Being a music critic when music criticism is dead(?)
It’s been a funny old week, this whole Death Of The Critic doo-dah. Being largely handled by Everett’s crack team of experts, I felt a little daunted when Sean dropped me an email on Monday asking if I might be able to add something on what it’s like to be a DiS writer to the mix. And I shall tell you some reasons why.
One: You, dear reader, might not have the blindest idea who I am, and will in any case be eminently uninterested in what it is like to be me. Gone are the days when big swinging dicks like Mike Diver and Kev Kharas stalked the halls of DiS in a full-time capacity. And certainly compared to the veritable galacticos of late twentieth century music journalism that Everett assembled for this week, the most I can really say for myself is ‘interesting name’. But to clarify: I have been the albums editor for this site in a part time freelance capacity for a couple of months, and have written for it for about a year.
Two: this is all kind of a fraud – I am expecting to get a yes or a no on long-held plans to emigrate permanently to Canada by the end of the summer, and am only really dabbling in freelancerhood in the meantime. I am not a reliable example of anything.
Three: well it’s just a bit odd, isn’t it? Being the person in charge of the critical element of a website currently embroiled in discussion over whether music criticism is even valid anymore. What am I supposed to offer here? A gloomy description of what it’s like to presage over the last days of a DYING ARTFORM as it painfully hiccups up another desiccated internal organ, rolling with a muffled squelch along the parched canyon that is a metaphor for something or other, only to be moisturised by the urine of thousand bloggers? Because it’s not really like that, you know.
But looking at the mix of great journalism, interesting debate, petty backstabbing, craven vitriol and pompous naysaying this funny old week has thrown up, generally from writers infinitely more gifted, savvy and experienced than myself (hey Neil Kulkarni! Wanna review something? PM me! We can pay you in awe!) and... I don’t feel any different about being a music critic.
I don’t feel any different because – contrary to Everett’s much voiced obsession with ‘tastemakers’ and suggestions by the trolls on the John Robb article – I personally could not give less of a shit about my ‘influence’. Yeah, it’s nice to know your words have been helpful, and yeah, I have an audience and therefore I have some microscopic perceived power. But influence? Why would you want that? Because you believe you can alter the listening habits of the nation for the better? I’m writing this on a National Express coach and have absolute zero concern for what the girl next to me is listening to. I don’t even understand why I would.
Is it because you want to help the band out by taking it upon yourself to give them some free PR? I worry my favourite bands don’t make enough money these days, that is true, but I mean Christ, the last thing I would ever want is the gratitude of an indie musician.
Nah, obvious and tacky as it may be, but the reason I’m a music critic (of sorts) is because I really fucking love writing about music. I love trying to channel something as abstract as sound into something so tangible as words, to work through in my head why I feel the weird tingles of joy and rage and ambivalence and disappointment that I do when I hear music. Because I love language, and I’m a lazy sod who enjoys the reactive nature of the review format over hunkering down to write a novel or whatever. Because it’s normally an excuse to shoehorn in a couple of gags. Because I’ve crafted and created something that I view not as product, but a small piece of literature. Doesn’t mean it’s good, but it’s why I do it. I find it very hard not to do it.
And yeah, being a fourth or fifth or sixth tier critic you don’t earn a bunch of money, but at the same time gigs, festivals even short foreign holidays are free, I get to meet musicians I admire... it’s a nice life. I’m not sitting in my Hackney garret, sustained only by delusions of grandeur. I’m a music critic because that’s what I enjoy doing, and I get a lifestyle out of it that I enjoy.
Probably that sounds like a manifesto equal parts narcissism and mediocrity. Actually that’s almost certainly what it is. But what I mean is: there will always be people who feel like this. Fuck having power, fuck the ravages of web 2.0, fuck Lester Bangs, fuck Melody Maker, fuck Steven Wells and fuck Everett True. There will always be people who feel driven to write about music, essentially as an act of self-indulgence, and from thence careers are born, and hence critics will never die out.
Let your narcissism and self-indulgence drive you, but don’t be complacent. Be some twat with a blog for a bit, if you must, but don’t think smearing some damp patch of the internet with some trite bollocks about a fresh faced four piece from London should be enough to satisfy you. Though there are some amazing examples out there, let’s be honest: by-and-large personal music blogs exist for people too shit to have gotten published any place else. Or at least that’s how you should think. You may not want power, but like any good narcissist you really should be after validation, and that’s why ultimately you will drive yourself to be a better writer, to try and write for NME or DiS or FACT or Wire or The Guardian, set up your own publication, whatever. The days of power and tastemakers may or may not be gone, but don’t worry that music criticism is dead. Music critics are like cockroaches. Time may have gone when it was easy to make a living out of it, but it’ll always be possible.
And okay, finally, if you have stayed with me this long, you may be thinking ‘how dare this drab little dishcloth of a man presume to offer any sort of advice? He has hasn't exactly attained lofty heights himself.’ I shall end with two points. One, while we’re eulogising St Swells this week, can we remind ourselves what an awful music journalist he was? He broke the world down into a crude and entirely predictable ideological struggle and his reviews were about as trustworthy as Michael Jackson in a morphine factory. I can only really remember two of his old NME pieces – one where he attacked Sonic Youth with such vitriol that he actually switched me onto them, and an exemplary piece about the 2001 Bradford riots that had nothing to with music. What’s his legacy, music-wise? None, that I can see. And hence he was a wonderful writer, because he wrote for himself, to amuse himself, because he felt driven to do so. The right reasons. And point two: I am just some arsehole with a keyboard and an interesting name, running the reviews section of a site currently devoting itself to suggesting such things are anachronisms. And I do alright, really, I do. So you go do better.