A Critique of Criticism: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pop Charts

unnamedIt is often presumed by music critics that they are the gatekeepers of taste and that it is up to them to shepherd the masses towards what they consider the great music of each era. While it is true that critics have often sung praises for records that the public took some time to embrace, this same attitude often leads certain critics to be dismissive of what the public is actually listening to. Any thorough read of modern-day music sites reveals legions of critics uninterested in the music of the masses, instead reviewing and promoting indie rock records that are out of touch with the actual trends of the time.

This increasing disconnect between reviewer and buyer does not reflect well on the former, since it conjures images of the times when past critics gave elitist reviews of publicly beloved records only to be proven wrong by music history, as would be the case with Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys, Stone Temple Pilots and many others. Perhaps the idea of the critic as a force for progression that the consuming public must catch up to is a flawed narrative, maybe the reverse is true; that the masses are spot on with their cultural choices and it is the critics job to understand why, without the cloud of prejudgment.

Since the beginning of pop music as an idea, critics have often defined themselves as in opposition to it. Even during World War II, 1940s hipsters didn’t have a kind word to say about the likes of Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra, instead bemoaning why swinging teens weren’t buying into complex Bebop. As the ’40s became the ’50s and ’60s, critics bullied the public into dismissing Big Band and crooners as square, only to reverse their positions years later when they realized the bobbysoxers might have been correct after all and declared the aforementioned artist’s untouchable music legends. This narrative can be seen throughout the 20th and 21st Century: it can be seen in the Rolling Stone reviews of the ’70s and ’80s that bristle with contempt for beloved arena rock and New Wave anthems while salivating over the art school nonsense of Sonic Youth, only to decide they liked those two genres after all when hordes of mid-2000’s indie rock bands admitted their biggest influence was Duran Duran.

Perhaps the version of this plot most familiar to modern-day listeners is when reviewers dismissed the emo pop and pop punk that defined the popular rock scene of the 2000’s as a bastardization of the original punk scene, leading to the creation of the archetypal 2010’s hipsters who spend their days seeking increasingly unlistenable experimental punk bands to not disappoint some humorless tribunal of noisecore inquisitors.

Perhaps the worst thing critics have wrought on our perception of music is the idea of “authenticity”, the belief that no matter how good a song is it can still be derided because it lacks some impossible to reach quality of genuineness. This idea has created an increasingly strict idea of what makes a good artist, it doesn’t matter who likes it or why, only if it ascribes to the commandments laid out by insecure reviewers.

My idea of art is not based on whether it is truthful, art as a whole is a fabrication, so judging it on its honesty is a backwards mentality. Art should instead focus on its ability to present a complex idea, to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. For the purpose of choosing songs of this nature the public has been flawless. Rather than spend several hours dissecting classical music, they had The Beach Boys and The Beatles graft its strongest melodies on to familiar rock beats. Rather than understand modernism through the analysis of elitist art works, they went to Depeche Mode and Soft Cell to translate the robotic disconnect they felt into words they understood.

As critics we should learn our place; it is not up to us to determine what is the great music of each era, for that occupation already belongs to the people. We should learn instead to analyze before we judge, since every song that makes the billboard hot 100, no matter how unintelligent it may seem, is placed there by the hands of history.

Sean Romano is 21 year old who lives in New York City. He is currently studying Journalism at SUNY Purchase where he writes for The Beat, the music and culture magazine of the school. He knows more than about pop music than is probably healthy and spends most of his time listening to tunes from the 2000’s, the '80s, and the '60s.