Your Take: The Critic’s Role

Ken Morton, Jr. | February 2nd, 2013

Way back in 2003, Toby Keith recorded a song called “The Critic” for his Shock’n Y’all album:

“He did a 5 star column on a band you never heard

He did a bluegrass review without an unkind word

He thought it was time to ask his boss for a raise

His boss said, “I can’t even tell if anybody’s even readin’ your page

 

So he thought and he thought a little more

He caught a young hot star headed into town

And then he hid behind his typewriter and gunned the boy down

Here come the letters, the emails, the faxes

They raised him to 20 thousand dollars after taxes

He’s a happy critic yeah, he’s rollin’ in the dough”

 

Fast forward a decade and the questions of what role the critic plays and how important it is are still being debated–probably as it has been since the advent of critical writing itself. Bruce made a statement in our comments section: “The only critic I listen to is me. My taste in music and what I buy is for my own pleasure regardless of what some supposed expert says about it.  I have never understood the arena of music critique. To think that one would choose what they like based upon another party’s thoughts is completely foreign to me.”

Jon weighed in as well: “A critic who thinks the job consists solely, or even mainly, of telling people whether she or he likes something doesn’t really understand the job. And someone who says that he or she pays no attention to critics because he or she doesn’t care whether anyone else likes something doesn’t really understand it, either.”

That statement begs a question: What’s your opinion on what the role of the music critic is or what it should be? Do you look to something in particular when you are reading about music you like to sway or not sway your opinion? Is there something in particular that you’ll read that will move you to break out your pocketbook and make a purchase related to a critic’s recommendation, or lack thereof?

  1. bob
    February 2, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    For me, the main value of a critic is to bring new music to my attention. I am, however, less likely to read critics who puff up everything they write about. That’s one of the things I like about this site, Country Universe and a few others. That plus they’re invariably well written. I admit that most of the critics I read know a lot more about music than I but I still don’t buy music without listening first. Between i-Tune previews, You-Tube, etc., I can get a good idea whether I want to buy the reviewed music.

  2. Kent
    February 2, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    This is actually a really topic to bring up. It especially rings true because I mostly listen to the light fluffy pop that so many critics would hate.

    I don’t know why, but I love reading song reviews, even if I disagree with what the critic is saying. (The review does have to be well-written enough to capture my attention though.) I guess I like the discussion that it can bring, and seeing if the critic has the same view as me or not.

  3. Ben Foster
    February 2, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    I think one of the biggest misunderstandings about critics is the idea that critics are “experts” of some sort, possibly self-proclaimed as such. Critics may possess certain knowledge or stills that enhance their work, but in general, critics aren’t experts, nor are they bitter washups who invest time and effort in their pursuit out of plain jealousy. Music critics are just fans and consumers who take the time to articulate their thoughts on something, and to facilitate thoughtful discussion about it, and who often serve a valuable role in helping people find music that is likely to appeal to them.

    I don’t decide what music I will and won’t buy based solely on what critics say, nor do I want or expect others to make such decisions based solely on what I say. That’s not to say my opinions are never influenced by the writings of critics whom I respect – Sometimes they bring out points that I didn’t pick up on initially, but with which I end up agreeing. But in the end, anyone can and should make their own choices of what music appeals to them.

    I won’t detail all of the things that are wrong with the above-quoted Toby Keith song, but I would like to ask Toby how many critics he actually knows of who are “rolling in the dough,” or who got there just by writing one negative review of a successful artist.

  4. BRUCE
    February 2, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Some thoughtful posts here. As for me, and I can honestly say this, I have never been swayed on my likes/dislikes based upon what someone wrote. But that is across the board whether it be music, books, film, or sports.

    I will say that artists have been brought to my attention by various means (even, gulp, by Jon). I am all for that as I feel there are many artists not in the “mainstream” that the casual listener has the misfortune of never hearing.

    Have I read reviews? Sure, but for pure pleasure. Never to be my compass. Having played music a bit I guess I have in my own mind what types and styles affect me.

    I will also say that if a critic can write and garner an audience of faithful followers, then that is great. A free country and capitalism working. That should always be applauded.

    BTW, this is a good website and I am just now re-acclimating myself to it.

    P.S. I am glad Jon backed up my comment. There are things I just do not grasp, and thankfully do not have to.

  5. Jon
    February 3, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    ” I am, however, less likely to read critics who puff up everything they write about.”

    I see this a lot, and while I get the point behind it, I also think that it’s shaped by a notion of how music journalism works that is less true today than it ever was, and will probably diverge even further from reality as time goes by.

    It’s rare these days for reviewers, especially in music publications (print or online), to be assigned subjects. More often, reviewers pitch proposals for reviews (or other kinds of writing) to editors. And for several reasons, including an interest in playing that “discoverer” role, they’re more likely to pitch reviews of stuff that they want to listen to than stuff they don’t. The process works to incentivatize the publication of “positive” reviews.

    “Music critics are just fans and consumers who take the time to articulate their thoughts on something…”

    Sorry, I disagree. *That* is how you get “reviews” that are little more than variations on “I like this…” and “my favorite cut was…” or “the artist should have…” or “this sucks.” And it’s a terrible description of folks like Barry Mazor, Jewly Hight, et. al.

  6. Ben Foster
    February 3, 2013 at 3:58 pm

    *That* is how you get “reviews” that are little more than variations on “I like this…” and “my favorite cut was…” or “the artist should have…” or “this sucks.”

    To me, that’s more of a reflection of one’s level of writing skill, and of the quality of one’s work. Some critics may articulate their thoughts and opinions in a more eloquent or well-constructed manner than others, yet the difference is not in what they’re doing it, but in how they’re doing it.

    And it’s a terrible description of folks like Barry Mazor, Jewly Hight, et. al.

    How so? Perhaps I should strike the word “just” from my above statement, as I certainly didn’t mean for it to sound demeaning. But does the term “fan” cease to be appropriate for one who is able to make their living as a music critic or journalist, or who has a particularly sizable readership? The idea behind my use of the word “fan” is that critics devote large portions of their time to writing about music because they’re enthusiastic and passionate about music, which to me, is the mark of a true fan. I don’t mean to devalue the critic’s role through my use of the term “fan,” and I include myself in that description as well.

  7. Matt
    February 4, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    I think critics should provide perspective on where the music sits in the marketplace in general. Hopefully, that can be rendered somewhat objecively. They run into the subjective territory when commenting on the performance, which is part of the deal too, I suppose. Ulitmately you do and record what feels right, and establish your niche accordingly. But what I find most useful is opinions on what else is out there that has something in common with the reviewed material, which saves me time as I dig though the Mt Everest of new stuff to listen to.

  8. Jon
    February 4, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    Ben, the difference is exactly that Barry, Jewly, et.al. are, in fact, experts, and use that expertise not to browbeat people who like things they don’t (or vice versa), but rather to contextualize (per Matt’s comment), analyze, explicate and otherwise provide valuable insights into the music about which they write in ways that members of the general public – no matter how enthsuastic and passionate – are, if not wholly unable, at least unlikely to do. And that’s a lot more than a matter of writing skills.

  9. Rick
    February 4, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    I find certain critics come in handy in helping me identify music I don’t need to bother listening to! Back in “The 9513″ days Kelly Dearmore was my main go-to critic in this regard. Nowadays the mantle has been passed to Trigger(man) Kyle over at Saving Country Music as my taste range has about a 5% overlap rate with his.

    Rave reviews may motivate me to go listen to song snippets on Amazon, but not a direct purchase without checking out the music first. When the critics say the music might appeal to fans of other artists I really like, that will make me far more interested in seeking the music out.

    I enjoy reading well written album and song reviews irregardless of whether I would enjoy listening to the subject matter, and Engine 145 provides great material in that regard.

  10. SamB
    February 5, 2013 at 8:11 am

    For me, first and foremost the purpose of a music critic is to be entertaining. Everything else comes after that. A critic can be writing the most insightful material, with the best deconstructions and analyses of songs and albums, but if it’s not interestingly written, I won’t read it.

    Secondly though, a critic is someone who helps me find new music that I’m going to like. It very much helps to be familiar with a writer and their taste, as Rick alludes to, as it can give further insight into what I’m going to like and not like. I’m generally familiar enough with a few of the writers here and on other sites, people like Juli, Ben, Blake, Kevin, to be able to put what they write into my own context. I know they have their own taste which sometimes overlaps with mine and sometimes doesn’t, but as I’ve learned about these people, I’ve become better able to judge the likelihood that a song or album will be to my taste.

    One question I’ve often thought about in regard to critics – do you always review based on your own opinions and prejudices when it comes to music? Or is there an aspect of ‘well, I don’t really like this, but I can see why it’s good and why others would like it’?

  11. Barry Mazor
    February 5, 2013 at 9:14 am

    SamB, for many working critics (and again, I’m not talking about “I like/ I dunlike–pick one” reviewers, but writers turned to for more than that) understanding the context, (as Jon was pointing out),is absolutely necessary, and that definitely includes what the audience you’re attempting to address is thinking, cares about, and most importantly, assumes. You have to be able to understand and address those things, which have little to do with personal taste, to be a professional. And you have to have a thick knowledge base to be turned to by more demanding publication, which have endless voices they could choose from and know what they want.

    What questions about the music in question I’d even bring up, or understand that I’d better clarify or explain before going further with, is going to be different at, say, small specialist publications or sites with particularly well-versed readers (and commenters), a site where the knowledge base and interest in acquiring one appear less vigorous, paper with, say, a couple of million readers, or a book marketed in particular directions.

    And then–then–you have to be unafraid of being subjective; this is not science, and having worked out, articulated ideas is not a curse or an insult to anybody. My own experience is that artists with smarts and passion who care about the direction of their own work generally appreciate the thought, and almost always–the attention.

    There are commentators in most fields of art who have contributed to the field’s direction and to opening up possibilities, just as there are artists who have–and also those who haven’t. It’s not always in the job description.

    Don’t necessarily believe every bit of belligerent “opinions are like a-holes, everybody’s got one” posturing, not unknown around the country field, as either the truthful or the full feeling of the mouth emitting the noise. It just might not be.

  12. Jewly H
    February 5, 2013 at 10:44 am

    Ben, your point that we critics professionally obsess over music is well taken. I’m often reminded that most people in the world don’t have the time or the inclination to pore over all the music being made or all the writing about it, nor should they be expected to. There is a certain degree of geekdom involved here. But I experience a difference between listening to music or attending a show purely as a fan and doing those things for the sake of research, the latter of which takes me to a more consciously analytical, thinking-on-my-feet sort of place.

    Matt and Jon brought up what I consider to be one of the essentials of music criticism: context. Whether I’m on the writing end or the reading end of this stuff, I don’t see much worth in opinions floating around in the ether. The criticism I like to read, and hope to write, situates music within a performer’s career, a musical tradition, a genre’s history, the broader, genre-spanning musical landscape, a cultural moment—something bigger. Then it’s not simply an issue of liking/disliking a song, but trying to get at what impulses are at work in that piece of music, what it’s responding to or contributing. To do that well, I think, takes not only knowledge but interpretive skill. The writers I read on a weekly basis, I read because I really want to know what they hear going on in this or that performance. And to answer your question, SamB, I agree wholeheartedly with Barry that taking seriously what the audience cares about can, and frequently should, be a part of this.

    I’d add, Kent, that there are a number of music critic’s—Ann Powers being one of my faves—who make a habit of actively, thoughtfully engaging with what you call “light fluffy pop,” if that’s something you’re looking for.

  13. Ben Foster
    February 5, 2013 at 11:12 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with the above points with regard to the importance of context. My comments certainly didn’t touch on all aspects of what a music critic does, but were mainly making the point that I don’t personally consider the distinction between “critic” and “fan” as vast as people tend to see it. And I certainly don’t mean to oversimplify or undervalue the work of fine folks such as Mr. Mazor and Ms. Hight, whose work I hold in the highest regard. Thanks to Jewly, Barry, and Jon for an enlightening exchange.

  14. nm
    February 5, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Well, speaking as a fan I know a lot about the music that I like. I expect a critic to know about the music that I like, too; but I also expect a critic to know about music that I don’t like, or dislike, or might like if they brought me to it. And not just new music by artists I know, and not just music by artists similar to the ones I know, old or new. And not just music in the same general catch-all category. I expect critics to be familiar with a lot of categories and genres, over a big sweep of time. That provides the context, and that’s the expertise that they have that I, as a fan, don’t have a responsibility to have. And anyone who sets up to be a critic without working to have that wider background is just a fan with a swelled head.

    And in addition to being knowledgeable (and writing well), critics also have to have insight into the music, not just knowledge of it. That’s why it’s still worth reading Pauline Kael’s writing about movies, or Ellen Willis’s on rock, or Lester Bangs on punk, or G.B. Shaw’s on theater: they help to define genres, deepen our understanding of what’s going on, and challenge the artists to do better and more.

  15. Luckyoldsun
    February 5, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    It’s a bit funny when somebody writes “I’m not influenced at all by and I don’t care about anything a critic has to say…yada yada yada….”–since the person writing it is evidently part of the comparatively minute part of the overall music-listening population that cares enough not only to read a speciallized music site, but to actually post to it.

  16. SamB
    February 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Barry, Jewly and others, thanks for answering my query with such a detailed response. It’s indeed much as I thought, but with a lot more insight and reasoning than I would ever have managed to put into words!

    And that last half-sentence basically sums up why I read (good) critics!

  17. SunsetPark
    February 5, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    “I’m often reminded that most people in the world don’t have the time or the inclination to pore over all the music being made or all the writing about it, nor should they be expected to”…Jewly
    I am one of those who don’t have the time (unfortunately to some extent, and by choice to some extent), but I greatly appreciate reading a well written review/commentary that can help me sort through the music out there. I look to a critic for a general sorting of what is available, but since they aren’t me, they need to be putting in enough details that I can figure where my opinion of the topic is likely to be (particularly after reading multiple pieces from the same critic, and listening to the music product).
    I personally wouldn’t call someone a critic if they couldn’t produce a well written review/commentary. You are writing about a product that is partially written word that is already out there…if you can’t write well, don’t.

  18. adam sine
    February 5, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    For me, a good country critic needs to focus on country music and good artists. It’s a waste of time to have to read thru reviews on teeny-bopper artists like Taylor Smith. I’m glad the world is realizing wat a Skan k she is, sleeping with tons of guys and then trying to pretend she’s something. That’t why I think sites like country universe and California country are some of the best critics. CU reviews real country and real artists like Brad paicely and Carrie Underwood and other people. They don’t even mention ho Smith anymore, or review her albums or songs except to say they suck. Other critics should follow their lead.

  19. Bruce
    February 5, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Lucky. Maybe I am simple but I do not see the connection to what you are saying. I have begun again to read this site, and it’s very informative, for pleasure and to, at times, engage in a discussion for pleasure.

    Associating that to my original comments about making up my own mind of what I like or dislike, regardless of others’ opinions, seems disconnected.

    By the way, I am A-OK with anyone who writes critiques and has an audience that will listen/read. Nothing wrong with that.

    As I have said, the benefit I have had from reading after others is to be introduced to new artists that I otherwise would not have known. However, I simply pick up the name and do my own listening regardless if one tells me it is good or not before I have ever had a chance to listen for myself.

    If that is part of what the accepted definition of a music critic is, then I will accept that part of it. But not one’s opinions concerning the viability and quality of said artists.

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