Everything (is) Good (On Criticism)

“When the critic has said everything in his power about a literary text, he has still said nothing; for the very existence of literature implies that it cannot be replaced by non-literature.” Tzvetan Todorov
“Fuck y’all, all ya’ll / if ya’ll don’t like me, blow me” Dr. Dre

In The Simpsons Episode 229 (“Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner”), Homer’s ability to speak eloquently and evocatively about food—from his own gluttonous experience—earns him a position as a restaurant critic. His early enthusiastic reviews attract the gratitude of the restaurateurs and the scorn of fellow critics who see his approach as too easy and, I suspect, unsophisticated and popularizing.

Under the spell of the evil critics’ cabal, Homer becomes an all too easily recognizable caricature of a critic who barely deigns to judge his material and whose blistering reviews can be explained only by how elevated and sophisticated his taste has become. Of course, Homer can’t have it both ways—he cannot be the food-loving hero of the people and the gastronomic esthete.  The restaurateurs conspire to poison him.

What does this have to do with music? It flirts with several issues at the center of criticism—issues that make the act of reviewing or judging music, for me, nearly paralyzing. What is the relationship between the critic and the object of criticism? Is it love for the form/genre? Is there a profit/commodification link between the two?

These questions are not restricted to food and music—indeed, anyone who has followed the 20th century crises in literary criticism will recognize some of the same issues. Why does a critic make judgments? Is it to  understand the specific instance of a genre or the genre as a whole? Or, more problematically, how can we tell when the review stops being (primarily) about the object of criticism and instead is really about the critic?

In reverse order. Criticism almost always reveals more about the judge than the judged. And this isn’t a bad thing. For instance, each generation’s reaction to Shakespeare communicates the values, emphases, and historical contexts of that time. On the other hand, a great deal of criticism suffers from personality cults. Too many critics write for the purpose of glorifying the critic by revealing through the sensitivity of the critic’s judgments and the dexterity of his/her writing the superiority of the critic over the creator of the object, other critics, and, of course, the reader.


Why does a critic make judgments? For the bad critic, it is, as I have implied, to advertise his/her own excellence. For the good critic, I think, it is in an attempt to understand better not just the specific object of criticism but also the general field or genre that gives that object context—by which I mean that it is through the practice of criticism that we slowly define art forms, come to understand them, and through these understandings participate, in some small part, in their creation and reception. Practicing criticism is the ‘examined’ way to enjoy an art form (and this, I think, is worthwhile for the professional and amateur alike).

What do Socrates and Dr. Dre have in common? Cojones.

How does a critic relate to the object? To be a good critic, one must have something at stake in the act of judgment—an affinity for the form in general, an appreciation for the specific iteration, a desire to contribute to the art when one cannot be (because of skill) or is not (in this regard) the artist. The worst motive, for me, is one of profit. This is where Homer Simpson meets the bad critic—certain readers enjoy the insider’s pose of reading the damning and superior critic; by affiliating with the harsher judgment of the sophisticate—and by absorbing the clever and destructive prose—we hope to claim for ourselves some measure of sophistication. Therefore, we pay a premium for this type of exclusive criticism.

But the relationship between the critic and the object is really like a series of mirrors set next to each other at slightly changing angles. The product, which can mostly be enjoyed by external observers, is always shifting as the two sides are redefined in each other’s terms. The act of judgment teaches us as much about the critic as the object of criticism.
This entire discussion, as tortured and hateful as it is, has been a long preface to a short justification. On this blog, the Younger J and I often review albums (and  live shows). Before doing so (or, in reality, after writing a few) it is  necessary to justify reviewing albums that are 25+ years old. See, typically, album reviews could exist for commodity’s sake—they let you know if you might want to purchase an album. Because we treat music primarily as a commodity, the art form itself has become disposable—albums are released, they are reviewed, some singles are released, the end.

But, as the Younger J and I insist, if pop music is to be considered an art form it must be amenable to the same type of treatment as other art forms. An album shouldn’t be reviewed just for the sake of wishy-washy consumers who might want to buy it. No, it should be reviewed for its own sake; an enduring piece of art should be re-engaged with each generation to teach us more about the art and more about ourselves.

And, since these essays are also personal (and, I fear, solipsistic), the act of reviewing will also teach me (and the Brother!) more about me. By interrogating our favorite pieces of music, by attempting to relate them to ideal forms, by endeavoring to articulate what it is that attracts us to them, we will, in theory at least, understand what we like about music. And we may even come up with answers we don’t like.

Kai su, adelphe? Did I blather on too long for this one and make less sense than the word count is worth? Why review? Why judge? WhyPsst: They're talking about "The Next Episode" not like everything? Perhaps that would be better—as Lenny puts it in episode 229 “I never knew everything was so good!”

8 comments on “Everything (is) Good (On Criticism)

  1. londongigger says:

    An absolutely absobing and fascinating piece. Especially interesting to me as an amateur gig blogger/review. (I would never be so presumptious to call myself a critic). Leads me to think about why I do reviews. I started writing because I did not recognise most of the time what professional music critics wrote about the shows I saw and that pissed me off. I continue to write because I love doing it and I think it’s important to have a record of these shows from a member of the public who genuinely enjoys live music. I am no Shakesphere but I do try to convey what I feel. This is better
    than some professional critics who leave before the end of a show, yet still write an article on the artist and then pick up a cheque. This is complete laziness and is the worst form of journalism.

    As for criticism, any given should always be constructive. I’ve no time for the vitrolic style like, for example, given out by some of these New York Broadway critics. I think that if any artist is brave enough to get up on that stage they deserve some credit.

    • theelderj says:

      Dear LG–glad you liked the post and find some sense in the muddle I’ve made for things. In my blogging and non-blogging life I have also struggled with the purpose of criticism. The only and most basic justification I can come up with is that we do it to try to understand why we (personally) like or don’t like things and to explain this to others.

      I think any stance that assumes there is the slightest thing called objectivity in artistic judgment is a deluded one. The best stance, I think (and this is a developing notion, is to admit your hang-ups, subjective tastes and personal issues from the outset and then allow your audience, if you have one, to judge your judgment.

      And that leads to my final question, whether to provide critique for yourself alone or others. I guess I start with trying to figure out what I like and don’t like and to write for me with my next audience in mind. Who’s the audience? For now, my brother (and you? and some others).

      Read some of your blog too. I think you have it going right. Your posts read as authentic and dedicated to understanding an experience rather than simply pronouncing judgment.

      thanks for writing and commenting!

  2. professormortis says:

    Interesting post. I think I started doing a blog to cut down on the number of the “Oh, hey, I just saw this thing, I thought X about it” with my friends and family who I tended to have that conversation with. It completely failed, in many ways, because only a small number of the people who I have those conversations with are into reading stuff online. For a long time it was mostly for myself, to keep track of what I saw and what I thought of it at the time (because, in time, the memory tends to fade to a few salient points and sometimes I end up forgetting what I actually thought of it when I saw it). When I moved to WordPress I was trying to be more professional and formal, to move away from the conversational, casual, personal and disorganized stuff I’d done on my first platform (he says embarrassed) Livejournal. It’s funny, that, because I read your more personal reactions to music and keep thinking “That’s what I should be doing!”

    I (mostly) agree that there is a bad criticism that is too much about showing off the critic’s knowledge/taste, but on the other hand, I’ve enjoyed learning a great deal about the main art form I consume, cinema, from reading some of the great film critics-Roger Ebert, Danny Perry-and from talented amateurs, like Dr. Freex, Keith Allison, and others that put up websites highlighting the strange and unusual (and laughably bad) side of cinema. I can’t lie and say I don’t love, from time to time, reading someone ripping a movie a new one. Hell, I can’t lie and tell you that, after a particularly galling film experience, that *I* don’t love ripping that film a new one. I think, at it’s best, criticism can help us see art in new ways, to understand what we find appealing about it, and to help guide us to help us spend our time more productively with the art. Is there an ugly side to criticism? Absolutely. Should that mean the whole genre gets a bad name? I definitely think not. If there’s one thing I can’t stand to hear is when someone proclaims how they “never listen to the critics” or refuse to give something a chance because it’s perceived as high brow (or, for that matter, when someone, usually a co-worker, proclaims that something is too low brow or popular to be worthy of attention). That kind of dismissal irks me.

    Here’s a related issue you could perhaps cover here sometime: the relationship between the hype/reputation of music, literature, or film, and how that sets the artwork up for failure…or for that matter, the reverse, when something receives such a critical drubbing that one can’t help to find its limited good qualities surprisingly appealing in light of one’s low expectations. I find that this can be the most pernicious aspect of criticism…not that it is inherently evil, or unfair, or the other objections I hear levied against it, but that it often leads us to expect flawless miracles, or to ignore perfectly acceptable, if not terribly compelling entertainments.

    • theelderj says:

      All well-put and well-considered as usual, professor.

      As you probably remember, our word criticism comes from the Greek verb krino, “to judge” (in a compound form, apokrinomai means “to answer”). So the act of performing some judgment is central to the very etymology of the word.

      I agreed that the conceit of never listening to critics is annoying (whether it be tied to laziness, arrogance or something else) and, as you point out, the good work criticism does in weeding out a crowded marketplace.

      But it is in that culling that I sometimes get worried. For one, certain critics have aesthetic grindstones that, while principled, may have a negative effect in pruning. And, worse today, I worry about the commodification and the connection between critic and capital.

      When all that is said and done, the practice of criticism (solo, in tandem, or whatever) can help us, at the least, to appreciate and understand. But can it, as many critics since Aristotle at least have hoped, also serve to shape and inform art?

      (for film and popular music, I suspect that money speaks louder; but you’re right that the hype machine, by declaring something good or bad,can have a deleterious effect. But am I being too idealistic?)

  3. […] How does one judge an album? Is it by the influence it exerts on its time or the degree to which it is representative of its era? Is it by its ‘originality’ (the magnitude by which it differs from its time)? Should we rank albums based on what people or artists say about them (some kind of BCS voting for music)? Or should we, as many do, evaluate an album’s merit based on its subsequent influence? (This rubric itself is shifting; influences have varied durations and potency.) […]

  4. […] have written before about the difficulty of making judgments—of the extent to which a value judgment is the reflection more of the character and taste of the […]

  5. […] have mentioned earlier my distrust for lists and the way that they distort issues of judgment (something that on its own has issues). See, for instance, the recent “50 Best Rap Songs” […]

  6. […] started out on this blog writing some reviews of albums that I considered classic with the intention of trying to explain what makes them timeless and not just tied to their trends and historical context. Recently, but […]

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