The Sheep Take a Buffalo Stance

Critics' polls have evolved and arguably withered lately, but at least we didn't vote for Timbuk 3

Pop music criticism is mired in a virulent, unrepentant triumphalism these days, and I don't know that readers are sufficiently aware of it. Critics are cripplingly invested in breaking bands and generating buzz, a careerist formalization of the childish desire to snort, "Oh my God, you haven't heard this yet?" More forgivingly, it's also a function of young voices wanting to establish their reputation by aligning with an artist's work before anyone else. But this is not criticism: It is enthusiasm. By and large, what we read online amounts to the overexcited gushing of groupies, presented in a format that looks professional and therefore feels like a publication. Worse, undeserving online writers are disproportionately trusted, because their opinions are simultaneously free, easier to come by, and more rapidly "validated" by consensus (read: linking) than those of their once venerated print predecessors.

In tight times, print publications are unfortunately still hedging against whether or not a band has money behind them—whether they would be wasting space on the page to cover a bunch of college kids that will probably break up by the issue date—and their effort to ape the Internet's turn toward one-click novelty is just another reason their industry is collapsing. In 2006, Pitchfork is Splenda for coffee-break hipsters, PopMatters matters, and bands are just as likely to profit by a mention on Stereogum as by a feature in Rolling Stone. Jann Wenner has been writing "Nothing happened today" in his diary for two years.

Coverage of pop music—the "noise of pop," as Paul Morley might put it—isn't limited by issue dates or printing costs anymore, so the idea of stamping records with a rank relative to their temporal peer group is more and more reductive, and arguably pointless. What does Sonic Youth have to do with Joanna Newsom or Belle & Sebastian, apart from the fact that they all released records in 2006? Who is evaluating music on its own terms, against its obvious stylistic lineage, rather than by its ability to blend or contrast with—or in only the best cases, change—the pop culture of its day? The answer is that critics are chasing novelty, which leads to the celebration of the obvious, of "Weird Al" singles and Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," one of the most perplexingly inconsequential one-hook jingles ever to storm the charts.

Today, we've lost independent points of view, thanks to the oppressive consensus effect of the Internet. A lazy reliance on just a few websites assures critics they're covering the "right" records and are still on top of things. That's why all of our year-end lists look exactly the same: We're constantly looking over our shoulders lest we miss out on a scoop that might generate traffic. But it's not just critics. Everyone's relationship to music has changed because of the Internet, and in a way that invalidates year-in-review summaries: We rank and file music all year long on our blogs and web magazines, in the list-drenched advertorial press, and even on our iPods. If everyone's a critic, do we still need a critics' poll?

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