How should a music critic be?

Another panel discussion won’t figure out the future of culture reporting. It’s up to you. 


An essay with the above title means most of the people reading this are music critics. Colleagues: I am not asking you. If you knew, we would be celebrating in a Gatsby mansion, our pensions secure and our champagne French, with our friend Bill Murray bringing over more ice.

I work for a newspaper-cum-website and in my office, as in many, we’ve become focused on engagement: on talking to readers, on getting them to talk back. On understanding what they want. When journalism is digital, instant, accessible, it means the old boundaries of authoritative distance and the appearance of factual finality — the hallmarks of print—are fading like last year’s ink. Journalism is becoming a conversation, most loudly in the realm of culture writing: readers are voting with their clicks, their tweets, their shares, their comments.

On good days, readers absorb my prose and relate a shared experience that deepens the conversation. On bad ones, they yell at each other, or into a hungry void that echoes back at them, calling for more, more! The most remarkable thing about the Internet is that it has made it easier than ever to talk about ourselves instead of to each other. Or we don’t say anything at all, just click in and click out, a headline just momentary neural static, one tweet among thousands.

What We’ve Lost

Once, web traffic revolved around building a readership, with the truly devoted signing up for RSS, a measure blogs would display proudly. Rawkblog, the music site I founded in 2005, peaked at over 1,500 RSS readers; many tech sites, full of people savvy enough to swap to Feedly after the death of Google Reader (R.I.P., you handsome stallion), still reach tens of thousands that way. But many of us are just Poohsticks in a stream now, bumping into this article and that on Facebook and Twitter, our chosen follower lists—streams that should mirror the never-miss-a-post concept of RSS—fogged by algorithms designed to boost the profits of public companies drooled over by Wall Street analysts. Elsewhere, Tumblr, which offered a brief renaissance of blog-tool excitement and music writing vitality, has lost its music magic.

Music, more than any other kind of cultural writing, has been undercut and made more competitive by the Internet. The most popular figures on social media are musicians; the most popular videos on YouTube, music; photos of one’s favorite artist are just a Google image search away. Everything is at our fingertips, on demand. Access? Curation? What’s that?

Consider an issue of SPIN in 1995, or Rolling Stone in 1975: for people interested in knowing which new albums were good, especially the odd, hard-to-find kind that were usually the best, short of spending a few hundred dollars a month on blind mail-orders, such magazine coverage was the only game in town. (My high school skipped the zine era, though we did have one kid who was really into the Velvet Underground.)

For a while, Pitchfork and its forgotten brethren—Junk Media, Cokemachineglow, Tiny Mix Tapes—were an online extension of this obscure, advance-notice wisdom, committees of cool older brothers (and they were generally brothers) who could tell you to seek out the Dismemberment Plan or Aphex Twin. Not any more. Now it takes longer to read a Pitchfork Best New Track blurb than it does to press play on the accompanying SoundCloud link (on your phone!) and make a snap judgement if it’s worth your time. Who knows your taste better than you?

Webzines played by the old media rules, they just covered different albums: as goofy as the reviews got, they were still reviews, consumer directives to buy or not buy. They were written often assuming you had not heard the music first. That changed, around the rise of bittorrent and the sudden simplicity of album leaks. Blogs were initially exciting not for their taste-making prowess, but because (sorry, everybody) they were an untraceable grey-market way to download pirated MP3s pulled from OiNK and re-posted via YouSendIt and cheap file hosts. Journalists counting on a three-month lead time looked down to see their pants around their ankles.

Blogs were supposed to kill the magazines, but tech turned on them as well: statistically, piracy remains an issue, but any realistic cultural impact it has was crushed years ago by YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify and other free and legal streaming services. Along the way, labels have locked down leaks, but any competitive advantage hasn’t returned to its old journalistic haunts: artists from Radiohead to Beyonce spring their albums on the whole world now, and many who might’ve once looked to critics for guidance have the tools to be their own tastemakers.

Here, If You Want Me

And yet, we still write. And you still read. But why? For what? Our purpose is different now. Music journalism must change. But the shape it should take, today or six months or five years from now, is unclear, smoke filling a spinning vessel. Should we be curating SoundCloud singles? Looking for political messages in summer hits? Should music writing be a 5,000-word profile or a 50-caption photo gallery? A series of smart tweets? A thinkpiece? A thumbs up? A star rating? A personal essay? An anniversary retrospective? A blog post about drugs? A 10.0?

In his recap of a panel at the Primavera Sound festival, Huffington Post’s Theo Bark addressed a few of the issues we’re facing, from faltering access (citing Coachella’s corral-sized press tent) to reader attention spans (as measured by the almighty pageview) to the strength and nature of critical authority. I’ve been on a few of these panels myself; in 2010, sitting alongside Ryan Schreiber and Sean Adams, among others, at Manchester’s In the City, I advised bloggers to seek out their own voice—to use the honesty of their taste and words as a way to connect with a readership.

There’s power in that. But in the spirit of not having five different conversations, this one is about the state and future of writing as a profession, which is currently a medium supported by 1) advertising money 2) subscribers 3) writers’ rent-subsidizing parents. Those willing to write, and create, for the sheer pleasure of it will continue doing whatever they want, which is why sites such as One Week // One Band and Cokemachineglow remain the most interesting reads on the web.

Those willing to write for free, however, also clutter up the SEO plate—and those trying to get paid $40 for the 30th review this week of the Hundred Waters sophomore album are, too. Do we need 100 aggregations of every headline? 50 takes on every review? 25 thinkpieces on every inflammatory video? The web has opened up culture writing to a broader, necessary range of voices, and maybe having more options means expanding our overall readership—or maybe it means, in our aging niche, everyone gets by with less. I would never tell anyone to stop writing: our competition is YouTube (and Netflix), not each other, but sometimes, after a full week of stone-turning controversy essays, I wonder how many readers can smell the stench of desperation.

But I understand where it comes from. Advertising money is a slave to the market—remember trying to job-hunt or freelance in 2008?—and requires a lot of clicks: clicks that the authentic journey of unique, cutting-edge taste alone doesn’t generate. I like him just fine, but Pitchfork doesn’t cover Justin Timberlake these days because he is a visionary independent talent. Just as his sales do for RCA Records, his traffic success subsidizes less populist efforts.

So.

The question becomes: as a music writer wanting to do good work while making a living, how do we define “good work,” as demand for the next Frank Sinatra Has a Cold—or four paragraphs about a new Frank Ocean album, for that matter—appears to dwindle? What do readers want, enough to come to in droves? Better, what do they need enough to pay for themselves, cutting out the ad-funding pageview-chasing that leads to the compromises and questionable business practices we’ve come to accept or ignore?

I do not have the answers. I believe there is value in the long hours of a Rolling Stone cover story, in an expert’s guide to schlock, in one person’s carefully chosen chronicle of cool new songs, in a silly viral video reblog. Even in festival street fashion. Is there one path ahead, or all of the above? Is a headline about Jack White and the Black Keys mildly feuding really the most interesting topic of the day, or should we be talking about the new Robyn EP through a feminist lens? Do you want to argue or listen or something else entirely?

Let us know when you figure it out. We’re all ears.

David Greenwald is the Oregonian’s music critic. He still uses bittorrent.

Next Story — 2 notes on Bernie Sanders, viable president
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2 notes on Bernie Sanders, viable president

1.

It is not the job of the leader of the free world to be a realist. The world itself sets the bar for what’s possible or not and we do our best to deal with the results. The President of the United States should be the country’s biggest dreamer, its inspiration, the person saying “We choose to go to the moon.” Imagine Hillary Clinton debating Kennedy on that one.

Clinton and Bernie Sanders have much in common but they also have very different ideals about the fundamental direction of our future. Clinton’s stance is that everyone should have a chance to reach a “God-given potential” (…to be as successful as she is). The implicit message here is that full stature in American life has to be earned. Sanders says, no, your health, your education, your parental leave, your fair minimum wage — these things are American rights. You should get them when you walk in the door (socialism!). They shouldn’t be gambled on, or left to the rigged hellscape of a fundamentally amoral capitalism.

This perspective, more than anything else, is why I am supporting Bernie Sanders for president.

2.

It’s easy to frame the disrespectful, obstructionist Republican efforts and attitude against President Obama as a party-wide move to the far right with a healthy dash of old-fashioned, vanilla white supremacy. This is certainly accurate. But it is worth remembering the previous democratic president, who happens to be Bill Clinton, faced a GOP opposition so unruly that they put him through impeachment proceedings.

Republicans haven’t played fair in decades. They are a toxic party holding back the progress of America and failing even the bare minimum of their representative role — to keep the government from shutting down, a move Ted Cruz, Iowa caucus winner and real-life, not-Netflix-drama presidential candidate, accomplished with glee.

And they have a particular hatred for Hillary Clinton that dates back decades. There is this weird common-sense consensus that Clinton has more accomplishments than Senator Sanders, that her achievements will somehow carry over into a more productive presidency. If elected, Clinton’s future co-workers are the same schmucks who just put her through a Benghazi witch hunt. When she reaches across the aisle, her hand will get slapped. It would be shocking if impeachment proceedings don’t start the day she’s inaugurated.

This is not Clinton’s fault, nor is it to lessen her tremendous intelligence, capabilities or political record. They’ll do the same thing to Sanders: the idea that either of them has a productivity advantage, that a “reasonable” Democrat proposal will get more traction than any Democrat proposal at all, is magical thinking. The climate in Washington will change when the craziest Republicans, which is almost all of them now, are voted out. When that happens, and the engine of progress starts burning again, wouldn’t we rather have the Democrat with the boldest vision launching the shuttle?

Next Story — Journalism is a job
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Journalism is a job

It’s easy to think about journalism as any number of things: an art, a craft, a calling, a public good. The very best journalism illuminates the human experience, safeguards the common people and makes governments and international brands tremble.

But journalism is also a job. A doctor does not volunteer brain surgery expertise for the love of it. A graphic designer sends an invoice after turning in a new book cover. Journalists are trained experts (or sweatpants bloggers, but let’s leave that for now) delivering hourly labor, typically for multi-million-dollar corporations. And the responsibilities of a job include understanding how one is to be paid for it. Do journalists?

Hamilton Nolan’s latest piece for Gawker evaluates the landscape as it is: audiences are en masse less interested in “prestige” work than viral rubbish, the viral rubbish subsidizes everything via pageview-driven ads and independent, middlebrow, consumer publications essentially do not exist. I agree with all of this! But as a philosophy, it is one of defeatism and irresponsibility. What you’re about to read from me could be naive, but what Nolan argues is appeasement.

Consider: journalism has business models but in most cases, the journalists do not. We are at the mercy of CEO whims, a Wall Street model intended to benefit a few ivory-tower dozens, and marketing staffs largely disconnected from our day-to-day work. There is a barrier between journalists and readers that does not need to exist at a time when any of us can publish, say, on this free blogging service.

Attempts to leap this barrier like a prize steed have been few, minor and isolated. It is a near-pyrrhic achievement that the New York Times has reached 50 percent subscription income because that number more significantly reflects the drop in ad revenue. There is serious and disheartening evidence, as Nolan presents, that the majority of readers prefer fluff, always have, with the implication that such junk food should be convenient and free and doing anything serious is a failed or subsidies-only effort.

And yet! The reality is that many local community papers, which cover news and high school sports and relatively serious things people care about, are profitable. It’s not a bad business. But it’s a bad one on Wall Street, which expects drastic growth over steady sustainability. The future has destroyed old revenue streams but has served up new ones: podcasting is booming, and created a marketplace in which independent Apple bloggers make hundreds of thousands a year to banter for an hour or two a week. That stuff is entertaining, but it’s not quite fluff. And consider Spotify, a for-profit company that has convinced millions to pay, once again, for previously free music.

Spotify is also a raw deal for most artists. But the point is that the state of free-fall plummet that existed a few years ago thanks to technological innovation has changed, thanks again to technological innovation. Everything is changing! Can there really be no way to get a reasonable amount of people to pay money for substantive, time-consuming, quality work, presented in any variety of new and emerging formats? To consider the journalism business model set in stone, to abandon it to the businesspeople as Nolan’s essay does, to blame a readership which isn’t being presented with desirable ways to actually pay us— this gets us nowhere. It is nihilism. For a long and happy era, the business models allowed journalists to stick to art and craft, observation and investigation. But if these things still matter as much as we think, we’re going to have to do more than that.

Next Story — Against masculinity
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Against masculinity

When I was a small, school-age child, perhaps 7 or 8, I brought a new book to class for morning reading. It happened to be “Baby Island,” a 1937 novel that Wikipedia describes as “Robinson Crusoe… but with four babies.” My intention, on that brisk fall morning, was to pull the paperback out of my backpack and open it to my bookmark.

“What is that? Why are you reading that?” someone asked. A cluster formed around my desk, to see the boy who was not reading a very boyish book. Babies, of course, were the realm of moms — of women. I wasn’t sure what to say. It was a story. I wanted to find out what happened next.

There was never a restriction, in my house, of what a boy should or should not consume. I read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys both. The complete “Anne of Green Gables” saga. “Little House on the Prairie” and all the (admittedly tedious) sequels. And eventually science fiction and fantasy, in which I read male authors — Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury — as well as women such as Margaret Weiss, J.K. Rowling and Madeleine L’Engle.

With age came music. At summer camp before junior year, as my bunkmates obsessed over Sublime and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and taped scissored posters of women in bikinis (and less) on the walls, I was hiding my Fiona Apple cassette. High school wasn’t any different. It was the height of Limp Bizkit: the men of Ventura High were expected to listen to music that was heavy and hard. Punk at least, but metal was even better. I liked some of that: Everclear and Blink-182 and a few more, but mostly I was interested in Ben Folds Five and Elliott Smith, and drew scorn for it.

Eventually, I found the weird kids and the outcasts and started worrying about impressing music snobs instead, but there were always new lines being drawn. In college, I had to defend watching “Sex and the City” episodes. Cocktails? Those were “girly drinks.” To be a man was to drink corporate beer and do shots, perhaps because the point was to get drunk enough to forget being a man wasn’t much fun. And there was always the ugly static of someone, perhaps a friend, using “gay” or worse as a slur to describe another man’s clothing choices, attitude, haircut, whatever.

I know now, thanks to my parents and the remarkable independent bookstore I spent my childhood in, that I was receiving an early lesson in equality, open-mindedness and feminism. I am grateful that somehow that was enough to carry me onward through non-masculine-approved behavior — through music, through watching “Sailor Moon” before school every morning, through not giving a shit about football.

Rejecting male critiques, as a man, was a pretty easy burden for me to bear. I am white, straight and cisgender: I never had to deal with the abuse and marginalization that faces people of color and the LGBT community. The worst thing to happen to me as a Jew, besides a lingering sense of otherness, was going to middle school with a pair of skinhead neo-Nazis who knew a few slurs but never got around to beating any of us up. And yet, at every turn, the masculine path was clearly set in front of me. Strength, anger, endurance, violence, stoicism. This is for boys, this is for girls. Don’t dress like this, don’t watch this, don’t listen to this.

Don’t, don’t, don’t. What could possibly happen, dudes? Could it be that we might experience a wider view of the human experience? Could it be that women are people and sensitivity is a universal quality? Could it be that Fiona Apple is a better songwriter than Bob Dylan?

This morning, after engaging on Twitter with a man heckling feminists and “beta males” (that term a truly awful feat of insecurity and self-denial), I received a handful of heckles myself: mostly, comments that I own a cat. This was the worst they could come up with: I am a failed man, a beta male incapable of reason or seriousness because I own a foster animal that isn’t a dog. Or isn’t a 150-pound police-trained killer. Or isn’t an actual fire-breathing dragon. I don’t know, I must’ve set the Man Rules emails to spam.

The effort to define manhood is a source of artificial strength, a buttress against crumbling walls. Men who aspire to such stereotypes are searching for a safe and simple path, the same way people turn toward religion or any form of dogma. If you never have to look outside your prison walls, you never have to be afraid of what you might encounter. Thinking for yourself eases away. The world never changes, and we know change is hard.

I think the white-knuckled grip some men keep on what defines a man, on trying to forever be some ersatz version of John Wayne or Batman or Han Solo or a SEAL Team 6 commando who also drinks scotch and fights fires, is a form of sad self-defense — a suffocating shield, being brandished as a sword. Consider, oh male reader, someone you disagree with: a climate change denier or Ku Klux Klan member, maybe. Aren’t they clinging to an old idea of the world, one they can control, one that isn’t new or different or equal or, let’s just say it, actually happening?

As a feminist, I know that breaking down the toxic social expectations around women is work intended to free them. To allow them to experience life and been understood as the whole and complicated people we all are. I know that men are just as trapped and just as much in need of liberation. That is, if they can face their fears of anything coded as feminine, gay or merely different. Aren’t men supposed to be brave?

Men don’t have to be anything. You just have to be you. Fuck defining that.

David Greenwald is the Oregonian pop music critic and has written for Rolling Stone, GQ and the Los Angeles Times, among others. Follow him @davidegreenwald and or via his weekly newsletter.

Next Story — On the Vox Victorian couple and the artisan cult’s slippery rebellion
Currently Reading - On the Vox Victorian couple and the artisan cult’s slippery rebellion

On the Vox Victorian couple and the artisan cult’s slippery rebellion

So I have two trains of thought on this Vox article by Sarah Chrisman, the writer who’s attempting to live in a Victorian-era fantasy.

First, there’s the obvious “Portlandia” sketch, “Dream of the 1890s,” which made fun of this years ago. There are hundreds of tweets, no doubt, poking at this couple’s preciousness. But one point Chrisman makes, about the deeper connection and awareness involved in using older technology, rings true — it is a climax, if a self-parodying one, to the thread of artisanal culture that’s emerged in urban Millennial enclaves since the back half of the 2000s. It is a Kinfolk magazine brought to life by Dr. Frankenstein.

At its ideal, the creation of a craft beer or pair of raw denim jeans is an act of rejection and empowerment. Rejection, of the brand-driven consumer economy that creates wasteful, short-lived products on the backs of abusive foreign factories; and the empowerment of choosing and supporting a superior good made at a fair cost within one’s community instead. Consumerism is a political act: corporations run governments and the dollars we spend are a daily vote for which corporations will, in turn, buy the politicians. Chuckle at this stuff if you want, but buying artisanal honey means paying your local beekeeper’s rent. That’s a powerful connection to make.

Before #menswear was a thirsty designer faves and likes thing, it was a movement toward heritage: timeless style and quality products. Buy less, buy better, was the mantra. I think this was a worthy enough cause. You can find the same ideas in honey or kombucha or Etsy or wherever you want to look. Yet as American life becomes further removed from manufacturing, there’s a level of romanticism that comes with handmade goods, crafted with older, venerable methods— in part because of the preciousness of the product choices and in part, I think, to justify how much it all costs.

That’s where the slope turns slippery and these items become a consumable lifestyle rather than an ethical, rebellious gesture. In menswear, the same styles that became organic favorites began to inform the racks of J. Crew, Levi’s, Macy’s, etc., and the inevitable circle of co-option closed in. Meanwhile, the “authentic” products — being made in America and not South Korea, and having the cache of a secret, discoverable brand — come with a luxury price point, and rebellion becomes the playground of the privileged, until it is not a rebellion at all. Everyone else, well, let them eat capitalism.

This is the second train of thought on Chrisman, who gripes about the treatment she’s received since dressing up like a Downton Abbey grandma. There is no cause for her style of dress or the choice to not own a, say, microwave to make her a target: however people want to harmlessly behave, whether in 1890s garb or cosplaying Magic: The Gathering characters, is their right. But her stance is completely oblivious to the treatment encountered daily by people who cannot change their appearance or status by mere decision.

It carries shades of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who decided she was now black — as many black people, having no choice in the matter, are gunned down in churches and in their cars, by terrorists or by the police who have sworn to protect them. Imagine the dragging Chrisman would’ve received if this was a Reconstruction article rather than a Victorian one.

The rejection of an entire era in favor of another is inherently inauthentic — the Chrismans, seemingly, have only recreated the parts that they like, unless they’ve also chosen to avoid doctor’s appointments and Whole Foods and credit cards. (And women’s right to vote, the laptop to email this article to Vox, etc.) They cannot bring back their beloved moment’s diseases or bigotry or other horrors.

Again, this kind of half-life is the domain of the privileged: we learn nothing in the piece of Chrisman or her husband’s work, which allows them to sit around all night and churn butter or whatever, but presumably they have figured out a way to pay rent at 2015 prices and enable what she calls their “dream.” There’s something potent, even essential, to embracing the forgotten skills and achievements of the past over their modern replacements. But there’s something shameful and dishonest in ignoring the ugliness — and in hiding away from today’s along with it.

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