Recently there was some sort of Twitter conference in which Christopher R. Weingarten, a music critic for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, shared his thoughts on the state of contemporary music writing. His take on the (d)evolution of criticism is trenchant: Starting around 2004, he says, blogs replaced music magazines as the prime arbiters of musical taste; now Twitter is doing the same thing to blogs. As a result, fewer people make their living off of music writing; in the near future, Weingarten supposes, no one will. So far, so good. But then Weingarten makes the point that made everyone link to him. Let the unwashed masses decide what to listen to, he says, and what they’ll listen to is crap:
Crowdsourcing killed punk rock. Hands down. Crowdsourcing kills art. Crowdsourcing killed indie rock. It’s bullshit. You wanna know why? Because crowds have terrible taste. People have awful taste. Once people start talking about indie rock on the Internet, it’s all this music that rises to this middle — this boring, bland, white-people guitar music. It fucking sucks, I hate it. This NPR bullshit. And NPR is forced to write about it over and over again, because it’s the link economy, and people will click on it if it says Fleet Foxes. Well Fleet Foxes fucking suck. It’s not the music that’s the best — it’s the music that the most people can stand. if you let the people decide, then nothing truly adventurous ever gets out. And that’s the problem.
Weingarten’s rant is funny in the way that exasperated conservatism is always funny. But like so much exasperated conservatism, it’s wrong.
For starters, popular music has always reflected the taste of the masses. The masses have liked a fair amount of crap over the years, from Pat Boone to Pitbull, but they’ve also given long and fruitful careers to artists as diverse (and strange) as Kate Bush, Brian Eno, David Byrne, Radiohead and Lil Wayne. Meanwhile, two critical darlings from this year, Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear, debuted at No. 13 and No. 8 on the Billboard chart, respectively — and they did it without sounding like Fleet Foxes. (Seriously, how petty is it to begrudge the success of a fucking folk band?) Music critics may have given some of those bands an early boost, but I’d wager that radio, television and record-label marketing deserve more of the credit.
Moreover, I would point out that the existence of monolithic music magazines did nothing to spare us from hair bands, rock-rap hybrids or Creed, to name but a few of the causes they openly championed. Talk about “music that rises to the middle”! That could have been Rolling Stone’s motto for the entire 1990s. In his lecture, Weingarten marvels that a kid reading Spin in 1996 would have been exposed to Nine Inch Nails, Chemical Brothers and Snoop Dogg, a triumvirate he announces as if describing a dinner party hosted by Kim Jong-Il, Tiger Woods and Fergie. A professional critic believes only he can listen to rock, electronica and hip-hop and have something interesting to say about all three. But you know who else can do that? Everyone on earth. Read your friends’ musical interests on Facebook or MySpace — half of them say they like ‘everything.’ I’ve yet to meet one of these straw men Weingarten describes, the ones that listen only to metal or hip hop or bands that play exclusively on a three-block stretch of Williamsburg. To be alive today is to sing Grizzly Bear in the shower, blast T-Pain on the ride to work, hum Coldplay in the grocery store, rock Jay Z at the gym, and have Jose Gonzalez sing you to sleep. And we do it all without Rolling Stone’s help.
The truth is that magazines Weingarten wrote for did much more to promote albums by Britney Spears, Jonas Brothers and the like than music blogs ever did. Weingarten flatters himself that pro critics served as some kind of bulwark against mediocrity; meanwhile, the pros over at Paste Magazine called She & Him the best record of 2008, a transparent excuse to put frontwoman Zooey Deschanel on their cover and goose single-copy sales by several thousand. How punk rock of them. (It also seems worth noting that Weingarten’s favorite record of the year, after listening to more than 400 of them, is Green Day’s 21st-Century Breakdown. How that escaped his charges of “boring, bland, white-people guitar music” I’ll never know.)
As Weingarten loses his paying gigs — something for which he has my sincere and unironic sympathy — he has turned his attention to Twitter. His project for the year has been to review a thousand albums on the site, all in 140 characters or less. If I can play exasperated conservative for a moment — what a horrible way to review a piece of art. Set aside the question of whether anyone should listen to a thousand new albums in a year: Whether you’re a professional or not, surely great work should inspire you to craft more than a sentence or two in response. “I’ve done 402 record reviews over Twitter, and I can say with authority there’s enough room in 140 characters to not only elaborate but have good writing,” Weingarten says, in what unfortunately comes across as wishful thinking. (Recent review of Sun Araw’s the Phynx: “Moans and drones billow out as easily as moans and drones. #6” Um, OK!)
If the history of popular music has one lesson to offer us, it’s that nothing has killed anything. Rock isn’t dead. Neither’s punk. Even the music magazines are still alive, God bless ‘em. They’re all out there, ready to be rediscovered or reinvented, offering hints of what the future will sound like. The choice of what to listen to, as always, rests with us. I wouldn’t have it any other way.