Layoffs, buyouts, consolidations: These were the trends last year in our business. I know mid-career talents who lost newspaper sinecures and rising freelancers who lost key income when clients cut freelance budgets. When foreign bureaus are being shuttered, do you think the stock-rewarded execs who run publishing care about the quality of their arts coverage? Why hire or commission when you can buy syndicated articles much more cheaply? Better find a way to make those blogs turn a profit, kids.
Up until very recently I was employed by the Philadelphia Inquirer as a music critic. To make a long drama short, I’m no longer there. In what I feel is a misguided attempt to charm Internet readers, Knight-Ridder is now asking reporters to provide all sorts of multimedia “extras”—in this “new” world, covering a concert might mean phoning in first impressions while it’s going on, then generating brief six-graf updates for the web, and then sitting down to write, on deadline, a review. That’s backwards. Seems to me the strategy should be to get the story first and then worry about bells and whistles. This is why I’m not in management.
Because I cut pay rates during the web editor job I held in 2005, I’m now paid half as much for the column I resumed upon returning to freelance. I feel like Back to the Future meddler Marty McFly as he watches himself disappear from a picture that hasn’t been taken yet.
Brooklyn, New York
Lots of big changes for me in 2005. I moved to Chicago. I started my first real job, if asking indie rock bands if their new album is “heavier” than their old ones and fact-checking tour dates counts as a “real job.”
At some point in the next couple years labels will stop sending advance CDs and begin to insist that we (heh! older) critics download our music like, supposedly, everybody else already does. This will drive some of my colleagues from the business simply because the ability to see promos is the only way they make a living wage.
I’m hurrying to write this at home, because I had breaking music news to edit today at work, and I still have music news to write tonight. The most disturbing thing from 2005 (besides “the world,” etc.) is the quickly-spreading idea that music news is breaking news. When did it get so important to know who was on tour or a tracklist a couple hours before other people did?
Brooklyn, New York
When are critics going to realize they’ve become press bitches who traded responsibility for ADD and “I was first!” cred?
The new challenge for rockcrits: sitting in a label conference room and reviewing an album in real time through headphones. They should give you a bluebook.
Studio City, California
I may not actually be qualified to vote in this thing anymore because I quit writing for the paper last yr. Still scrawling at stashduaber.blogspot.com. I dig the democracy of the blogosphere, although I hate the f*ckin’ blogspam. Journalism is one of the most debased professions on this planet. That’s why I now work in advertising. Hahahahahaha.
Fort Worth, Texas
I just turned 26 and already feel like a grizzled grandpa clumsily fumbling with a bunch of newfangled rules. Will I still have a job if I don’t start updating a blog every day? I don’t ever seem to have time to update this stupid blog, so am I spending too much time playing music, hanging out with my girlfriend, and generally having a life? Why do I feel compelled to organize my iTunes by genre? Why did I spend 10 minutes uploading this CD when I’ll only listen to it once? Should I know where to hear this song since Pitchfork only says it’s on “mixtapes”? Why did I buy this mixtape for $5, when everyone else just downloads them? Damn kids. Stay off my lawn.
Brooklyn, New York
I started a blog this year. It’s been a pretty good experience, though I must say I hardly ever write about music. I find music-critic blogs, even by my friends, to be quite ego-promotional and argumentative in a way that’s always made me uncomfortable – that “hipper than thou” way. Instead, I take as my model the world of women’s blogs – thinking people’s personal explorations of big and small questions from the inside out. Also, I like to post recipes. Unlike opinions about the latest indie release, they have a tangible use.
My year-end best of lists these days are based on how I think consumers actually use popular music. Singles normally come to us via serendipitous accident: through car radios, random in-store or nightclub play, bar jukeboxes, or a friend’s mixtape. So to appeal to the ear and compete against environmental distractions, singles have to have tremendous psychic energy, and a certain intrinsic awareness of both the fragility and the resilience of the human heart. Something about a single—the lyrics, the rhythms, the chord changes; ideally, all the above—has to be clever, ironic, or brutally intuitive enough to command my momentary admiration. Albums are quite different. I require that albums of any genre be skillfully crafted enough to teach me something new or remind of things I should not have forgotten.
There is something pathological, not to mention strangely ascetic (or maybe just plain lazy?), about obsessively and sullenly waiting with arms crossed and lips pursed for some mythical (hence, probably imaginary) Great Album and nothing less. That’s got so little to do with how I experience music, with how most people I know experience music, it leaves me dizzy. I mean, fuck a Great Album—I never liked them much anyway. Great Albums are work. Transcendence is stressful. Good albums are fun, and so are good songs.
Sunnyside, New York
Ten years ago, “Since U Been Gone” would’ve felt like a “personal cause” sort of vote if I had included it in my Top 10, but such thinking no longer applies. The whole field’s so wide open now—everyone likes something of everything, basically (which isn’t to say there aren’t some curmudgeonly holdouts still milling about waging their wars against pop—my thoughts go out to them)—that it feels like a completely useless stance (the fact that it was something of stance for me at one point is something I’m not remotely proud of, not that I think I was all that insufferable about it).
Unless you’re functioning on the British model of immediacy, transcendence, and evanescence, then criticism requires an element of rigor: Not just What-does-this-sound-like?, but Who-are-these-people? And blogging is usually an act of immediate consideration, founded more in sensation than sense, and more likely to assume a polar position for the sake of rhetorical commotion and page hits. Plenty of good bloggers are bad writers and worse critics.
The current vogue in review of writing around instead of about music yields few rewards. So something this year as articulately tethered to the ear’s experience as David Fricke on My Morning Jacket’s Z (in Rolling Stone) really stood out. Among longer pieces, there was Nathan Brackett on 50 Cent’s album – a review (also RS) which seemed, among other good things, the definitive delineation of that star’s persona. And then there was Ben Ratliff’s extraordinary Blender piece on Mars Volta. Reckoning that musical structure is older and more durable than ripped T-shirts, the piece was neither anti-punk nor especially pro-prog, just unhypnotized by agenda or sentiment or lack of pre-blog writerly ambition.
Red House, West Virginia
I recently read a review of the new My Morning Jacket album in L magazine where staff music crit Mike Conklin disses David Fricke. When you get C- grade writers throwing jabs at guys who have been on their beat since twats like Conklin were sucking on their mama’s titty, it makes me wanna burn my press card and call it a day.
Westbury, New York
Words and phrases I overused in my music reviews in 2005:
3. the next reggaeton
4. [name of album] is the sound of [name of band] reinventing themselves/rediscovering themselves/falling apart in front of you
5. unlike the horribly overrated Gwen Stefani
Los Angeles, California
Considering it was my No. 1 album of 2005, I should probably say something nice about Sigur Ros’ Takk…. Unfortunately, every time I try to write something, I find that it’s indistinguishable from a description of a really crappy album by Mum.
Every time I try to explain to a friend why the Animal Collective CD is so wonderful, words fail me. As a critic, I love that.
Saugerties, New York
In the 20 or so years I’ve participated, you’ve never used any of my comments, so I’ll make like a lot of artists we talk with and say the music speaks for itself.
Los Angeles, California
I do not write about “pop culture,” I write about music. It is made with notes, not with cultural artifacts. “Pop culture,” as I understand the term, sounds like televisable gossip.
Writing about music is like riding a bicycle. Except that when you think you no longer have any idea how to do it anymore it’s like changing the tires, replacing the brakes, oiling the chain, and re-adjusting the handlebars on the bicycle (and then deciding in the end, ah fuck it, let’s just take the car instead).
White, male, 28 y.o., straight, urbanite. Scared of most other rock critics. Very happy to have a full-time job wholly unrelated to rock criticism, and to remain on the sidelines of the “industry.”
I’m the first to admit that my favorite records aren’t necessarily the best. Perhaps that’s why I hate voting. Then, I think, everyone will not only suspect I am an idiot and have terrible taste, they will know the truth. After all, those on my list are just what I felt like listening to more often than anything else. I don’t even think they are the best things released this year. I am sure there are better, more interesting, more complete records, but I am old and increasingly lazy. I like what I like and I like to listen to it over and over and over.
Brooklyn, New York
I’ve written for Magnet for seven years and am presently the magazine’s hip-hop/beat music columnist, which is the equivalent of serving as the bicycling editor of a fly-fishing quarterly.
Lake Oswego, Oregon
I heard a lot of music critics complaining all year about 2005 was the worst year for music since 1986 or whenever, but I don’t agree. I do think that 2005 was the worst year for music criticism that I can remember. When did we all turn into this fakey glib putdown artists? I feel like we’re all jumping into the same three or four boats, doing our best to punch holes in the bottom, and then bitching about getting wet. I blame the Internet, or Republicans, or something. The crisis is heightened by the fact that many important music venues (coughVILLAGEVOICEcough) have cut space down to haiku size, where all you can do is toss off some amusing bon semi-mots without actually talking about the record. It’s almost enough to make a fellow start blogging again.
This was the year I started reading The Houston Press online. It just so happens that the cultural story of our time is playing out in the newspaper’s backyard, with musicians screwed both in the DJ mixtape sense and by the forces of history. At the same time, this was the year that the Houston Press‘s parent company, New Times, bought my own paper’s parent company, VV Media, a development that could either lead to a new era of cooperation between local music journalists, or represent the end of music journalism, period. More than my job rests on the outcome.
Maybe you shouldn’t print that, I don’t know.
Peter S. Scholtes
This is a mere guess at Top 10s. When you’re sure you know your mind and heart, you can care about a list. Should be a definitive statement to a definitive poll. Pazz & Jop used to be the punctuation at the end of the year in music. Ground fine and slowly by the millstones. Now it’s quickly becoming just more best-of-chaff, blown away in the media wind.
Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that most P&J voters are pretty good critics. This means that Pazz & Jop has a built-in blind spot in regard to music that sucks. I mean, most ballads are sentimental shit, and they’re deadening to listen to. That’s why I don’t vote for them. But it therefore means that P&J doesn’t represent the year in pop and semipop. It can’t. My ballot doesn’t even represent my year in music, much less pop’s. It wasn’t designed to. “Gasolina” made the bottom of my Top Ten, and I’m guessing it’ll make the bottom of P&J’s Top 40, but it – and the hot-dance Luny Tunes reggaeton thing it represents – is not the major story in Latin crossover of the last few years, or it’s only half the story, the other half being genteel stuff for smooching like “Suga Suga” (which is nice enough, but kind of bland); for the most part it’s only Latinos who even know that the guy – Baby Bash – who did “Suga Suga” is Latino.
But Pass & Jop, being what it is, is good for telling us something about “us,” that is, about the sort of people who become rock critics. It isn’t that we vote only for people like ourselves, it’s that by liking what we like and writing about it the way we do, we turn some of the readers into people like us. This is the question P&J starts to address but never quite gets to: Why do people like us like what we like? You can’t really address this unless you’re willing to ask why people like us don’t like the things we don’t like. The P&J supplement (and too much of the ILM commentary about P&J) fumbles around because it keeps changing the question to something like, “How can we get white male rock critics to stop overlooking all this good stuff by black people/women/Hispanics/Asians?” So here are some alternative questions: Why do women rock critics hate ballads? Did they always hate ballads – most teenybopper girls like ballads – or did they learn to hate ballads? If the former, why don’t girls who like ballads become critics?
Toiling away in semi-obscurity, Spoon is underappreciated and underpaid, but they keep going out there and doing great work anyway. Fellow music critics, this band is your life.
Los Angeles, Calfornia