Why Music Criticism (Still) Matters

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Lester Bangs
Great American rock critic Lester Bangs

There’s an old saying, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In other words, what the heck is the point of interpreting one art form through another? Why write about music? Why not just sit and enjoy the music for what it is without muddying it with analysis?

I’d argue that there are many points to music criticism. First, it is one of the most important lenses through which we can interpret culture. Consider Solange’s black-power album A Seat At The Table, reportedly inspired by controversial comments made by Jon Caramanica.

Caramanica, a widely respected New York Times pop critic, a white man, said on the Time’s music podcast, “If I were her, I’d be careful not to bite the hand that feeds me.” This was Caramanica’s response to Solange’s comment in 2013 that white journalists who write about R&B should know who Brandy was.

This racially charged back-and-forth shows the delicate balance between artist and artist-critic. Clearly, Caramanica’s comments carried cultural weight. As do the comments of all paid critics. A scathing review can either exalt or bury an album. A well-written review has the power to solidify an album as a classic or demolish a career.

Let’s face it, everyone and their brother has an opinion about new music. Literally — I had a doctor’s appointment last month, and a young girl in the waiting room asked her brother, “Do you know any country songs that aren’t about love?” Jason Aldean’s “A Little More Summertime” was playing softly on the radio.

“I love just bits and pieces of ‘Shape Of You,’ and the chorus of ‘Rude,’” the girl said. Indeed, this is music criticism. But it’s not good music criticism.

Good music critics have a knowledge of music history, and can write with a sort of superpower (see: Lester Bangs). They supply us with a perspective to agree with or argue against, helping us shape our own opinions about music. And music is a pathway to understanding society, culture, and life itself. So in essence, the best music critics teach us how to think.

Of course, some only trust one type of critic: their friends (who, presumably, understand their tastes). But if one’s friend is the best music critic, why do articles — usually, with titles like, “7 things you missed while listening to Kendrick Lamar’s new album” — instantly go viral? It’s because we do miss things. Fortunately for us, some writers are paid (perhaps, not for long) to catch nuances and symbolism, while the rest of us simply bob our heads up and down to the radio.

On a more practical level, without music criticism, the art form could be put on the back burner. Critics are the ones who fight for the art form, shouting from the rooftops how important it is. Without dedicated defenders of the craft, funding to music programs could be cut– programs that help get kids off the streets and do something creative. Cutting down these programs in urban school districts not only hurts children, but also strips communities of their beauty.

In thinking about music criticism, we shouldn’t forget that music is made for enjoyment and to make listeners feel something. Even the late great Lester Bangs said, “The first mistake of art is to assume that it’s serious.” But if one must be serious about music, let it be in the name of clear, beautiful, and sharply critical writing.

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