Back when music was expensive and required effort to acquire, people did their research before opting to buy an album or single. That meant turning to the record review section of magazines like Rolling Stone, Spin, Mojo, Q, or dozens of others.
Each had a staff of critics whose job was to pick apart the music and offer opinions on whether a specific release was worth your time and money. Some of these magazines even published the collected works of their critics.
Music fans trusted — depended on — the writings of Robert Christgau (Rolling Stone, Billboard, Village Voice, Playboy), Lisa Robinson (CREEM, The NME, Rock Scene, Vanity Fair), Nick Kent (The NME, The Face), David Fricke (Rolling Stone), Paul Morley (The NME, BLITZ), Greil Marcus (Village Voice, Rolling Stone), and of course, Lester Bangs (CREEM, Rolling Stone), who probably did more to elevate rock criticism to a respected artform than anyone else.
They and others helped fans connect more to the music, taught us about the star-making machinery, and helped us make sense of things.
Old-school record reviews were not only enlightening but also entertaining. Take, for example, this review of Lou Reed’s — ahem — difficult-to-listen-to, get-me-out-of-my-record-contract release, Metal Machine Music. It appeared in CREEM magazine in 1975.
And it wasn’t just their opinions we valued; they contributed to culture. In 1971, Dave Marsh was the first to use the word “punk” to describe a certain type of raw rock’n’roll in a CREEM article about ? and the Mysterians. The BBC’s Stuart Maconie is credited with popularizing the term “Britpop.” Chrissie Hynde applied lessons learned from her time as a journalist at The NME to the formation of The Pretenders. The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant did the same after working at Smash Hits.
One of the first types of online music sites involved publishing reviews (or at least opinions) of new releases. Perhaps the most renowned and notorious of these was Pitchfork, which made it clear that they had no trouble skewering anything submitted to them. The best/worst review that appeared among its posts — a 2006 critique of Jet’s Shine On album — featured no words at all. The message, however, was very, very clear.
Critics were supposed to be fearless in their opinions, unafraid to call ’em as they saw ’em. Dave Marsh, for example, was consistently ragging on John Bonham’s skills as a drummer even as he was being lauded as one of the greatest of all time. Lester Bangs hated Black Sabbath, calling the lyrics on their debut album “inane.”
Jon Landau, the critic who would later rave about Bruce Springsteen and eventually become his manager wrote this about Jimi Hendrix: “Despite Jimi’s musical brilliance and the group’s total precision, the poor quality of the songs and the inanity of the lyrics too often get in the way.”
And then there’s J.D. Constantine writing about a 1985 album by a band called GTR. His one-word assessment? “SHT.” Ouch.
Today, though, the landscape is different, largely because of social media, something pointed out by Thomas Hobbs writing in The Telegraph. “To browse the review section of NME’s website in 2022 is to witness fawning four-out-of-five write-ups that tend to frame every other artist as ‘genius,’ almost all songs as ‘cathartic,’ and shy away from criticism.”
Why? Blowback from fans, especially those organized into hardcore evangelists and protectors of the brands of artists like Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, BTS, and Harry Styles. Say one negative thing and the Beyhive, the Swifties, the Little Monsters, the A.R.M.Y., and Stylers will seek to destroy you on Twitter or in the comments section of any online post. These “stans” —obsessive, zealous, highly-motived fans of a particular celebrity — will stop at nothing to make sure you understand that you are not only wrong, but stupid, thoughtless, tasteless, and worthless.
I learned about this firsthand when I made an off-hand, ill-advised reference to Kim Kardashian on Twitter. Even though I had sober second thoughts and deleted the post after 15 minutes, the counterattacks continued for a week. Some of the things that were written and inferred were not just hurtful but vicious, like I was responsible for a mass puppy slaughter. No amount of mea culpa-ing seemed to work on the Twitter mob. Eventually, the uproar died away, but lesson learned.
Then a couple of years back, I wrote a post critical of Taylor Swift’s moaning about how she wasn’t able to acquire the rights to her masters. In it, I referred to Taylor as “Tay-Tay,” a diminution that’s often used affectionately by fans. The reaction was fierce, with at least one person calling for an apology, a retraction, and some level of physical flogging for my sexist, demeaning treatment of The Great Woman.
Attacking critics for saying something fans disagree with has become a blood sport. This toxic fandom has even seen some critics receiving death threats, so no wonder critics have become, well, less critical. Who needs this kind of grief and abuse?
Another issue is access. Publicists and managers follow what’s written about their clients like the NSA follows al-Qaida. Say something negative and you risk being cut off from not just the artist you critiqued but from other artists on their rosters. Yes, they bear grudges and have long memories. If a music journalist has no access, then a big part of what they do for a living evaporates. And if they acquiesce to the pressure, how is the journalist supposed to speak the truth?
So what does this mean for the future of music journalism? I’ve noticed workarounds where critics post recommendations of music they like rather than publishing critiques on releases. There will always be those who have the fortitude to stand up to the mobs of stans out there, and thank goodness for that.
But I do worry that an important form of serious criticism of the arts is on the wane as it’s being bullied to death by those who refused to accept a discouraging word about the objects of their obsessions.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.