Monday, May 5, 2008

Music Journalism's Place in this Techno-Essentialist Society

Authority seems to poke its ugly head into almost everything, including the dictation of what music we should and should not listen to. If I walked up to a randomly selected American, I doubt that me telling them, “You know, the newest Elliott Smith compilation is the pinnacle of songwriting” would not invoke some sort of interrogation concerning the path of indie folk rock in the American Northwest. After all, what authority do I have to make such a bold statement? In a world where musical preference can segregate people and dictate one’s overall legitimacy in (let’s face it) many situations, the common practice of music journalism is, naturally enough, a sensitive subject. The concept of who has authority and who does not is constantly becoming redefined, spanning back to the late 18th century.

Within early music reviews, technical language and unabashed snobbery was more than commonplace, as were biased statements concerning the overall validity of a piece of music. During the Romantic era (1790-1914) one music review could seal the fate of a composer or musical composition. One example jumps to mind, in which a criticism by César Cui of the S. Petersburg News on March 16, 1897 basically gave Sergei Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony the death sentence, stating that “If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students was to compose a symphony based on the story of the Seven Plagues of Egypt, and if he had written one similar to Rachmaninoff’s, he would have brilliantly accomplished his task and would have delighted in the habitants of Hell." This review single-handedly discredited Rachmaninoff to such a degree that, for three years, he composed absolutely nothing and spent the majority of his time receiving hypnotherapy and contemplating various other life paths. Of course, this was only a stage in Rachmaninoff’s prolific and successful career, but the fact that this review had such a long-standing and profound impact on his compositional process and upon the piece of music itself says volumes about the music reviewer’s position of power during this period of time.

This sort of unconditional trust placed in the media disappeared when magazines such as Creem started writing music reviews in the late 1960’s. They did many of the same things, including one-sided opinions on albums and their place within the rock genre, but also included pop culture and image-based stories. This was, of course, because of the new arts of album art, music videos, artistic photography, and the establishment of the rock star as a sex icon. As such, the actual review takes up a subordinate position in the magazine’s layout. In the case of the August 1976 review of the self-titled Ramones album, a stage scene is presented with dramatic lighting and a silhouetted rioting crowd thrashing around and trying to clamor up to the stage, and the text itself is both concise and in minimal white print. A stylistic shift in the art of music writing is easily demonstrated within this passage from the same article:
Ramones: four guys, 14 great two-minute songs, three great chords. Proficiency, poetry, taste, Art have nothing to do with the Ramones. Nor do blues, improvisatory solos or pedal steel. White, American rock ‘n’ roll is what they practice and in this sense the Romanes are the latest speed-crazed cruisers to drive chicken down that white line that extends straight from Eddie Cochran to Iggy to their own Bowery loft.
Not only is this text dramatically more casually constructed and unconcerned with fancy metaphorical comparison, it is also indicative of a major shift in the musical sphere. The genre dichotomies have more than surfaced at this point – they have modeled generations of countless subcultures, obsessed with musical hierarchy, image projection, and staying up-to-date with their respective genre of choice and the styles thereof. There is no longer one credible music review to rely on. There are now torrents of genre-specific magazines and news sources for each subculture and for each brand of rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop, jazz, classical music, country, blues…you name it, they have reviewed it….many times. Creem has a history of being both genre-specific (rock ‘n’ roll and punk) as well as location-specific, focusing on many Detroit-area bands. This array of option leaves the 20th century’s music enthusiast with endless choice, thus giving the reader increasing power over the media.

Any paper of this nature would, of course, be lax and ill-informed if Rolling Stone magazine went ignored. Despite a contested bias towards the 1960’s and 1970’s, this 40-year-old magazine is often seen as the apex of music journalism in America. The motto of Rolling Stone is: "It is not just about the music, but about the things and attitudes that music embraces." As a result, American pop culture can be traced back through the articles, photos, and even covers of various issues of this revolutionary magazine. Even though rock ‘n’ roll is the most commonly discussed genre, the magazine has always attempted to balance the readership, including lengthy interviews and articles about rap artists, electronic acts, jazz musicians, politicians, authors, artists, photographers, and etc. In the 40th Anniversary issue, pop music icons such as Pete Wentz (Fall Out Boy), Bruce Springstein, and Lenny Kravitz (among many others) were interviewed, not about their art, but about current events and the upcoming election. This sort of cross-genre, cross-topic journalism can capture the attention of a wide audience. This is both a good commercial concept as well as a response to the 21st century as an age of pop culture idolatry. Although this is not always healthy, it is respectable that a magazine find such seamless interviews with musicians and film stars who know the works of the world. Although the reviews are rather short (some only two or three sentences long) and biased, the newfangled and infinitely popular practice of awarding a certain number of “stars” (out of a possible five) allows the reader to pick and choose which reviews to read or glance over during a quick read of the magazine.

Because reviews have started getting shorter and the genre-specific (and sometimes even artist-specific) followings have anything but decreased, there is a need for detail and variety in the modern age. I went to to see what I could find to supplement the magazine. As expected, longer reviews are available, as are videos, song clips, many photos, and artist backgrounds. This can be used in addition to or instead of the magazine itself. Magazine websites have become useful for multi-media presentations of magazine content, but in today’s curious and multi-faceted world, one website cannot be trusted alone.

Pitchfork Media is transforming the very idea of the music review. When you have a favorite band or extremely specific genre interest, why wait for the next issue of your favorite magazine to see a review? Pitchfork allows the reader to search for any album by any artist, whether new or not - and the “new” is really new, sometimes available before the CD has even been officially titled, or as the tracks become illegally available online. Unlike music magazines, Pitchfork accepts article applications from anyone. Each article gets reviewed by committees in the Brooklyn office, and then if it passes through that system, the article is uploaded to the constantly updated website. This gives the articles a less biased and more diverse tone, but (as with any writing – this paper included!) the articles are always written by those with very specific tastes and opinions. The author then provides a “star” rating, which is then affirmed or contested by online readers who rate the article as well as the CD or single track. The instant gratification involved in such a reading experience has led those in the music industry to question the life expectancy of music magazines. In addition, iTunes now allows users to rate music on the Music Store. The reviews are written rather haphazardly by any user who wishes to write a review, so they are not exactly reliable in any sense of the word. However, I challenge you to find someone who has completely neglected the reviews on iTunes before purchasing an album.

Despite the new developments in technology and their roles in the art of music journalism, the institution of the music magazine has a historical place in the scope of modern music. Collections of prominent articles have been published in mass quantities, such as Barney Hoskyns’ 40 Years of Classic Rock Journalism: The Sound and the Fury, published in 2003 and containing articles about such monumental artists as Morrissey, Abba, Madonna, and Kurt Cobain. This phenomenon coincides with the music historians’ obsession with the place of the music critic starting in the Romantic era. Whether or not music magazines keep tech-savvy audiences captive, music journalism will never die out. In fact, in a world where musical preference defines “cool” for 20-somethings everywhere, music journalism has never been in such high demand.

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