Why longform arts criticism isn’t dead
You can find it on YouTube and in podcasts, and the format is still evolving.
In 2012, SPIN Magazine launched @SPINReviews, a Twitter account dedicated specifically to reviewing albums in 140 characters or less. SPIN dubbed it a “misguided attempt to tell you about 1,500 new records in 2012.” The thought was that with so much new music coming out every year, the best way to cover it all would be to reduce the number of longform reviews to 20 articles a month, giving exposure to more albums and artists by tweeting quickie reviews instead.
The experiment was meant to last one year, partially as a response to the seemingly declining interest in longform music criticism due to the democratization of opinion that has proliferated thanks to social media. While the account went inactive in October 2013, people still look to Twitter and other social media platforms for reviews and recommendations from the people.
Now, five years later, the influence of social media is obviously inescapable. Its impact on journalism at large — specifically breaking and hard news reporting — is no longer understated. Social media, however, seems to have caused some to worry that there is no longer room for longform arts criticism and extended discourse about music, film, television and whatever else falls into the arts and culture vertical.
For an arts journalist and critic like me, the fear that longform arts criticism has disappeared is a very real one. But in my own pillaging and deep dives through the internet, I’ve found that there has actually been a resurgence in longform arts criticism across digital platforms — just not in the ways that you’d expect.
Virality and video essays
A common misconception online is that short, viral video clips are what makes the most shareable content. Sure, that oh-so-“profitable” pivot-to-video might work if you’re trying to attract advertisers, but longer videos actually perform better on YouTube’s new algorithm. That being said, film fans and critics alike have found a welcome home on YouTube in the film and video essay community. Video essays and film criticism are a perfect match — the visual elements allow creators to freeze, zoom and manipulate scenes to illustrate their point in a way that would be difficult or impossible in a text piece. And what better way to talk about a movie than by (sort of) making a movie yourself?
Two strong examples of this involve extended critiques of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Patrick H. Willems’ video essay “Why Do Marvel’s Movies Look Kind of Ugly?” critiques the coloring and lighting of various Marvel movies, showing ways that the visuals in these films can be improved by actually improving them in the video.
Look at the way Willems critiques the color grading in Marvel movies by fixing the color grading himself. Explaining and showing this process would be impossible in a text piece. He addresses things that would be mentioned in a traditional longform text review — camera angles, shot styles and the overall context of the films themselves. It’s what you’d read in a thorough and dense film analysis, condensed to seven minutes and boiled down to one simple question: Why do Marvel’s movies look kind of ugly?
Similarly, “The Marvel Symphonic Universe” by Every Frame a Painting critiques Marvel’s use of music by comparing and contrasting the music in Marvel films and replacing it with iconic scores of other films.
Hearing music for a video about music is crucial. And Every Frame a Painting’s ability to swap the original Marvel scores for other famous movie scores to comment on the lack of emotional depth and memorability enhances the critique immensely. Bringing in the man-on-the-street style interview in the beginning of the video invites the audience to see themselves in the video, bridging an accessibility gap that often stirs people away from film criticism (or even film Twitter).
Listen closely and watch again
Just as critiquing film on a video-sharing platform elevates the level of quality of criticism, analyzing music through longform audio — specifically podcasts — allows for deep and extended musical analysis.
“Song Exploder” is a podcast that allows artists to explain the process of writing, production and post-production of their own songs. In breaking down a track beat by beat or isolating a certain sound, the podcast gives unprecedented insight into the music-making process.
Song Exploder | St. Vincent
Annie Clark moved to New York in the mid-2000s. She started recording and performing under the name St Vincent in 2006…
“Dissect” is another podcast that focuses on musical analysis but on a much more extended manner than “Song Exploder.” Instead of focusing on the creation of one song or a few songs by a specific artist in their own words, “Dissect” spends each season focusing on one specific album, with one episode dedicated to the production, context, and response to each track. By choosing albums that have already been established as classics in the modern rap canon — Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” and Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” — the podcast further extends and deepens the existing discourse. “Dissect” not only cites which songs are being sampled on each track, but it gives time stamps for when that sample occurs, as well as a snippet of the original song. Take a listen below, as host Cole Cuchna breaks down Kanye West’s “Devil in a New Dress.”
Dissect - A Serialized Music Podcast
Listen to Dissect - A Serialized Music Podcast episodes free, on demand. Dissect is a serialized music podcast that…
While music and podcasts — two forms of audio — seem like the perfect match, television criticism has actually found a home in the podcasting world. There’s no shortage of podcasts that dive deep into different television shows episode by episode, as it’s much easier to set up a microphone and react immediately to an episode of “Game of Thrones” than to formulate a 1,000-word piece about what’s going down in Dragon Town. (I stopped watching “Game of Thrones” a while ago, can you tell?)
But what’s more interesting to me is the genre of podcasts inspired by the culture of rewatching. The rise of streaming services has allowed people to revisit old favorites, and even expose their friends to shows they might have missed. The most famous example of this is, of course, the “Gilmore Guys” podcast, which launched on Oct. 1, 2014, the same day “Gilmore Girls” was available for streaming on Netflix.
The podcast, which aired its final episode in July 2017, featured friends Kevin Porter, a longtime “Gilmore Girls” fan, and Demi Adejuyigbe, who had never seen the show. What started as a fun fan project became a brand in and of itself — the Gilmore Guys have toured with live episodes of the podcast, and even got a cameo in the 2016 “Gilmore Girls” revival.
So why hasn’t the entire arts journalism world caught onto this longform multimedia digital phenomenon of criticism? Well, the answer is this: It’s not so quick and easy. While the average social media user may still prioritize something that’s quick to scroll through, the creators and audiences behind these longform ventures are extremely dedicated to what they do and what they’re discussing. And while that’s fruitful and insightful and generates wonderful discussion, it isn’t always sustainable.
Every Frame a Painting recently announced that they would be ending their YouTube channel. The channel had been idle for a little over a year when creators Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos posted the script to what was supposed to be their farewell video on Medium. (The statement is really beautiful, and I urge you to read it in full.) In the script, they detailed the exciting rise of their channel, as well as the complications of critiquing film on video while jumping through copyright hoops and managing the strenuous hours of editing. Most importantly, however, they state why it would be — and is — unsustainable to continue making videos of such scale:
“The big danger for future video essayists is that large websites have started moving away from the written word and towards video, which is completely unsustainable. Video is just too expensive and time-consuming to make.”
The same goes for podcasts that take an extensive amount of editing and audio extracting. Unless you’re supported by a larger publication or company, it can be grueling to do all that work independently.
As for those episodics and rewatchables: Eventually, you’ll run out of episodes to talk about and things to say. Just take it from Tim Batt and Guy Montgomery from “The Worst Idea of All Time Podcast.” For three years, they watched the same movie every week and recorded a podcast after each viewing. In 2014, it was “Grown Ups 2”; in 2015, it was “Sex and the City 2”; in 2016, it was “We Are Your Friends”… so not exactly selections from the criterion collection. This month, they concluded the podcast for good (or so they say) with live recordings in New York and Los Angeles. Their only stipulations for returning are if another “Grown Ups” or “Sex and the City” sequel is released. And I’m sure they’re relieved to be put out of their self-induced misery.
That’s quite an extreme example, but it’s true — technical fatigue can set in fast, and the longform multimedia format takes time and resources to be consistent and sustainable. Of course, the same can be said for written longform criticism, as well. But as resources are continually being taken from text-only formats and refocused elsewhere, it’s important to be wary of the barriers that could restrict progress on this new frontier. I am all for the deep dives and analyses in any way, shape or form, but churning out video after video and podcast after podcast seems to work best on an independent timeline.
As someone who does this type of longform criticism and hopes to continue doing that for a living, the future, at a glance, can seem pretty bleak. But as criticism evolves, it is crucial not to feel as if the medium as a whole is disappearing. The worlds of art and media will always need a critical voice, even if the way that voice is being amplified has changed.
I have hope that the future of arts criticism sees pieces that are as thoughtful and insightful — if not more so — as its predecessors. The key lies in utilizing the various media — text, video, audio or whatever else the future holds— to their fullest capacities, leaning into the tools and tricks make each platform unique in order to enhance the critical voice. In short: If the medium fits, wear it.