Back when music was expensive and difficult to acquire, people would do their research before deciding to buy an album or single. That meant turning to the record reviews section of magazines like Rolling Stone, Turn, mojo, Q, or dozens of others.
Each had a staff of critics whose job it was to pick apart the music and offer opinions on whether a particular release was worth your time and money. Some of these journals even published the collected works of their critics.
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music fans familiar — depending on – the writings of Robert Christgau (Rolling Stone, Billboard, Village Voice, Playboy), Lisa Robinson (CREEM, The NME, Rockszene, Vanity Fair), Nick Kent (The NME, the face), David Fricke (Rolling Stone), Paul Morley (The NME, BLITZ), Greil Marcus (Village Voice, Rolling Stone) and of course Lester Bangs (CREEM, rolling stone), who probably did more to make rock criticism a respected art form than anyone else.
She and others helped fans connect more to the music, taught us about the machinery of star making, and helped us make sense of things.
Old-school record reviews were not only enlightening, but entertaining. Take this review by Lou Reeds for example – um — hard to listen, get-me-out-of-my-record-deal-release, Metal machine music. It appeared in CREAM Magazine 1975.
And it wasn’t just her opinion that we valued; They contributed to the culture. In 1971, in a CREEM article about ? and the mysterians. The BBC’s Stuart Maconie is credited with popularizing the term ‘Britpop’. Chrissie Hynde applied lessons from her time as a journalist Then me founding The Pretenders. Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys did the same after working at smash hits.
One of the first types of online music sites was to publish reviews (or at least opinions) of new releases. Perhaps the best known and most notorious of these was pitchfork, which made it clear that they had no trouble impaling whatever was put in front of them. The best/worst review that appeared among his posts – a 2006 review by Jet Shine on Album – contained no words at all. However, the message was very, very clear.
Critics should be fearless in their opinions, unafraid to call them as they saw them. Dave Marsh, for example, praised John Bonham’s drumming skills despite being hailed as one of the greatest of all time. Lester Bangs hated Black Sabbath and called the lyrics “crazy” on their debut album.
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Jon Landau, the critic who later became a crush on Bruce Springsteen and eventually became his manager, wrote the following about Jimi Hendrix: “Despite Jimi’s musical brilliance and the group’s absolute precision, too often the poor quality of the songs and the stupidity of the lyrics fall on the record Path.”
And then JD Constantine writes about a 1985 album by a band called GTR. His one word review? “SHT.” Ouch.
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Today, however, the landscape is different, largely because of social media, as Thomas Hobbs pointed out in his writing The Telegraph. “Browsing the reviews section of the NME website in 2022, one will witness four out of five reviews tending to frame every other artist as ‘genius’ and almost all songs as ‘cathartic’ and shy away from criticism.”
Why? Backlash from fans, particularly those who have banded together to become hardcore evangelists and protectors of the brands 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 try to smash you on Twitter or in the comments section of any online post. These “stans” — obsessed, avid, highly-motivated fans of a particular celebrity — will stop at nothing to make sure you understand that you’re not just wrong, you’re stupid, thoughtless, tasteless, and worthless.
I learned about this firsthand when I made a casual, ill-advised reference to Kim Kardashian on Twitter. Although I thought about it soberly and deleted the post after 15 minutes, the counterattacks continued for a week. Some of the things that were written and inferred were not just hurtful but vicious, like I was responsible for a mass slaughter of puppies. No amount of blame seemed to work with the Twitter mob. Eventually the uproar subsided, but the lesson was learned.
Then, a few years ago, I wrote a critical post about 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 diminutive often used affectionately by fans. The reaction was fierce, with at least one person demanding an apology, retraction and some degree of physical flogging for my sexist, degrading treatment of The Great Woman.
Tackling 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 less critical. Who needs that kind of grief and abuse?
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Another problem is access. Publicists and managers follow what is written about their clients, like the NSA al-Qaeda. If you say something negative, you risk being cut off not only by the criticized artist but also by other artists on their list. Yes, they hold grudges and have long memories. If a music journalist does not have access, then a large part of his livelihood is wasted. And if they give in to the pressure, how is the journalist supposed to tell the truth?
What does this mean for the future of music journalism? I’ve noticed workarounds where critics post recommendations about music they like instead of posting reviews about releases. There will always be those who have the strength to stand up to the Stans mobs out there, and thank goodness for that.
But I worry that an important form of serious art criticism is on the wane, being bullied to death by those who refused to accept a discouraging word about the objects of their obsession.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster on Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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