The Critic vs. Blogger Myth
Or: Why Critics Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Web
By Doug Freeman,
11:15AM, Wed. Mar. 25, 2009
In the Music issue of the Oxford American, former No Depression editor Grant Alden contributed an article on the fall of the critic, or more accurately, the fall of his job as critic. No Depression was a landmark music magazine, responsible for defining alt.country in the 1990s and fostering the reemergence of Americana to its current thriving state.
I lamented its folding as a bi-monthly publication last year (it has currently been revived as a quarterly “bookazine” published by UT Press), both for the loss of its thorough, extended features and coverage of regional artists that remain largely obscure. The magazine briefly tried to continue its mission online, but it was clear the editors’ hearts were not into online publishing.
Which is fine. The concept and ethos of No Depression as it existed in print largely would not work on the Web. Alden and fellow founder Peter Blackstock attributed much of the magazine’s woes to the emergence of online media and rising influence of blogs, bemoaning that music criticism had been reduced to press releases and mp3s with no real substance, insight, or inspiration. As Alden writes in his Oxford American piece “Lost Calling”: “Content, they tell us, is king online. Content meaning words abstracted from print sources, moving images abstracted from television sources, and opinions abstracted from the unpaid volunteers who have moved in to replace professional critics. Yes, I take this personally.”
Alden’s article is at times a touching ode to his art as critic, and what he feels about being part of an era quickly fading, if not already passed. “We are told [those critics] are old and irrelevant, their ways and knowledge and values do not translate when the Internet wants fifty-word reviews and five-hundred-word essays…. The amateurs have taken over, and we live in the new age of transitory media.” For some reason, I imagine similar critiques must have been leveled when Lester Bangs first assaulted music journalism with his wild abandon. Alden may be right about many of his arguments here, but he entirely misses the point, character, and possibilities of the Web for music criticism. First is a fallacy that has been perpetuated by print critics for at least a decade, and one that is no doubt largely made only to boost their own importance (while actually serving as a detriment to the art of their criticism). That fallacy is that blogs are replacing critics, that amateur kids in their dorm rooms are now capable of holding the cultural influence of esteemed rock critics who paid their dues by moving through the arduous ranks of print journalism.
There is a properly placed critique in this argument that critics achieve the influence of voice that they have because they have proven both in their writing and knowledge to be capable of upholding such an important position, which the almost effortless creation of blogs circumvents. Yet the fallacy of correlation between bloggers and critics has become commonplace in the discussion of criticism’s role in the digital era, and misrepresents both. The reality is that blogs rarely claim to engage in actual criticism (judgement, yes; criticism, much less so), and, perhaps more importantly, the public does not consider blogs to be critical engines. This is not to demean blogs at all – Alden’s pretentious view that bloggers should not hold the cultural cache they do because they are “amateurs” is absurd and, as he admits, simply personal.
The recent South by Southwest panel, dubiously named “The Bloggers Are Now In Charge," considers them primarily filters for music in the vast miasma of the Information Age, and the relationships that they have built with their readers are based on a respect for their taste and writing. While the filter function is certainly one that has long been the purview of the critic, any critic worth their words realizes that acting simply, as Alden quotes Alfred Frankenstein from the collection The Art of Criticism, “as a bridge between the creative artist and his or her public” is a bastardization of his or her responsibilities. More accurately, a critic does not simply pass judgment and declare which works are worthy of attention and which should be relegated to the forgotten bins of time, but rather explains why, puts art in a larger cultural conversation, and uses it to frame arguments both of a piece and bigger than the art itself.
Now is perhaps a good time to define exactly what we speak of when we speak of blogs. Many excellent sites are haphazardly lumped into this category, but I am here referencing music blogs, and more specifically the rapid fire blogs that post mp3s, videos, tour announcements, news, and other information about artists that they care deeply about (or love to hate). Esteemed critic Simon Reynolds contributes to the excellent blog on the Guardian’s website, which I feel must not be what is being referred to in the general disparagement of blogs. Nor is the blog on the Chronicle’s website. Print publications have a poor conception of blogs, which is one reason why the arguments that they make against the online form are currently so confused. To review the extremes: Pitchfork is not a blog; Stereogum is a blog.
The reason I go to the trouble of drawing this distinction is because critics such as Alden tend to have a poorly generalized and overtly prejudiced understanding of online content. As most music fans would contend (myself included), music and mp3 blogs are a fantastic development in the music world, and those that are done well deserve every ounce of influence they can achieve. Yet Alden and other likeminded bemoaners are also correct in assessing the dearth of actual criticism on the web. While bloggers have cut into the critical pie as tastemakers and filters, they have largely not attempted to present themselves as critics, as contributing to the larger cultural conversations that art and the criticism of it engage. Most blogs do not deign to do this, nor do their readers expect them to.
The continued waning of print publications’ resources and influence is undoubtedly due to the rise of the Internet, in much the same way the CD-based music business has been felled by online capabilities. This loss of influence is not due to the rise of blogs, however, but rather the inability of print publications to largely adjust to the Web, to transform either their content, style, or influence to a new medium, much to detriment of criticism itself.
It is utterly incorrect, though, for Alden to claim that online criticism has been reduced to 50-word reviews. He should instead look to the limitations of the printed medium he holds in such high regard. Pitchfork’s album reviews run at least 500 words, and they publish five reviews a day, for an average of 100 reviews a month. For all the ire they often inspire, the reviews insert the music into both historical and cultural perspectives, and are as well-written as most print publications’ reviews.
Sites like Popmatters produce similarly in-depth criticism. Most music magazines, on the other hand, print reviews averaging 100-200 words, a space in which only the best critics can offer the insight of their online counterparts. It is also worth noting that over the past couple of years, Pitchfork has realized the inherent difference in blog and critical content and hosts a number of different elements on its website, from quick news posts, mp3 and video sharing, and extended features with interviews and thoughtful, conversation-initiating columns.
The problem with criticism on the Web (and yes, there is a problem) is not that snarky judgments or blogs’ short bursts of information have usurped criticism; rather the problem is that the criticism as represented by Pitchfork or Popmatters is all too rare. The publications with the most cultural capital and best critics are not devoting their resources to online content, clinging instead to their shrinking print models. And the suggestion that readers do not want real or extended criticism on the Web is simply a foolish myth, put forth by print critics and champions who misconstrue the diversity of choice and multiple content styles that online publications can accommodate by focusing on only one element as representative of the whole format.
A correlation would be viewing Rolling Stone’s gossipy “Smoking Section” as representative of the entire magazine. Pitchfork’s influence is unparalleled online precisely because there is no critical competition to what they produce, and the site is undoubtedly more than happy to allow print publications to miss the point entirely by attacking blogs rather than actually providing comparably engaging content online.
So while Alden may be correct in his assessment that, generally, the Web does not produce the high standards of critical engagement that he (somewhat romantically and selectively) considers print publications exporting, the blame falls to the critics and publications themselves for not providing it. He incorrectly believes that online readers are not interested in such thorough criticism, when, on the contrary, Pitchfork proves readers do crave it, as well as other forms of content as well. Unless the critical establishment that is currently hitched to the post of print realizes this need, and moves to fulfill it, then criticism might indeed fall by the wayside in the inevitable media transition. Now is the time to define and create criticism for the Web, but sadly most publications would rather navel-gaze nostalgically on the glory days of their influence than step up to meet the challenge.