music criticism

Shining a Light on Shady Journalism

Over the past decade, we have seen the internet become an integral part of everyday life, shaping and affecting not only our culture but many of our professions as well.  This is especially true of journalism, and not only in the traditional cries of how the Web is killing Print.  The very nature of online publishing has changed the way that journalists write stories and how outlets print them; the ephemeral nature of the media promotes a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach, with speed and clicks being the ultimate goal.  After all, pieces and features can be edited seamlessly behind the scenes–with the web one’s mistakes do not always have to live on (at least without an extra bit of detective-work), unlike print.

The question then arises of when is it okay to use the powers of selective editing, especially since it can so often go undetected.  The site RipFork lived up to its name in blasting Pitchfork for their handling of the new album from Sun Kil Moon, after catching their efforts in switching their review.  I encourage you to read their piece, but for those searching for a quick and dirty rundown, Pitchfork clumsily substituted their review of Universal Themes after an incident where Mark Kozelek called out a journalist onstage in between songs, and the fallout left a lot of music critics with a sour taste in their mouths.  In place of a presumably more positive review, Pitchfork ran a review which was less concerned with the merits of the particular album and instead conducted an inelegant meditation between The Artist and The Art.  As a critique of the music itself, it was not much of one.

We have a different philosophy when it comes to editing posts.  Our policy at Rust Is Just Right is to limit the kind of post-publication edits to only correct grammatical errors or make stylistic changes to clarify our points; otherwise, posts remain as written.  We stand by what we publish, and any modifications we make are done purely to better serve the reader.  For instance, we recognized Sun Kil Moon’s previous album Benji as one of the best of the first half of 2014, and we would never dream of going back and altering our decision.*  And to think, we are not even real journalists!

This controversy brought to mind another instance of this issue that I personally discovered.  At some point the site AllMusic substituted their review of My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves, switching out one that gave the album a mediocre two-and-a-half stars with a more effusive four-star review.  I had some difficulty tracking down any evidence of the switch, finding only a non-updated reference from Metacritic, and I only knew to search out the discrepancy based on my own memory of the initial review.

The discovery of this swap left me conflicted: on the one hand, I have always felt that AllMusic’s role has been to be that of an objective reference source, so I appreciate that the new review reflects the critical consensus of the album; on the other hand, we should not discourage opinions that break from the mainstream, and we are all better for reading heterodox assessments, so there is merit to leaving the original review in place.  As much fun as I have with citing the fact that Robert Christgau still thinks In the City is The Jam’s best album and how he despises OK Computer, I respect the fact that he has not kowtowed to the majority and still supports his opinions.  I am not saying we should reward people merely for being stubborn, but I have a begrudging respect for those that stick to their guns.

The best solution then is probably to at least have a policy of transparency–if you change a review, it is incumbent on the publisher to provide a notice to the reader that a change has occurred, and to give an explanation why a substitution was made.  And since we are talking about the internet, it won’t even be a waste of ink.

*It is interesting to me that Kozelek received much more pushback for his comments directed at Snapes than the entirety of his “feud” with The War on Drugs.  With one, he said that a woman whom he never met (he does his interviews through email) wanted to fuck him after she crossed a line by interviewing his family, and the other he over a series of months directed vitriol to a band with whom he had minimal contact, culminating in recording a song entitled “War on Drugs Suck My Cock”.  One was considered a major sin by the music press, while the other was portrayed as mere bickering, despite the differences in degree.

Personally, the incidents with The War on Drugs left a sour taste in my mouth, and I stopped listening to Sun Kil Moon on a regular basis.  This partly explains why we never reviewed Universal Themes ourselves–since we only review records we seek out and purchase, there was no need to go out of our way and publish our own take on the album.  However, if we were professional music critics, rest assured we would actually do our job as professionals and review the album strictly on its own merits.

Possibly The Worst Three Paragraphs Of Music Criticism From Last Year

I refrained from discussing this Vox piece for weeks, mainly because it was the holidays and there is no need to try to make them a miserable affair.  There is also the fact that the general mission of this site is to focus on promoting music instead of finding ways to be negative all the time, so writing a critical piece on someone else’s opinion is something we would prefer to do only on rare occasions.  But the calendar is no longer a concern, and since Vox has decided not to bother making any corrections (more on that later), we figure the time is ripe to tear this article apart.

The title was an immediate red flag: “5 Songs I’m too embarrassed to name Song of the Year.”  It’s a fancy way of saying “I find these songs to be guilty pleasures,” when the entire concept of a guilty pleasure is a completely ridiculous notion, especially for a music critic.  As a critic, you have an opinion, and we expect you to defend it; if you like a song, it’s your job to explain why you like the song.  Usually we as an audience don’t have exacting standards, and will accept simple explanations along the lines as “it’s catchy” or “it has an infectious melody”; reasonable minds may disagree, but clearly this is merely a subjective assessment, and it’s hard to argue against it.  The “guilty pleasure” also operates under the assumption that there is an objective standard as to what is good, when that is certainly not the case.  Sure, critics like to discuss things in absolutes and will proclaim something to be good based on certain common criteria, but in the end this is a creative field that is subject to personal interpretation.  If these songs are your picks for “Song of the Year,” then say so–we can’t say that your opinion is wrong.

However, one can give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that perhaps the idea was that the article would provide a list of songs that, while not considered “Serious Art”, are at least fun or worth taking a listen.  Looking over the list, I see mostly songs with which I have only a passing familiarity (beyond the expected inclusion of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” (because that’s a song and artist that now requires THINKPIECES in order to appreciate/bash)), but notice one artist that sticks out like a sore thumb from the list: Spoon.  Now here is an artist that would never be considered for a “guilty pleasure,” so there has to be some unique rationale behind this selection.  After reading the explanation, I can say that “unique” roughly translates to “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

The primary sin that Kelsey McKinney commits is contradicting herself between the first two paragraphs.  She first states that “[t]he groovy, guitar-heavy tracks are easy to listen to, but sadly just as easy to forget” (which I would say is debatable, but hey, that’s how music criticism works), but is followed later with “[b]y far the standout off They Want My Soul is ‘Inside Out,’ a mellow, dreamy rock song…instead of the catchy, lyric-heavy, piano-backed songs Spoon is famous for.”  Logically, the songs can’t all be easy to forget if there is one standout track, so that argument should probably have been woodshedded a bit longer.  Then there’s the fact that somehow Spoon is both “guitar-heavy” AND known for “lyric-heavy, piano-backed” songs (we’re going to slide over falling back on the “-heavy” trope for a second, but don’t mistake that for us forgiving that sin).  It’s hard for Spoon to be both of these things without sounding like a total cacophony, and even more so considering that they’re known for their “minimalism.”

What is even worse than these clumsily-constructed arguments is McKinney’s thesis that too many critics love Spoon and therefore give them a free pass: “They Want My Soul is an album with songs that are mostly passable not because they are great songs, or even good songs, but because they were released on an album that said SPOON at the top of it.”  From an outside perspective, that may seem reasonable–how else to explain that Spoon has gotten consistent praise throughout their career?  The idea that Spoon is actually a good band is too easy an explanation and should be dismissed, because this is clearly either a case of groupthink or an example of a massive conspiracy among music critics!  No, the problem with McKinney’s theory is that this is precisely the opposite problem that Spoon has–they’ve been consistently good for too long so that critics take them for granted and as a result they try even harder to find faults.  The piece’s central argument fails to hold up even under the barest scrutiny; the final point that “[p]icking a Spoon song for its production in a year where we had incredible productions from rappers like FKA Twigs and new pop stars like Rita Ora” just adds fuel to the fire, indicating zero understanding of what “production” is, especially when discussing a rock band.

Now, I could easily have let this pass and ignore this article, except that Vox kept promoting it for weeks and weeks after it was originally published.  So I was reminded every couple of days of this horrible article’s existence, and I was forced to wonder once again “if you don’t care for Spoon at all, why are you saying that you’re ’embarrassed’ to name one of their songs the best of the year, when you can just leave them off the list?”  Of course, that would have been too easy.

And to think, after all those promotions, they never bothered to go back and correct the spelling of the name of Spoon’s frontman.

*Also, we’re sorry for not even being able to go a day without mentioning Spoon.

You’re Not As Cool/Smart/Edgy As You Think, Sir

A couple of weeks ago we linked to a commentary published by the New York Times entitled “Streaming Music Has Left Me Adrift.”  The opening paragraph gives hints of a potentially much better piece, one that highlights the connection between musical product and consumer in a much more eloquent fashion.  There was an opportunity to explore how the creation of a physical production of music can help inspire an emotional attachment in the listener, especially when one considers the effort that went into procuring the damn thing in the first place.  Instead, we ended up with the online equivalent of the stereotypical prick who works at a record store yelling at the world at large to get off his lawn.

There is some merit to the complaint that ease of access to an entire universe of music has cheapened our connection with it.  As the author alludes to, it definitely took effort to attempt to seek out music that wasn’t already played everywhere, whether it be to take the time to research through magazines and the like, or simply purchasing albums with the hopes that you got lucky that it was worth the inflated sticker price.  This is an entirely different world from today, where you can instantly search for a band based on a mere mention of their name and then fire up a sample immediately afterward to get an idea of their sound.  If you make a mistake, no problem, all you lost was a couple of minutes of your time; if you’re lucky and find something worthwhile, hey, purchasing the album is only a click away (or selecting it for your Spotify/Pandora/whatever streaming station).  You’ve lost all the risks and have a similar reward, but in the process you don’t experience the disappointment of the lows, but also miss out on the joy of going through all the effort to find a new favorite band.

The article doesn’t spend much time on this conceit, but instead goes in a different direction to discuss the split between alternative/indie and the mainstream.  Again, there are ways in which this could provide an illuminating discussion.  One could explore the different machinations that explain the dissemination of different musical trends, or simply come up with a way to eloquently describe the merits of underground music.  Instead of these potentially worthwhile exercises, the author chose to simply complain that it’s not as easy to impress people with his knowledge of esoteric artists.

The key problem with the entire piece is that the writer reveals that he is forever stuck in high school, trying to position himself as some elite outsider who calls out the masses about his superior taste in music.  The problem now is instead that we cannot properly acknowledge this guy’s pure fucking awesomeness for taking all this time to curate a knowledge of obscure musical acts.  It is now this man’s awful burden that there are now thousands of people that can share in his “love” of particular bands, and woe is him that he can’t immediately judge someone based on the fact that he or she owns the same CD as the author does.

At the heart of the matter is the belief that the author is that music is a dividing force, instead of a unifying one.  He selects new music based on its ability to separate himself from the ignorant masses, and if the mainstream catches on, it signifies a defect.  Instead of being glad that there are potentially more people than ever that can become fans of great music, this fucker is pissed off he has to share.  What a douche.

Also, if you’re going to make your big point by quoting LCD Soundsystem, then you should make sure you fully understand the irony inherent in their song “Losing My Edge.”  Hint: you didn’t get it.

Intellectualism and Music Criticism: Do We Need A Defense?

Recently, a piece by Ted Gioia in The Daily Best made the social media rounds where the critic lamented the depths to which music criticism as he perceives it has fallen.  Gioia made some good points, though a lot of it reads as a screed that those who fancy themselves as members of the intelligentsia could latch onto and feel superior to seemingly low culture.  I say this as someone who tweeted out the article with similar intentions.

Gioia’s thesis is that music criticism has devolved into emphasizing spectacle over substance–that publications are more concerned with fashion and controversy and less interested in substance and musicality.  This is certainly true to some extent.  Depending on the source, it could easily appear that the only thing that matters is what’s controversial or scandalous, and the fact that music is involved is only window dressing.  Of course, you may notice the caveat I included at the beginning of that concession–it depends where you look.

Fake Banksy probably has a point.

Fake Banksy probably has a point.

With that in mind, Gioia still managed to make a few good arguments.  One that I thought was particularly persuasive was the comparison to football announcing and their expectations of the audience’s knowledge (though I assume that Gioia was not thinking of Troy Aikman when he thought of the analogy).  Announcers drop technical terms all the time in their game commentary, and often take for granted that the audience knows the specific jargon concerning plays and formations.  Music writers, by contrast, often seem to bend over backwards to avoid mentioning specific musical vocabulary and concepts, and instead resort to broad language and vague analysis.

So it pained me when I read this quick jab in an unrelated Deadspin post on schlubby frontmen (for the record, the fact that James Murphy is not the inaugural nominee makes the Baseball Hall of Fame not making Greg Maddux a unanimous inductee look positively sane).  In referring to the Gioia piece, Rob Harvilla writes “[t]he hot new thing in rock criticism is to talk trash about people who don’t know what a pentatonic scale is[.]”  Presumably, Mr. Harvilla should know something about music considering his many jobs in the field, but he’s content to play the part of the semi-ignorant rube at least for these purposes.

The reason I found this quote more distressing than most was the fact that Deadspin takes the opposite approach when it comes to sports.  This is a site that has a whole section devoted to analytics and using proper statistics to cut through the bullshit.  The general ethos of the site has long been to mock the empty platitudes and generic analysis by the pundit class, and determine what really works in sports.  In other words, the same goals and ideals that Gioia was attempting to convey.  The attempted slam about the pentatonic scale is particularly noteworthy, because in the original piece Gioia cites an instance where Harry Connick, Jr. made a reference to it in an American Idol episode and was mocked for doing so.  It’s the celebration of ignorance and mocking of knowledge that Gioia lamented–the very same things that Deadspin has spent its years decrying.  It’s not as if a basic scale that is the foundation for most popular music should be worthy of knowledge, right?

That’s not to say Gioia is fully right.  As I mentioned above, part of the problem is that Gioia is probably not looking at the right sources.  There are numerous places where you will find that intellectualism and music criticism are not mutually exclusive (like, for instance, this site).  This was the great point that Jody Rosen made in his Vulture piece.  Why is Gioia looking to Billboard magazine for a discussion of music theory?  The magazine’s primary focus is the business itself, but I’ve linked to multiple Billboard articles that are pretty incisive critical explorations or great interviews with musicians.

You just have to know where to search.  And we’ll continue to do our part to help.

Mission Statement

Welcome to “Rust Is Just Right”.  This is a music site that’s designed to provide an environment for all kinds of fans, from the ones that study every single page published by the music press to those who have barely any time to keep in contact with what’s happening in popular culture these days.  We’re all here because we all love music, and we all want to find more of it.

Our aim is not to just be another music criticism site, but to focus on what makes certain songs and albums great and worthy of your time.  That means going beyond handy crit-speak cliches, and getting to the root of “why you should listen to this new band right now.”  In other words, we are well aware of the limits of providing reviews that are a string of name-drops, and will make sure to provide commentary that is actually helpful.

We’ve also planned a couple of features that will look into the past with this same goal in mind.  “Feats of Strength” will analyze particular songs or videos, and point out certain parts that you may have missed on the first few listens, but are really the key to what makes a song great.  “TL;DR” will be a section for longer essays that ponder theories and trends, and hopefully provide some helpful history for those that are in search of new areas to explore.  “Covered” will be a recurring feature that looks at different covers and hopefully sparks a discussion on whether they are faithful or even surpass the original songs.  While that’s what we have planned for now, we’ll always welcome suggestions for other features in the future.

We hope you enjoy the site.  Feel free to give us feedback.  We know we won’t be perfect, but hopefully over time and with your help, we’ll get close.