Hi, my name is Tris. I have often written about music -- sometimes for this publication, sometimes for others, and sometimes for my own amusement and the amusement of my friends. But long before I was a music writer, I was a music-writing reader. The music that has meant the most to me was introduced to me by critics. Joni Mitchell, De La Soul, Laura Marling, Natalia Lafourcade, Noname: I read about these artists before I heard their voices. I had no older sister to spin records for me; I had no cool guitar teacher showing me chords to classic rock songs. I learned about classic rock in Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia, and I found out about offbeat songwriters and regional rappers from the Village Voice. I relied on the critic to direct my attention.
I still do. The first thing I do in the morning is catch up on record reviews. After that, I might direct my browser to Bandcamp to acquire digital or physical copies of albums that sound like they're for me. Every year, about two hundred new albums become part of my life. The majority of those albums will be critics' recommendations. In almost every case, I read at least one review of an album before I add it to my collection and invite it to inhabit my consciousness.
I have no idea how many other people do this. Maybe it's common, maybe it's rare. But if you're a music writer, and you're writing about albums, I want you to know that I'm here, and I take you very seriously —seriously enough to call you a critic, even if you're reluctant to do the same. I am the audience, and I'm reading.
The reason I write this in the summer of 2021 is because I can feel you doubting yourself. You're wondering if you're needed, and worried that you're just adding more noise to a cacophonous Internet. Algorithms, you've been told, are handling musical discovery. Streaming playlists have made music listening a passive activity. Fans of Foxing are mad at you. Everywhere there are weblogs that do nothing but post songs and rehash breathless press release copy. If you're not as enthusiastic as those weblogs (how could you be?), will you be perceived as a negative vibe merchant? A hater? A curmudgeon getting in the way of the new system?
Some writers, alas, have accepted the algorithm-driver's logic, and attempted to become algorithms themselves. If listeners aren't thinking too hard about the music they're hearing, why complicate things with an essay contextualizing the music and hazarding guesses about the artist's unconscious motivations? Why write an essay at all? People want a simple thumbs up or thumbs down; better still, a seamless transition to the next song. Don't give them a dissertation, just a simple recommendation.
The trouble is that you are not a mainframe. RIYL is a game at which a human being will always lose to a processor. They're faster than you are, and they're far more efficient, too. Yet if you're a critic, that means you're a writer, and if you're a writer, that means you've got a personality. Maybe it's a bad personality, but hey, that's still one up on the algorithm. And it's worth remembering that the value of the critic has never been her willingness to be an accurate sign-post; she's not there to grease the gears of the showbiz sales apparatus. That's what PR is for. Her task is to explain what the music means to her -- how this particular sequence of notes and chords, stories and songs, fits in with (or stands out from) all of the other stories and songs she's heard. To do this properly, it requires the writer to go very deep indeed.
We're not doing that very much anymore. The music writers that remain have chosen brevity and intelligibility as their prime directives. Modern music criticism feels abbreviated and impersonal, full of punchy, quick-hit paragraphs loaded with empty praise and claims of the artist's sociopolitical significance. Much of the time, the critic flies the flag as aggressively, and flavorlessly, as the PR people do, and thus becomes an adjunct to the label's sales force -- an unpaid, extremely junior member of the marketing team. Those who do this tend to claim that this is what the readership demands: not dense pieces with asides and digressions and theoretical language, but a clear, plainspoken, unalloyed testimony to an album's importance. It's the Song of the Summer. It's the anthem that speaks to the turmoil of the moment. It's one of the Six New Tracks You Need To Hear Now.
It is true that the music writer has a duty to guide listeners, and expose readers to music that they might have missed. I know, because I've benefited mightily from critics' suggestions. But the critic's main responsibility isn't to me, or to you, or their editor or publisher, or wider Internet audience and their various clicks and likes. The critic's main responsibility is to the artist she's writing about. The critic must be the artist's interlocutor and deepest, closest, and most dedicated listener. That's what she's there for. All good criticism is fundamentally epistolary: it's an open letter from an intelligent observer to the subject of her observation. A good critic is a traitor to her publisher and her publisher's readership. She cares about neither. Instead, she's engaged, to the point of exclusion of all other considerations, in a rhetorical wrestling match with the work she's scrutinizing and the creator of that work. This is the very condition — the only condition — under which a music writer can be helpful to a curious reader and dedicated listener. We are invited to read a personal reaction to a work of art that is simultaneously a rigorous analysis of that work, and which is directed at the person whose work is under review. If that's not what you're doing when you're writing about music, you're probably just doing PR.
Since this is pop music, rigorous analysis can also be irreverent, or silly, or coruscating, or obscene. That's part of the beauty of writing about music: you can, and should, be as big a punk as the talented mooks under your microscope. If you're a critic, you cannot give a damn about the feelings of your subject, or the squeamishness of the audience, or the modern imperative to give affirmation. Critics are not popular people. But what a real critic does is absolutely essential to the well-being of the artist, because without the critic, all the artist would get is puffery and reiteration. In the era of access journalism, many music writers chase approbation from their subjects: they want to be liked, so they ply the artist with positivity. Sometimes this has the intended effect: the artist (or the artist's PR representatives) retweets the complimentary pieces, and the writer feels like he's part of the team. But really the writer is being selfish. He's withholding from the artist the only thing he has to give — an honest, personal, human response.
I've put out records of my own, and played on many others, which means I've solicited press notice. Again, I can speak only for myself, but I am never so disappointed by a writer's reaction to something I’ve done than I am when I find that it's nothing more than a restatement of the talking points in the press release. I'd much, much rather be ruthlessly panned. If I'm panned, that means that the music writer felt that I was worth engaging with, if only to run me down and explain what it is that I did that was objectionable. From there, we can have an exchange. If the writer paraphrases the positive things that we've supplied him, then I know I haven’t provoked any thought at all.
Many of the sites that I used to count on for criticism and dialogue about contemporary music have turned into repositories for press release copy. Sometimes it's artfully disguised. Sometimes it's just copied and pasted into a WordPress shell. I'm not going to name names; if you follow the music press, you know what I'm talking about. I believe that the people who run these sites mean well: they post songs, call attention to new releases, and append to their posts the quotes supplied by the publicist. They don't think they're doing damage, but they are. In a rush to serve the audience, they're abdicating their responsibility to the artists themselves, who, whether they acknowledge it or not, require the serious dialogue that art – even willfully disreputable art! – depends on.
So if you're a person who writes about music, or if you run a site that still covers music the way it should be covered, I'm humbly asking you not to let me down. You’re going to get a lot of pressure to turn yourself into a sign-post – pressure to keep your posts short, and recursive, and oriented toward recommendation and indication alone, as if you’re nothing but a salesperson. Some of that pressure will come from editors. Some of it, God help us, may even come from other writers who are worried about being called pretentious. I just want you to know that it’s not coming from me —and I doubt I am unique among dedicated readers of music journalism. I want you to go long, and deep, and I want you to get digressive and ambitious and contrary, make up words and go silly, throw me screwballs, give it to me in an idiosyncratic voice. You’ll also feel that pressure to please your subjects, and you might chase the dopamine surge that comes from receiving likes and retweets from musicians you admire. I beg you to resist that impulse. A music writer who indulges in the fame chase is useless as a correspondent, useless to the artists she ought to be interrogating fiercely, and, ultimately, useless to those of us who enjoy reading criticism. Be a pest, in other words. Don’t be scared. When you decided to write about popular music, you already signed on to do a dodgy, questionable, irresponsible, problematic thing. You might as well go all the way. Your readers depend on it, and whether they know it or not, your subjects do, too.
For more Tris McCall, visit trismccall.net.