On music criticism

Hipster Runoff recently posted the snarkily-titled "Is Caribou’s “Odessa” the first authentic mp3 of 2k10?" I semi-jokingly commented on that post, saying that I wasn't such a huge fan of the mp3 but that I would wait to reserve judgment until I found out whether the rest of the commenters liked the song. Because I wanted to like it if everyone else liked it, but didn't want to if the HRO micro-blogosphere chewed it up and spat it out.

Unfortunately, there was a pretty even split of HRO commenters that liked/didn't like the mp3. I mentioned then that the mp3 would need at least an 8.0 rating on Pitchfork or else I wouldn't give it another listen, wouldn't try to "get" it. Lo and behold, I checked and it got exactly 8.0 on Pitchfork. So I decided to give it another listen.

It's similar to how "cool" works, and reminds me of a Simpsons episode:

Marge: Am I cool, kids?
Bart and Lisa: No.
Marge: Good. I'm glad. And that's what makes me cool—not caring, right?
Bart and Lisa: No.
Marge: Well, how the hell do you be cool? I feel like we've tried everything here.
Homer: Wait, Marge. Maybe if you're truly cool, you don't need to be told you're cool.
Bart: Well, sure you do.
Lisa: How else would you know?
How do I know if music is "cool"/"relevant" if I don't have Pitchfork/HRO/the blogosphere to tell me whether I should listen to it? There's too much music out there. Bad music is made every day. I make bad music. I can't expect anyone to listen to my stuff without viral marketing/Pitchfork/word-of-mouth/my mom telling them to.

But it's a dangerous game. It's all marketing/advertising. What if bands like Odessa just have hipper marketing teams behind them pushing their music around the blogosphere? My biggest fear is telling a relevant peer with good music taste what I've been listening to lately and having them tell me that my music taste is bad.

My biggest dream is to be an "early adopter," to be the first among my peers to start listening to a hot new band. I remember in high school when I introduced my friends to Death Cab for Cutie. But there's the double-edged sword; now that Death Cab is "played out"/no longer "relevant" they can point back to me and say that I was the one that introduced them to this "lame"/"mainstream" band. What if you're an "early adopter" and then the band "sells out?" That's a legitimate fear, y'all.

I've been slow to adopt a lot of bands, such as Animal Collective, Passion Pit, The xx, etc. Most recently this happened with Joanna Newsom. I didn't "get" her strange voice or dense lyricism. I wasn't reading Pitchfork at the time/didn't realize that she got super good reviews over there. But I was ready this time, and a few days ago got a leak of her new album (9.2, that's really good). It's going to take me a few listens, because her voice still annoys me, but if Pitchfork and this review I heard on public radio the other day say it's good, then it's gotta be good and if I don't like it that says something about my bad taste, not the merits of the album.

And of course I'm joking, but only sort of. If I listen to some music and don't like it, I'm not going to keep listening or pretend that I like it just because the blogosphere says I should (disclosure: I like a lot of Kelly Clarkson songs). Popular opinion can't fully dictate my taste.

But there really is too much music out there to listen to it all and to develop my own opinions about - there were something like 800 albums released in 2009. If an album's an average of 40 minutes long, that's something like 1.5 hours each day, every day listening to new music if I wanted to catch it all.

That's the role that music criticism, and websites like Pitchfork, play. When I can download any album I want for free in less than an hour, how am I supposed to wade through it all? I need a reliable governing body to direct my music appreciation.

It makes sense, especially given the Joanna Newsom example, and especially when you're the kind of person that enjoys full albums, not single mp3s. Her album is two hours long. Do I want to sit and listen to the entire thing to see if I like it? Or should I have someone tell me first that it's worth it? A lot of bands, like the ones I mentioned a couple paragraphs up, are "different" and thus take "getting used to." I had to listen to AnCo's album at least a few times before I "got" it/actually enjoyed listening to it. This sounds silly, but now they are one of the bands I enjoy listening to most. If the blogosphere/Pitchfork/friends hadn't told me they were worth giving the time, I might not have ever listened/began enjoying their stuff.

Even better, websites like Pitchfork can tell me which tracks are "standout tracks" to check out first to get a flavor for what an album is like. Before I download an album/go to a show/make a purchase, I can check out the "standout track" or two and get a feel for what it's all going to be like. If I don't like it then I don't have to "waste my time" with the whole album. Music criticism, if you have a magazine/website that you trust/respect, is an internet-age form of word-of-mouth.

We all know that the best kind of advertising is word-of-mouth. If my friend tells me that I "gotta listen to this band" I'm probably going to do it. Pitchfork is like my friend that has great music taste telling me which bands to check out.

But I have my doubts about Pitchfork/music criticism. Each of the reviews has a single author. Isn't that just one person's opinion? How do I know they are "qualified" to review this album? What if one reviewer thinks it's great and another one thinks it's "played out?" This dude thinks that magazine music reviews have more "authenticity" than a blog/internet site but it's kind of all the same, isn't it? Don't I have just as much right to judge an album as whoever is writing a certain Pitchfork review? Well, probably not. I read this review with Joanna Newsom, specifically the interviewer's questions, and ask myself whether I could have conducted this interview. Nope.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have a girlfriend that doesn't read (maybe doesn't even know about) Pitchfork. I envy the simplicity of her music consumption. She likes what she likes and doesn't really care what other people or blogs think about it. She uses Pandora or the radio and is introduced to new music that way. She isn't constrained by "popular opinion" of her music taste and has the freedom to listen to whatever she wants. But maybe she's missing out on some great bands that Pandora hasn't auto-selected for her to listen to. I can only introduce her to so much music.

I've tried to eschew this "elitist" music taste tendency since high school, but it's hard and I still fall into old habits. Still troll around on music blogs/hypem/Pitchfork, waiting for that next great buzzband. Sill want to be an "early adopter"/be "cool."

I want to get to a middle place where I can utilize the blogosphere/Internets to help me make good music/cultural decisions but where I'm not defined by their standards. Does this place exist?

Do you read the hipster runoffs?
Do you rely on websites like Pitchfork/blogs to help you know what is worth listening to?
Or do you form all of your own opinions completely independent of any criticism?
Do you like Joanna Newsom/AnCo/"difficult"/"inaccessible" bands?
Is there too much music out there?
Are you an elitist? Or do you not care about whether bands are cool/"relevant?"
Is Pandora-listener in a better place than alts trapped in their elitists dance of relevance?
Or is she missing out on some great music/culture/etc.?
Does that "middle place" exist?
Are these posts "too long"/"need more pictures/bullet points"?
Do you "get" when I'm "kidding"/"being sarcastic" and when I'm not?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You use p4k to determine what's "worth" listening to... but then you "form your own opinions" also? aren't those a little bit contradictory?

    i like some of the hot chips, i do like that song.

    what is "bitch dawg"? and is lazy.fm real or is that a reference to last.fm?

    Bummer there's no middle place. so you're on the elitist end?

    And good.

    I used the Simps as an example to explain what I was talking about re: caribou... I could have made a broader comparison but I don't think I did unless more was read into what I was doing than i thought... was there more?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. -one of my friends (who suckles from pitchfork's teat) recommends music, where does that place me?
    i also find new music thru last.fm recommendations which are based on what other listeners of a band listen to
    or i judge by album cover
    just being honest
    -i LOVE Joanna, but I don't find her inaccessible, personally. Milk Eyed Mender is FULL of hooks, and I genuinely like her voice. Have One On Me was daunting, but i broke up the listening into the 3 discs, like I think she intended, and was able to appreciate each pretty quickly- but then again ive been dearly devoted since her debut so i was "ready" to like it
    -I "should" like AnCo more than I do but a lot of their stuff just sounds like pots and pans to me
    -i'm not an elitist, but then again, I have no one in my life who would b impressed by cool bands. I am free to listen to Taylor Swift and showtunes<3