The state of music criticism is in the toilet, according to Ted Gioia. Or it’s never been better, at least when it comes to pop, if you agree with Jody Rosen’s side of the polemic. But if you’re a music journalist or editor of color, you know these are two somewhat narrow views of a much wider landscape.
You might be wondering what’s the use of a music critic nowadays, if listeners are bombarded with ever more algorithms to personalize and curate their tastes on Pandora, Spotify, iTunes and the like. But human critics can beat recommendation machines at finding the tasty nugget you didn’t know you were going to like, or to understand a bit more of the “how” and “why” different types of music work — or not.
Gioia, a veteran jazz critic, says that contemporary music criticism has decayed into mere lifestyle and gossip writing: discussing how Kanye references Louis Vuitton in a song but not its keys, harmony, technique, or musical influences, for example. It’s easy to agree with Gioia’s claim that more musical knowledge would improve a whole lot of writing about popular music. But beyond that, his rant against writing about the cultural fabric that pop songs are woven into is a bit of a throwback. That tradition of music criticism —especially when you’re talking about pop music— is not precisely new, and its products deserve equal respect as a review that only considered the musical aspects of a piece of pop music (just ask Greil Marcus). And while we can agree that coverage of music and other arts now leans more towards vapid celebrity worship, this plays out differently when you look beyond legacy media.
Gioia and Rosen are so into showing off their music macher bona fides, and their shelfies, that they neglected to recap the state of music writing telenovela for those who haven’t tuned in to the developments of the last 15 or 20 years. In short, alternative weeklies and mass-market newspaper features sections shriveled. And while online outlets opened up space for thousands of new voices, they quickly drowned each other out. What’s more: the click-hungry, attention-starving nature of the internet has quickly turned many music writers into people looking for epiphanies where they otherwise might see only average records.
But even online, where no one knows you’re a dog (or a “foreigner,” as many Latinos are considered regardless of where they were born), the place where you come from or live in matters — and so does the language you write in. Rosen accuses Gioia of not referencing any specific music writers, then proceeds to name-check critics in just three kingdoms of the cultural reporting Westeros — House New York Times, House New Yorker and House Village Voice.
That completely leaves out anyone who doesn’t work for legacy media, or who knows about and cares about music beyond the pop/hip-hop/country spectrum that takes up most of the space in those publications. And even when those writers take up the occasional Latin or “world” music piece, they sometimes produce some cringe-worthy moments. No self-respecting Latino music critic would have described King of Cursi Ricardo Arjona as “one of Latin pop’s finest lyricists” after he sold out Madison Square Garden. But a certain New York Times critic did, and no one called him on it. So can we talk about that lack of musical knowledge?
Latino writers, and writers from other communities living the bicultural life, have long had to master twice the material to get half the attention. If you present yourself as a “Latin music critic” within the U.S. mainstream (read: English-language) media market, you’re expected to know all about Latin pop, salsa, bachata, rock en español, flamenco, regional Mexican music, the multiple genres of Cuba and Colombia, and even music from Brazil — which is almost a musical continent in itself. Plus, you need to understand how U.S.-based Latin artists draw from a variety of American musical traditions (which sometimes includes all-American salsa and all-American conjunto). And don’t forget to have in your pocket handy translations from one national context to another (every country has its own Bob Dylan or Beatles). The same goes for writers involved with contemporary music from other parts of the world, who have to know their chaabi from their rai, and their kuduro from their baile funk.
Norteño acts like Los Tigres del Norte sell out scores of arenas yearly. Chilean singer/rapper Ana Tijoux was making crossover waves way before she appeared in the “Breaking Bad “soundtrack. But writers who caught on to them early and smartly, such as Ramiro Burr or NPR’s Alt.Latino crew, get no recognition in this state-of-music-writing tally. Nor do the writers and sites that have consistently championed and dug into what’s new and noteworthy in the Latin American diaspora, such as Club Fonograma and, surprisingly, the energy-drink-sponsored Red Bull Panamerika. Nor do writers who operate outside of legacy media staff jobs, like Julianne Escobedo Shepherd or Wayne Marshall. Nor do newer magazines and sites that go short more than long, like The Fader, MTV Iggy or Sounds and Colours.
And that goes double if you’re writing in Spanish. The internet was supposed to erase all national boundaries and open up a space for smart, dedicated writers. But which U.S. critics bother to read, even via Google translate, sites like La Banda Elástica? It’s still tough to get much of the U.S. public to pay attention to music sung in other languages, barring the occasional crossover hit or dance craze (e.g., Gangnam Style), but a well-informed music critic can still be a guide to bits of fun and joy outside the well-trodden path. And that’s a function worth keeping.
Lifestyle reporting and poptimism may rule the writing venues that Gioia and Rosen are arguing over, but for the rest of us, there’s plenty to read and recommend to maintain a well-balanced music crit diet.
Carolina González is a freelance writer who’s written about music on and off since the 80s in newspapers, magazines, online and in public radio.
José Manuel Simián is executive editor of culture and lifestyle website Manero and a freelance writer