A Critic's Job at Work

I've but one comment, and that is to state that I will never again use the word "achingly" in a record review. I would like all my brothers and sisters in reviewing to join me in that pledge.

Gaylord Fields
Jersey City, New Jersey

I look forward to reading the witty witticisms and snarky malaprop tooting of the poll comments, of upper-echelon critics putting the crosshairs on easy targets and shitting on the big names for failing us, praising old dudes for keeping the dream alive. Jackson Browne Box Set, anyone? Free cum rag autographed by Jann Wenner with every purchase!

Jessica Hopper
Chicago, Illinois

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Dear Ryan Schreiber: You said "Stacy's Mom" was "too catchy." I am still waiting for you to explain how this is a bad thing and/or to knee you swiftly in the groin. Just use the regular address. Best wishes, me.

Michael Barthel
Brooklyn, New York

A few observations from another year of editing 2,000 or so record reviews: "Derivative," by itself, isn't a legitimate term of criticism. The passive voice, like, sucks. Description is not the same thing as insight. Each singing voice is unique, and as such is likely to merit characterization. Lastly, did you pay attention to the words?

Rob Tannenbaum

Between the difficulty in finding talented writers an convincing my boss the work of said writers doesn't exist merely to decorate advertising banner, the fight for quality has been an uphill battle. When you see Blender swallow Rolling Stone and hear about hard times at the Voice, you begin to ask the Great Rock Critic in the Sky, "What's it all about, Lester?"

Michael Tatum
Carlsbad, California

The wisdom of rock editors. In early fall, before Room on Fire came out, the Strokes were no-brainer for the tastemaking honchos of the rock press. There was jockeying over covers and exclusivity, there was the coveted "buzz." In the end, Rolling Stone did the obvious "partying with," Spin published five different cover images (one for each Stroke), and the record sank into that special bin marked "sophomore oblivion." Next!

Tom Moon
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I am a 41-year-old single, straight, white male writer for the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. When I am not writing about development and stormwater runoff for the North Raleigh News section, I review albums for the Arts & Entertainment section and write features for the What's Up section (the last one I did was on Rocket From the Tombs). I review about 50 new albums a year and listen to about maybe 75. I love: punk rock, hip-hop, good blues. I hate: Fox News, 50 Cent, and that Darryl Worley song. I may have additional comments later, but right now I have to get back to writing about development and stormwater runoff.

Danny Hooley
Durham, North Carolina

The itch is palpable, a genuine jones as overpowering as any urge for a cigarette or other drug that I've never bothered to touch. I'm 45, I know more than I've ever known about music, I hear more than I've ever heard, and I just can't stop myself from wanting to hear things for the first time more than I want to hear what I've heard before.

Steve Pick
St. Louis, Missouri

When is it enough? When do you have enough records? Have enough cheesy rock bios? Seen enough gigs? How much of a blur does everything have to become in your head before you close the door and confront a lifetime's (or at least half of one's) accumulation?

David M. Snyder
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

When a critic lists an obscurity, that's often not an effort to sway the consensus; rather, it's an invitation to share a personal, overlooked pleasure. When I read a critic's list, I do two things: 1) use the ratings of things that I'm familiar with to estimate whether I think the critic is going to be useful for me; and 2) if the critic seems worthwhile, I look at the unfamiliar items and consider investigating them further. Sure, it's possible that this is done to show off—e.g., to show how far one will go to bring back precious loot. But there's also some basic economic theory behind this: critics, like products, may want to differentiate themselves.

Tom Hull
Wichita, Kansas

The idea that people listen to only one kind of music has always been ridiculous. But I've rarely had it driven home more potently than during a monthlong stretch early last year. Nelly played a sold-out show at the city auditorium and a few weeks later, Good Charlott and NOFX did the same. I saw plenty of young people at both shows. But the real headturner came at an alt.country show (Cross Canadian Ragweed and Jason Boland and the Stragglers) at a local boot-scooting club where I spotted a dozen or so who had been at Good Charlotte. After a few minutes of conversation, it turned out that most of them had also been at Nelly.  

L. Kent Wolgamott
Lincoln, Nebraska

Most rock critics have rooted for the downloaders, partly because we understand their ruthless love of music, and partly because we share their disregard for greedy record labels, but the file- sharers have done harm to the quality of reviewing. You want to hear the Jay-Z record? Come to a listening session at the record company. You want to hear the new Murs? Better like the voiceover ID stamp that runs through it every 20 seconds, rendering it unlistenable. Interested in the new Korn? Well, YOU CAN'T HAVE IT.

Rob Tannenbaum

We don't talk much about the increasingly absurd backroom aspects of this job—this business of begging for advance music, the crazy "agreements" we must make about where and with what equipment we listen to what the labels expect will be the next big. The artists should know that the work they spent months and serious psychic energy developing is often presented to the press under atrocious circumstances, and too often reviews are dashed off before the music has a chance to get under anyone's skin. That's not right, even when the product in question is one of those just-add-water Neptunes beats.

Tom Moon
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Source is so full of shit it floats. Regardless of whatever evidence they had suggesting Hot 97 engages in payola, so fucking what? Payola makes all of Black music go 'round (ask Jack the Rapper). Hell, payola makes the whole friggin' planet go 'round (ask Dick Cheney). Whether it's cash or trade under the table for spins or ad space in a magazine for coverage, commercial Black music is so completely corrupted that it's the presumed matter of course.

Darrell McNeill
Brooklyn, New York

The biggest story this year wasn't the biggest story and it wasn't about music. When the principals of The Source with their questionable motives exhumed old recordings of Eminem not quite exactly serenading Black women, the hip-hop community let off a collective shrug and many media outlets skimmed over the story, all too happy to undertake the futile task of figuring out what the hell goes on in Michael Jackson's head and bedroom. It seems that most white people—even (especially?) the card-carrying liberal types—find child molestation more digestible table talk than the issue of race.

Kris Ex
Brooklyn, New York

The only reason no one calls people on sexist, racist, or homophobic language is fear—fear of losing the story, of losting advertising, of losing their comfy positions or not ascending to their desired positions. Well, what has that gotten anyone? Blender?

Daphne Carr
Providence, Rhode Island

More than few noticed Liz Phair's plea to fans: "I am extraordinary/If you'd ever get to know me." But what about her message to wrongheaded critics and hurt five-year-olds everywhere: "What does it mean when something changes how its always been?/And in your head you keep repeating the line/My mother is mine."

Werner Trieschmann
Little Rock, Arkansas

The kinds of songs on the new Liz Phair record aren't inherently good or bad--they just don't suit her skills as a composer or singer. The record's emotional mode—post-teen-pop? post-op?—doesn't push her to discover the odd chord changes, the unsettling shifts in song structure, the kinds of melodies where her technically weak and highly personal voice can do its passionate, articulate thing. They're songs someone else should have been singing; I dunno, maybe Kelis.

Joshua Clover
Berkeley, California

Liz Phair: "A bizarre form of career suicide"? Yeah, a form of career suicide that lands one of your songs on a Now That's What I Call Music compilation can certainly be considered bizarre. But somehow I don't think that's what Meghan O'Rourke meant when she slathered her embittered ex-fan goop all over the pages of the Times' Arts and Leisure section. I don't much care what she meant, but I do think it's sad that almost all rock writing has come to this—hipsters with a delusional sense of entitlement mistaking attacks of personal pique for flashes of genuine insight. Surely this is not what Lester Bangs died for.

Glenn Kenny
Brooklyn, New York

It seemed like no reviewer of Mainlines could resist the parlor game of wondering what Lester Bangs would be into were he still alive. Everybody's answers were "well of course he'd love this and he'd hate that," all of which sounded like "we would be best fwends."  

Michael Daddino

I also have no patience with and feel quite sorry for idiot rock critics who think "pop hits and hip-hop are suddenly very good!"; idiot rock critics who think "our generation's newfound ability to inexpensively download individual songs online" opens up a world of discovery that hadn't pretty much always been available on the radio and TV and jukeboxes and mixtapes and dance clubs and used record stores in the first place; idiot rock critics who think albums are any less albumlike now than they've always been; idiot rock critics who rejoice that "there are still acts out there who make quality albums built to last and not just a couple transitory hit singles"; idiot rock critics who think it was okay for Liz Phair to discuss her sex life when she was in her 20s but now it's somewhat unseemly since she's over 30 and all; idiot rock critics who think 40-year-old white guys who like hip-hop are unseemly; idiot rock critics who think grownups who like Justin Timberlake are perverse; idiot rock critics who like Justin Timberlake now but used to call me perverse for liking "Ice Ice Baby" and Will to Power and Amy Grant; idiots obscurantist enough to "still not get" the Strokes or White Stripes but who hype scores of more generic garage bands; idiots lazy enough to believe the Strokes and White Stripes are the best garage bands out there; idiots who think the Strokes and White Stripes are garage bands in the first place; idiots in the Strokes; idiots in the White Stripes; and um, lots of other people. (Many of which idiot categories sometimes include me.)

Chuck Eddy
Brooklyn, New York

As a critic I figure part of my job is to mediate, which is what my reviews and lists try to do. But try as I do, I'm just one data point in a vast and increasingly unmanageable world.

Tom Hull
Wichita, Kansas

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