In defence of the rock critic

Lester BangsYour mileage may vary’, Georgia Claire’s recent piece on the worthlessness of rock criticism, gave the impression of an archaeologist stumbling across a snippet of text from some curious – if clearly uncivilised – tribe. (Which, in fairness, isn’t an inaccurate description of most rock critics.) How funny these people are, with their made-up words and grammar-bending syntax!

Her point, of course, was that a description of Sydney band The Laurels, and rock criticism at large, make no sense. On at least one level, she’s absolutely right. As an example of the English language, it’s simply not much cop. What exactly is a psychedelic juggernaut, if not a garishly painted road train?

As an example of rock criticism, the description is hardly exemplary, but it’s hard to argue that it’s sheer nonsense in its context. (I’ll resist pointing out, as one commentator has, that the piece isn’t rock criticism at all, but rather a snippet of self-promotion, likely written by the band themselves. [OK, so I didn’t resist very hard.])

I’ve never heard The Laurels, and can’t comment on the description’s accuracy, but it does give a neat summary of both their (intended) sound and approach to music-making. Like Claire, I find the word ‘psychedelic’ somewhat nauseating, but can’t deny that, in the context of a band review, it signifies ‘sprawling guitar music inspired by the druggy rock of the 1960s’. To me, and I suspect a good many others, the term ‘shoegaze’ is equally meaningful – indeed, there’s been a spate of recent bands, like US group Beach House, determined to reinvigorate the genre. Even the clutter of silliness about accolades and guitar pedals tells us something, while actually meaning nothing. This is a band with a sense of humour, whose star is – allegedly – on the rise.

Faced with references that appear irrelevant, Claire’s apparent sense of alienation is quite understandable. It’s possible to imagine this is the same sense of alienation and bafflement others might find faced with offhand references to Dorothy Parker (she was a poet, right?) or when presented with celebrity faces on the covers of supermarket magazines.

Rock reviewing, like literary criticism or celebrity gossip, has its own discourse. The distinction implied by the use of the word ‘rock’, rather than the more vague ‘music’, is an important one. Rock writing, for that’s what we’re discussing, has a unique patois, often clumsily applied, but closely tied to the art form’s history. I doubt the latest classical composer (if that’s not a tautology) is described as having ‘Beethoven’s hair, Elgar’s pomposity and a soupcon of Wagner’s fascistic appeal’.

Rock is roughly hewn, irreverent and, generally, great fun. Similarly, its criticism has long taken pleasure in snappily identifying a band’s cultural heritage and impact, while ensuring reviews are as playful as the genre itself. Indeed, reviews are sometimes most entertaining when the subject is dire, as Pitchfork’s reviews of Jet will attest.

Sure, a certain level of interest and familiarity is assumed on arrival. That Claire was unfamiliar with the term ‘shoegaze’ is forgivable, but a quick Google – despite protestations – is enough to get acquainted with the basics. Still, Claire bemoans the fact that formalised musical education isn’t enough to decode rock criticism, saying her eight years of training count for little. Well, of course they do. Knowing a treble clef from that squiggly bass thing or being able to comment with technical precision on a band’s use of percussion isn’t going to help you make sense of Pitchfork’s Deerhunter review.

The beauty and appeal of rock is, of course, that it’s chiefly for people without formal musical education. It’s hardly an original observation that Paul McCartney couldn’t read a note of music, or that the wonder of punk was that any kid could learn three simple chords and vent some spleen.

Rock criticism has its roots in a similar anarchism. We may not know how music is made, but we sure as hell know what it means. If rock writing does have a certain patois, that’s because musical movements – mod, rocker, punk, goth, grunge, emo – have, for youth, long been linked to identity. The artist – where they come from, what they wear, what they say, whether they gaze at their shoes – is just as important as the music they produce. It isn’t just sound, it’s a lifestyle.

That said, it would be foolish to argue that rock criticism is in rude health. In 2009, I wrote an essay for Overland, examining the troubling state of criticism in this country. One of the conclusions reached was that rock is considered a ‘low art’, in which critics were expected to work for the pleasure alone.

In response to commentators, Claire said she intended to illustrate that most reviewers are ‘teenagers’ lacking any musical knowledge, and just in it for the ‘free tickets’. It’s a fair point, but perhaps unsurprising, given the lack of respect or reward afforded rock critics. Those in the best position to critique have often started thinking about having to pay rent, but there are still plenty of reviewers out there who are neither adolescent nor ill-informed.

Criticism is also struggling to adjust to a digital age. In the age of the blogger, everyone’s opinion can seem equally valid – a position that holds particular peril for rock writing, given its populist roots. However, too often the issue isn’t a discombobulating plurality of voices, but rather an overwhelming tide of uniform opinion. Aggregators like Metacritic happily boil down critical opinion into an easily digestible percentage or one-sentence summary. A dissenting voice can be quickly averaged out of existence.

In some ways, difficulty in interpreting reviews can be seen to highlight a shift in how today’s listeners encounter music. Where buying records was once a gesture of self-definition, today it seems less about identity and more about simple consumption. There is at least one generation of listeners, raised in the age of the iPod, that has rarely bought an album. Music instead arrives in pieces, freely downloaded and easily shifted from one device to another, generally devoid of any context.

Understandably, some music criticism has adjusted to this consumerist approach. Too often, it functions in much the same way as Amazon’s automated script, which suggests future purchases based on a customer’s searches: ‘If you like this, try this’ or ‘This is good, this isn’t.’

The purpose of a critic, I would argue, is not merely to say whether a cultural product – be it the latest Ian McEwan or the new Katy Perry single – is any good, but to attempt to connect it with the cultural context that produced it. Where does music come from and what does it mean to us?

If the role of a critic is changing, as listeners freely detach music from its context, then one important function remains – what does it feel like to hear a record? Claire drags up the oft-quoted witticism (most commonly attributed to Elvis Costello) about ‘dancing to architecture’ to suggest most record reviews are a waste of time, because criticism will always fall short in the regard.

Of course it will. Trying to describe how music makes you feel is essentially impossible, just as it’s impossible to describe how to feels to be in love. However, the best music criticism still tries and often comes close. Just as Costello has made a career out of such chillingly observed love songs as ‘I Want You’, the best critics have made a career struggling to succinctly evoke their emotional resonance. Sometimes a music writer, just like the best novelist or poet, can pin down the intangible and remind you of the thrill and rush of listening to your favourite band. I would argue more record purchases have been inspired by such criticism than promises of catchy tunes.

Yes, there is some appalling criticism out there, just as there is some appalling music. Luckily, and with a little guidance, most of us have learned to choose our sources with care.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett is a writer, journalist and podcaster. Since 2006, his podcasted novels have notched up half a million downloads. Between freelance gigs, he continues to podcast fiction at

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  1. Thanks Myke, for your defence of the low and cheap art form that is rock music criticism.

    I notice in Georgia’s original piece (or at least in the comments thread) that she’s had some close contact with people from The Brag and Beat – Sydney and Melbourne’s free weekly music papers, respectively. If that’s the case, it’s little wonder she has such a dismal opinion on the art of music reviewing. I’m only very slightly in jest. Those papers (and I worked for them both, in years gone by) exist entirely to sell advertising from record labels and venues. They’re glorified listings guides, and the editorial content is entirely subservient to the advertising. One could argue that just about every commercial magazine exists to sell advertising, but the structure of Australia’s free music street press is particularly ill-suited to producing quality criticism. Most lead articles are paid at rates of somewhere between $20-50, and reviews are unpaid. Georgia is right to say that it’s mostly teenagers (or twenty-something students) looking for free tickets who produce the content of these papers: no one who aspires to write criticism full-time can afford to live on the monkey rates that the street press pays. And $20 isn’t much of an incentive for spending hours and hours on well-crafted prose.

    Unfortunately, they’re aren’t many other alternatives in Australia. We have no notable monthly music magazine, apart from Rolling Stone, whose circulation plummets year after year. The major newspapers cling to reviewers who are at least twenty years behind the times (hello, Bernard Zuel), but whose taste matches their desired reader demographic (affluent, white, middle-aged). Hence the pivotal role of blogs, online papers and, of course, Overland, in providing a space where popular music can indeed be analysed in its wider cultural context.

    1. Hi Anwyn,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I absolutely agree with you on all points. With some notable exceptions, street press get what they pay for, in terms of music criticism.

      I think you raise an interesting point, which I wish I’d touched on, which is the need of critics to adjust to their demographic. I’ve worked (and work) across a number of publications and am always aware of shaping opinion – or, perhaps more pertinently, selecting material – to appeal to the audience targeted by the advertising department. (I’ve also dealt with editorial demands such as requests to select albums for review based on the colour of their cover art, in order to match the ‘theme’ of a particular issue.) As a content provider, in thrall to advertisers, the critic is obliged to view an album through the prism of a particular, perhaps imagined, audience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in my view, as a critic is wasting his or her time if they’re not connecting to their audience, but forever second-guessing the interests of the audience probably doesn’t lead to much honest, ground-breaking criticism.

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