin in his 2006 bestseller This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of an Obsession. “Nowadays there is a great emphasis on technique and skill, and whether a musician is ‘good enough’ to play for others. Music making has become a somewhat reserved activity in our culture, and the rest of us listen.” Until recently, the same was generally true about music writing. The lucky (or foolish, given the pay scale) few published their thoughts, and the rest of us read. Yet most everyone is all ears and in tune, responding to each other by channeling the power of the music we hear, and love or hate.

Broadband-enabled interactivity had already endangered Levitin’s postulation by the time his book was published, though the vestigial allure of virtuosity remained powerful on “American Idol” and in competitive shredding games like “Rock Band.” It’s hardly news that Consciousness 2.0 is dissolving the century-old division between amateur and professional in the music sphere. In his recent article “The New Parlor Piano: Home Recording and the Return of the Amateur,” the historian Karl Hagstrom Miller notes that in 2007 the money spent on musical instruments nearly matched income going to prerecorded music. “Acquiring the skills for creative musical expression is more popular than it has been for almost a century,” he writes. “Making music is in. Becoming famous: wildly overrated.”

The same is true of music writing, which rarely brought fame anyway, or even a decent living. These days, music writing is in, maybe more than it’s ever been. But declaring yourself a music writer (FOR REALS, as the kids in Cali and on the Internet say) is wildly overrated. There’s no money in it—a reality of nearly every career choice aside from nursing in these times of economic collapse and restructuring, but particularly true in both journalism and the music industry, two fields hit extra hard by the web’s flattening effect on information flow. There’s also precious little authority of the old kind. Expert pronouncements and writerly pirouetting no longer pay any kind of rent.

You know the lament: as bloggers replace critics, and Tweeters replace bloggers, respected media organs shut down, the very sentence structures that once made thought elegant give way to cheap acronyms, and chaos ensues. This environment, the argument goes, is highly threatening to sustained thought. Forget having your life changed by a great music book, the way mine was by Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train in 1985. We can’t even trust anyone to tell us whether the new Justin Timberlake album deserves five stars.

But I think despair is boring. It lands the worrier in the time-travel trap of longing for the past while fearing the future. It obscures the present. The present is unstable, but that’s what makes music writing—and all cultural writing, in fact—so exciting a practice these days. We have to dump our expectations and try to use our voices and our minds in different ways.

Greil Marcus, the guest editor of last year’s Best Music Writing volume, wrote about the “sense of contingency and urgency” that motivated many of the pieces he chose for the book. Guess what? A year later, the mood hasn’t changed. There’s plenty of panic among writers; everybody’s organizing panels on “The Death of the Critic” (I did it myself, at the University of Southern California in 2008) and applying to grad school, the default move of the suddenly unemployable brainiac. The elegy for writing has become a literary subgenre in and of itself. I’ve included one here—Christopher Weingarten’s speech at the ­Twitter-oriented 140 Characters conference, a jeremiad that’s also a powerful kick in the pants.

As with all transitional times, though (and the Buddhist in me quotes William James: life is in the transitions as much as in the terms connected), the emerging reality shares space with what’s proven effective in the past. This volume is chock-full of music writing from all over the stylistic spectrum; the selection is an argument that all of these approaches serve their purpose, and relate to each other, and should survive.

The two pieces most often recommended to me by outside lobbyists are classics of their kind. Jason Fine’s profile of Merle Haggard, from Rolling Stone magazine, demonstrates what comes of the old-fashioned culture reporter’s skills: patience, good listening, and legwork. Greg Tate’s Village Voice cover essay about Michael Jackson epitomizes the kind of historically river-deep, intellectually mountain-high cultural criticism that a veteran can execute because he has spent a lifetime exploring his subject. Both were published in hallowed old-media institutions; I’m glad Rolling Stone had the resources to support Jason’s extended hang with Merle, and that the Voice still occasionally gives Tate, a titan of our field, a chance to meditate on a subject at length.

But then the other selection inspired by Michael Jackson’s legacy—and my favorite from the avalanche of great writing that came after the King of Pop’s death, which I hope will make for its own volume one day—came to me not from a bastion of dead-tree journalism, but within my e-mail box. Jason King’s exhaustive, emotionally rich overview of Jackson’s music and celebrity was just something the NYU professor, musician, and producer had to write in the wake of the loss. It’s as strong as anything published in a newspaper or magazine of record.

The same is true of a country-focused piece that a conservative thinker might contrast with Fine’s: Robert Christgau’s essay on Brad Paisley, which appears on the website for the big-box bookseller Barnes & Noble. There was a time when something published on a retail outlet website would have immediately been disqualified as catalog fodder, not real music writing. The Dean of American Rock Critics, who was rudely displaced from his Village Voice job a few years ago due to “budget cuts,” proves that such distinctions no longer hold. Major thinkers take their minds and ears along wherever they go.

One of the fundamental lessons of the blues—“You gotta move,” as the old song says, itself slipping from the fingers of the Rev. Gary Davis to Mississippi Fred McDowell to the Rolling Stones—is increasingly relevant to music people in the disaster-prone twenty-first century. Popular music writing initially flourished in carefully cultivated crash pads like Rolling Stone and Creem (“America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine,” back in the 1970s), then was dispersed into the mainstream media. The semi-professionalization of the field—few legitimate jobs, many ways to make a scanty living if you also participated in the black market by selling promo records—created a strange hybrid identity for music writers. We are snobs obsessed with expertise, prone to bashing others on the head with Top 10 lists; yet we are also outcasts, stuck in the back pages of respectable publications, and denied the legitimizing gestures of the media and academic establishments (a pop critic has never won the Pulitzer; popular music studies is a growing field, but still a bastard one at most universities). There’s also the problem all writers on the arts face: an arm’s length away from those who “really create,” we wonder if our own creativity counts.

The psychic challenge of occupying two discordant identities—the expert and the illegitimate child—has challenged many music writers. It’s resulted in an irritating stereotype, too: the nerdy snob, brilliant but pathologically awkward, as portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in homage to Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. This character, almost always the kind of white man whose machismo was thwarted by a lack of athletic ability and who isn’t much of a dancer either, is a bane in two ways: it makes those who actually resemble him feel bad, and it prevents others—women, queer men, people of color—from seeing themselves in the role. (It’s notable that Cameron Crowe, the director of Almost Famous and one of my first inspirations as a writer, possessed enough social graces to both make it in Hollywood and marry one of rock’s queen bees, Nancy Wilson of Heart.)

I hope the diversity in this book sheds a final corrective light on the truism that a music writer can be only one kind of person. The institutional racism and heterosexism that afflicts every aspect of our culture still affects music writing, lending more opportunity to a privileged few. Yet one of the best things about the slow collapse of mainstream media hierarchies is that other points of view have gained force as the bricks move and fall. On the “queer word art” blog Bully Pulpit, Tavia Nyong’o offers a take on Adam Lambert that’s more frankly sexual than anything I could have written in my job at the Los Angeles Times, and cuts to the groin of the “Idol” star’s appeal. Nikki Darling’s fearless inquiry into the sexuality and gender play in hard (pun intended) rock was killed by The Believer and published by the author herself on her blog. It made me think about W. Axl Rose in ways I’d never done before, and I’ve spent years thinking about that dude.

It might seem like I’m setting up a split between great but conservative old-media music writing and great and more daring stuff floating around the Internet. Let me knock that down right now. Another of my favorite pieces from last year was from the same publication that declined to publish Nikki Darling’s Rose essay: Michelle Tea’s incredibly well-­executed tour diary about accompanying Beth Ditto, the paradigm-­shifting frontwoman for the Gossip, through the hotel room and runway receptions of Paris Fashion Week. I chose to open the book with this piece because, to me, it has everything: personal investment and cultural analysis, a timeless passion about music and an awareness of trends, a strong personal voice and plenty of room for others to speak.

I will offer you a metaphor through which you might experience the book. It’s a trope adopted by most of the editors of this series, I’ve noticed, because, being insecure music-writer types, few of us feel wholly comfortable embracing the simple idea of a “best” list: Imagine its covers as the walls of a club, or a basement rec room, or wherever you might gather with people to listen to music and talk about it.

Tea’s article starts the conversation. There in the corner, veteran R&B chronicler Lola Oguinnaike discusses the rookie status of hip hop star Drake with Mark Swed, my colleague and the classical critic at the Los Angeles Times, who offers his own notes on L.A. Philharmonic new­bie Gustavo Dudamel as a comparison. Chicago writer and activist Jessica Hopper carries on a private conversation with Seattle musician and Renaissance Man Sean Nelson about how loving one kind of rock or another affects your views of sex, friendship, even God. Josh Kun offers a beer to Hua Hsu and points out that his investigation of Mexican regional music traveling via cellphones relates to Hsu’s essay about the end of white America. Erika Villani and Maura Johnston chat about Kanye West and Jay Z—and get into some serious talk about what it’s like to be a woman making a mark on the male-dominated comments boards of music blogs.

Hey, it’s getting loud in here.

What’s most fun to me about this fantasy is that it presents music writers as social beings, thinkers who don’t just hunker down in their rooms with their headphones on, but who thrive on interaction with each other and with the myriad characters who create and sustain music culture worldwide. That privacy does prove necessary for some efforts, like Chris Estey’s beautiful and gut-wrenching memoir told through the grooves of a Phil Ochs album, or Philip S. Bryant’s poetic reminiscence of the way the experience of listening to jazz records defined his father’s closest friendship. But for the most part, the private part of music writing is inseparable from the communal activities of mutual education, establishing taste hierarchies, spreading news, and sharing opinions.

Sometimes this involves taking on received wisdom, as Nitsuh Abebe does in his warm, sharp analysis of the mainstreaming of “indie.” Or it’s about exploring why classics become that way, as the team from XXL magazine does so well for Nas’s Illmatic album. Or it means connecting history to the present, as Alex Ross does so beautifully in his discussion of the seventieth anniversary of Marian Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which celebrates the soprano while confronting the enduring racial divide in the classical world.

The social work of the music writer can involve uncovering lost stories, like that of “America’s first rock star,” Eva Tanguay, whom independent scholar Jody Rosen brings to life; or throwing light on hidden scenes, like the Iowa noise music underground David Morris exposes. It might mean taking on the news—two pieces here take on the messy horror of the Chris Brown–Rihanna domestic violence case. It may reflect deep listening, as in Sasha Frere-Jones’s analysis of music by The-Dream, or looking in new ways, as Mary Gaitskill does when faced with a video by Lady Gaga.

The communities through which music writers develop and thrive are not strictly imaginary. Readers who’ve followed my work will uncover many real-life connections between myself and various contributors. I work with some now, have worked with many others in the past, and have had long conversations over cocktails or Chinese noodles with still others. The gang that’s risen up around the Pop Conference, the annual gathering of scholars, journalists, musicians, and music lovers held at Seattle’s Experience Music Project (it moves to UCLA in 2010) and organized by my husband, Eric Weisbard, is also heavily represented. Call it conflict of interest if you must. The Pop Conference has provided a formal space for music writing during a tumultuous time, and in doing so has supported and produced some of the best work of the decade. I’m glad to feature a slice of it.

There are pieces in this anthology by people with whom I’ve quarreled, and others by ones I’ve never met. I’ve omitted good work by great friends and mentors and younger writers I might call protégés (if I didn’t find that term embarrassingly self-congratulatory). This volume will never be complete to me, because it’s just one view of the chatter and answer song that music inspires. Still, I’m proud of it. It feels alive.

When I began writing about music in high school, I did it because I felt like an outsider in my hometown scene, where I so wanted to find my place. It took years for me to not feel awkward in a room full of musicians, partly because as a woman I was nearly always outnumbered, and partly because many musos have a deep suspicion of the verbal, which left talkative me feeling like a giant intrusive chump. Over the years, I found virtuosos who are also great conversationalists. I got over my fear of packs of dudes, and got far along enough in my career that now my reputation sometimes precedes me like a friendly yenta. Nobody—not even my perennially insecure self—can deny that I found a way inside the pop world. I thank the elders who nurtured me, the peers who challenged me and cheered me on, and the youngers who’ve gifted me with respect and renewed inspiration.

Yet in my heart, I still feel like an outsider—an inside-outsider, I guess, at home in the floating world of pop fanatics and grateful for the constant connection music brings, but always aware of the borders of my own body and the limits of my own point of view. Music has given me a way to cross those existential boundaries, to better understand the joy and hope that comes from human connection, to hear myself and become one with strangers through other people’s riffs and beats and sighs and screams.

Music writing allows me to respond to this ego-rearranging force in a way that helps me understand what happened, and keeps happening, between music and me. What happened when I heard “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” on a scratchy dubbed cassette in my kitchen in Brooklyn, or saw Paul McCartney sing “Yesterday” at an Amoeba Records in-store in Hollywood, after three decades of loving the song. What happened the first time I heard Nick Drake whisper and P.J. Harvey scream. What happens on a festival field with 60,000 people, and in a dive bar with 75. What will happen right now, when I pick up my MP3 player and take it for a walk, and tomorrow, when I hear the new noise that will spin me around in a direction I didn’t know I could go.

Know what I’m talking about? You’ve been there. You’ve thought about music this way, felt it, talked it over. You may never put it down on paper or in the data flow. But you’re music writing, too.

Copyright © Da Capo Press (November 9, 2010)

This segment aired on December 13, 2010.


More from Here & Now

Listen Live