Refereeing the Christopher R. Weingarten/Hype Machine Music Criticism Showdown



So, for starters: any time you can get a millionaire DJ with better things to do to care about the fate of rock criticism (see: above), you’ve accomplished something. There is something to be said for the fact that there is basically one week in any given year that civilians talk about the survival chances of ethical music writing, and that’s the week that critic (and frequent SOTC/VV contributor) Christopher R. Weingarten gets onstage at the 140 Characters Conference in New York and swears for 10 minutes. Weingarten did it last year, and he did it again this week, aiming a barrage of profanity and indignation in the direction of “math,” the internet, blogs, and negativity-averse “critics”–agents, in his narrative, of the decline of a once noble profession. Hype Machine, the MP3 blog aggregator founded in 2005, came in for particular scorn. Yesterday, one of the company’s employees responded.

In a post ranging from the ad hominem (Weingarten is a throwback to the college paper days of “loud, obnoxious, Comic Book Guys who would spend a few sentences spitting on their dicks before wanking out the six paragraphs of extended metaphors that felt good to absolutely no one else”) to the salient (“Journalism isn’t free. It never was.”), Hype Machine’s Zoya Feldman attempts a takedown of Weingarten’s takedown. The gist of it?

Criticism isn’t dying because we made an aggregator–it’s dying because people don’t exercise their critical thinking. It’s dying because they’re tired of having some guy in a baseball cap scream in their face about what they should and shouldn’t appreciate, because now that all of their friends and their mom, too, have a blog, they can’t see why they should listen to him instead.

How to sort this out?

Well, for one thing, those of us who write for a living, especially online, will recognize and cringe in sympathy at Weingarten’s central argument here, which boils down to, “When clicks are your lifeblood, the writing doesn’t matter anymore, and that fucking blows.” Anyone forced to express their opinion on eight to twelve discreet bits of music-related (non)-information per day can relate to this fact. Have an RSS reader? Your eyes are probably bleeding right now.

That said, as per Team Hype Machine, it’s hard to blame this predicament on the technology. The demise of expertise and the monopoly power professional critics used to gain from receiving advances long before the general music listening population, and from being given an exclusive platform to publish their opinions on those advances, is a hard thing to mourn. There is no metaphysical law that people should get paid to write about music. And people in search of knowledgeable opinions can certainly find them and even, sometimes, pay for them, on the internet, if they are so inclined–though increasingly, it seems, they are not.

This is what Chris is upset about. The essential complaint is about what you can and can’t get paid to do in 2010. Want to write about American Idol, or Lady Gaga? Your checks will continue to clear. Want to write 520 words and counting about a minor dispute between two factions of the online critical establishment? Good luck with that grad school application.

However. What people will pay for, and what people will look at, are concerns that are related to but fundamentally independent of what’s supposedly at issue here, which is what critics should spend their days doing. Weingarten’s point is that the economics have changed. They have. Feldman/Hype Machine’s point is that people still do good criticism on the internet despite that fact. They do. Of course, she may not know it, but of the two writers she cites as particularly admirable, Nitsuh Abebe and Sean Michaels, neither are only one is a fulltime music critic. Which is pretty much the precise place where Weingarten’s and Feldman’s ostensibly opposing points meet.

Good criticism is still possible–it just doesn’t necessarily pay. How you respond to that fact may be an issue that’s ultimately more personal than either side cares to admit. Want to write long? Continue to write long. Want to write thoughtful? Continue to write thoughtful. As for whether you get paid for it in 2010–well, how is that anyone’s concern but your own?