It’s an interesting time to be a music critic. So far 2014 has been marked by an assortment of micro-scandals about the way that music criticism is written, from both inside and outside the profession. Not long before Ted Gioia’s plea for music critics to learn and use the technical language of music theory was published, The Jezabels’ lead singer Hayley Mary launched a broadside against the profession (if indeed you can call it that), telling music critics to “fucking get a real job”.
More recently, the artists Lorde, Iggy Azalea and Grimes—who have all experienced the vicissitudes of sudden and spectacular success—attacked music publications and their writers tout court for their perceived inconsistency. “have a stance on an artist and stick to it. don’t act like you respect them then throw them under the bus”, Lorde wrote on her tumblr, in response to a damning review of Azalea’s album The New Classic in Complex, which had previously featured Azalea on its cover. The post was reblogged by Grimes, who added “hahaha yes — i agree with this” and endorsed by Azalea on Twitter, who added “media LOVE to flop about, But when you’re completely spineless Im sure its hard to stick to even ur own opinion”.
I say ‘perceived inconsistency’ because, as Complex’s associate editor Insanul Ahmed makes clear in his response to Lorde, Azalea and Grimes’s comments (published within hours of Lorde’s original piece), a publication’s ‘inconsistency’ is entirely consistent with the principles of editorial neutrality and ethical journalism. I can certainly understand why so many music critics felt the need to respond to the three women’s comments: each of them, in attacking the perceived inconsistency of critics, displayed an ignorance of what critics do and the ways in which editors take pains to ensure that their publication’s commercial aims don’t conflict with its responsibility to speak critically about any given album.
For those of us who inhabit the world of music criticism, these artists’ comments display a shocking (yet understandable) naïveté about what it is we actually do. But does pointing out that naïveté necessarily entail that these complaints are illegitimate? Can we therefore rest assured that their complaints don’t indicate any problems with music criticism as a whole?
Refusing to recognise the legitimacy of Lorde, Azalea, and Grimes’ complaints—as many refused to recognise the legitimacy of Hayley Mary’s prior complaints—is a defensive move that allows we critics to avoid any kind of introspection about what it is that we do. It’s also hypocritical, insofar as we deny ourselves the kind of treatment that we have dished out. That we have resorted to it is understandable, since not many people like to question their most cherished beliefs about their role in the world (even if that role is one that very few people actually make a living from).
As Shaun Prescott notes, “music writers [have] eagerly tak[en] the opportunity to justify themselves. Here’s an opportunity to defend a practice which is currently not taken very seriously at all. No one stops to think whether their approach is actually shit”. Another way to put it: If musicians have misunderstood music criticism as an artform, well, that’s not their problem—it’s ours. It means that we haven’t made a very good case for our continued existence at all.
Part of the problem is that critics tend not to articulate the merits of their profession—the benefits of a culture of rigorous musical criticism are taken as self-evident, when to the casual bystander it can look like mean-spirited sledging. And this perception, in turn, is rooted in the concept that music criticism is, fundamentally, parasitical: or, as Joel Connolly puts it, “If criticism didn’t exist, music still would. Criticism is dependent on the artist and what they create, not the other way around.” Even one of music criticism’s luminaries, Simon Price, defines the profession as fundamentally parasitical (if necessary).
Yet, as J. Hillis Miller notes in his influential essay ‘The Critic as Host’, the notion of the parasite is ripe for deconstruction—it comes from the Greek para sitos, ‘beside the grain’, and initially meant a person with whom you shared food: a guest. In this deconstructive reading, the critic—whose artform is supposedly parasitic upon other artforms—reveals the parasitism of the artwork: “If the poem is food and poison for the critics, it must in its turn have eaten. It must have been a cannibal consumer of earlier poems.” But this role comes with its own ethical obligations: “Criticism is a human activity which depends for its validity on never being at ease within a fixed ‘method’. It must constantly put its own grounds in question.” If we music critics would like for our work to be taken seriously, we might start by becoming better, more ethical parasites—and that, in turn, means taking criticism of our own work seriously.