In Defense of Criticism

August 22, 2010

How’s that for a title?
The type of criticism that is the subject here isn’t some lofty form of political protest either, but just regular ole pop culture criticism, primarily of music and film.
As someone who reviews albums, concerts, books, movies and even releases end of year “best of” lists, I notice comments that friends and folks make regarding “critics,” because I realize that by discussing and occasionally ranking pop media I am a freelance critic of sorts, and even though I’m not on anyone’s payroll for being one that’s just because no one’s made an offer! Doing it for free certainly isn’t just a noble venture or an attempt at not “selling out.”

Now, I can’t say why everyone that writes and ranks pop media does it, but I know why it’s a facet of my blog: I love music tremendously, and good books, movies, comics, etc are just a notch or so below music for me in terms of my favorite forms of escapism.  Here on my blog I drift in and out of the rotation of topics, depending on my mood I might post about religion, politics, news, comics, or whatever, but music always comes back around because something always happens with music that excites me enough to want to write about it, whether it’s a new album or song, discovering a new artist, seeing a great live performance, etc. At the end of each year I love narrowing down my top 10 albums and top 20 songs (among other such lists); it causes me to go back over every great album or song that made my running list of contenders over the course of the year and devote more time to studying them in depth to try and adaquately rank and review them. Doing so these past few years has been a lot of fun for me and those posts tend to get the most hits year in and out but I’d do them even if it were only for my benefit (and I have doubts that many out there come to my site first to see what new music they should pursue).

I realize that any ranking of “best” artists, albums, movies, or songs is somewhat arbitrary and opinion-driven. Any time a famous publication like “Rolling Stone” or “Spin” release a “Best of the Year” (or Decade, or Century) list, the reader feedback always consists of at least a few fans yelling out that their favorite didn’t make the cut and going on to say that ranking and reviewing music is pointless because there are no factors outside of opinion that can truly measure the greatness of a pop song.

But really there are; sure, opinion comes down to being the primary factor that affects a decision in such a matter (if the critic is honest and not being paid to “like” something as was the case in the golden “Payola” days of decades past). Yet there are things that help determine greatness beyond that. Well written lyrics are easy to seperate from recyled and cliched ones; variety and technique is easy to detect; how well a person or an ensemble play their instruments can be pretty easy to figure out. Then there’s relevance of the material, originality and uniqueness of it and its presentation, how well it does what it’s meant to do (whether that’s make you want to dance, protest, think or cry). There are a whole host of issues that can be taken into consideration for a music critic who is ranking the “best.” And of course, everyone can be a critic as the internet is fast showing; yet those that do it the most, those that I myself  keep going back to again and again, have an edge over most of us because they get to do this for a living. If you are listening to music  all day, day in-day out, when something really sparks you and gets your rave, and then there’s a lot of other folks doing your job suddenly feeling the same way, odds are you’ve stumbled onto something pretty great that the public should take note of if they’re interested in music. The best music critics have a way of writing about the material in a way that puts a glimpse of what they feel when they listen to a song they love onto paper (or screen) that intrigues a reader out there to seek it out for themselves.

So, yes, in defense of “criticism,” I’d say that music and film critics do a service by pointing out what might go under the radar otherwise. There are  times when popularity and critical praise line up– in music that has happened with The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen very notably–but often the bands and films that are trumpeted by the best critics get overlooked by the masses. In those cases, it’s great for the music and film lovers who happened to notice the critical praises and ventured out to discover something they otherwise may never have.

And of course, sometimes what you love might be widely panned by those critics and it’s not going to make you love it any less (nor should it). For every high-brow and praised movie, book, album, or comic that I love I have a guilty pleasure or genre-item that no one in the critical world would own up to also enjoying. That’s fine too, because there are some great things to be said for sheer big, dumb fun also.

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One Response to “In Defense of Criticism”

  1. […] music or film–and certainly what one likes eventually boils down to a matter of subjectivity. I’ve defended the role of critics in the past, and I still think film criticism is a worthy task. If you’re paid to watch movies all the […]

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