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What’s in a critic?

Last week, esteemed music writer Ted Gioia unleashed a screed on The Daily Beast about the nature of music criticism today. Gioia writes:

Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients.

These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music.  Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.

It’s a fair point, and not an uncommon one (see n+1 magazine’s takedown of Pitchfork) but Gioia overlooks the fact that the issue of celebrity navel gazing masquerading as arts criticism is as old as criticism itself. If you go back to the earliest examples of British theater criticism in the late 18th century, the writers are definitely more interested in the spectacle of the gathering than what’s actually going on on stage.¹ However, Gioia’s article brings up an issue that’s at the heart of the meaning and purpose of arts criticism – is criticism a technical analysis of art, or is it about what the art means to the society at large? It’s great that Gioia’s piece has started a healthy debate on this topic on the interwebs.

Certainly the condemnations of Gioia’s piece have come hard and fast – it does indeed come off as pretentious and lumps really great cultural criticism (writers like Ann Powers and Jon Caramanica come to mind) in with cheap celebrity gossip pieces. But there have been plenty of people piggybacking on Gioia’s ideas. Matt Zoller Seitz, television critic for New York Magazine, wrote a piece on his blog about how writing about the form and construction of a film should be just as important as talking about the plot. Slate published a former Facebook post by sometime-Arcade Fire member and Oscar-nominated composer Owen Pallett that involved him analyzing Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” in a technical, music-theoretical manner in a way that was intended to be widely understandable.

As a music practitioner, I certainly appreciate Seitz’s argument and Pallett’s analysis. I would love critics to care enough to devote time and space to describe the inner workings of a piece I wrote, like how the form works, or how improvisation and pre-conceived material interact, or how the textures are constructed. But as a music listener and a regular reader of criticism, I feel that in-depth technical description of the type that Seitz and Pallet articulate isn’t particularly important, or rather, I don’t think that a good piece of criticism needs to focus on describing the sound and design of the music at the expense of everything else.

I feel that the most important role of a critic is to translate the feeling of experiencing a work of art, a point hammered home by film critic Bob Mondello during a class I took with him in undergrad. When I’m trying to review an album or a movie or a piece of theater, I think about what the performance made me feel and think about, and what aspects of the artwork elicited that response. For music, I don’t run to I-V-I or “sonata form” for an explanation, but more intuitive aspects, like tone-color and character. Certainly a magical moment like the deceptive cadence about 11 minutes into the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth can be explained away with Roman Numeral analysis and a Schenkerian graph, but I feel that the sense of that moment can be more adequately described in metaphorical language. In an ideal situation, the beauty of the critic’s description can elicit a similar emotion in the reader as the piece itself (theater critic Walter Kerr was a master at this. Ben Ratliff is quite good too). Sometimes, when a piece of art explicitly plays with form and technique (like say a Wes Anderson film), it’s great to have a vocabulary with which to discuss them in order to get to the crux of how the art works and affects the experiencer, but not all works require technical descriptions to describe their essence.

One’s experience of a piece of art, however, isn’t just mediated by the art itself. Certainly Kanye West’s outsized personality colors the way we experience his music, and it’s important for a critic to talk about things like that—to talk about the nature of celebrity and authenticity and class and so on. The problem is when a critic becomes so in love with their own social insight that they forget to differentiate between what the music makes them feel and what the extra-musical elements associated with it make them think. Reviews like this become pieces of hollow cultural punditry, rather than real arts criticism, which Gioia justly criticizes.

Nevertheless, Gioia’s doom and gloom take on the state of music criticism as a whole does a great disservice to modern readers. I feel that very few people would enjoy a Pitchfork-style review more obsessed with explicating the reason for an artist’s celebrity than describing the music more than a review that genuinely attempts to translate the experience of the music into words and bring the reader along for a ride. There have always been and always will be vapid criticism and click bait and tabloids, just as there have always been and always will be Kenneth Tynans and Ellen Willises and Pauline Kaels. The difference between good and bad criticism isn’t good technical description vs. a lack thereof, as Gioia or Seitz contend. The difference has to do with the writer—will they be vulnerable enough to be honest about their experience of the art and emotionally perceptive enough to describe it, or will they be more in love with their erudition and opt for cheap takedowns?


1. I read reviews to that effect in a theater class in college, but can’t find links anywhere online. Just trust me on this, I guess.

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March 25, 2014 · 5:10 pm

The Music Supervisor’s Playbook

I saw “Silver Linings Playbook” the other day. It’s a good, solid movie, following the basic outlines of your standard rom com, but unafraid to mix the usual sweetness with more than a bit of bitterness. The performances were very good all around – especially the feisty but never caricatured Jennifer Lawrence and the scene-stealing Chris Tucker – but what stayed with me most about the film is its sophisticated use of music, from both the original score by Danny Elfman, and pop music sources (I guess you could have seen that coming).

The movie opens with a smooth, subtle, funky number, buoyed by fat, Matt Chamberlain-esque drums and wurlitzer piano. It was sonically slick and created a complex feeling of darkness hiding just below the surface of a typical autumn Sunday in the northeast. I was convinced the music had to be by Jon Brion, as it bore his aforementioned stylistic trademarks and canny ability to create just the right ambience for a scene without overwhelming the action. I was thus very surprised when the generally goofy and bombastic Elfman’s name came up during the credits. He gets major props for showing off a sophisticated side to his musical personality that hasn’t really come out before.

But while the score was certainly effective at undergirding the emotional feel of every scene it colored, it was the use of preexisting music that pushed and pulled the movie around in unexpected ways. Like in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” from earlier this year, a piece of music becomes a major plot point. For “Playbook” main character Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), it’s Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” his wedding song, and the song that’s playing when he finds his wife cheating on him with a history teacher at the school where they teach.¹ Every time he hears the song, whether at his psychiatrist’s office, or the local movie theater, or sometimes just in his own head, he snaps, putting his life outside the mental hospital where he spent eight months in jeopardy. As the movie chronicles Pat’s attempts to control his outbursts and his reaction to the song, “My Cherie Amour” is gradually transformed into another Stevie Wonder song – “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” When Pat decides to enter a dance contest with similarly troubled friend Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in the hopes of reengaging with his estranged wife, their routine begins with this song. You can tell that Pat is getting better at dealing with his past when the two begin rehearsing with the song and Pat doesn’t even notice that it’s Stevie Wonder. [Spoiler alert] When the pair (comparatively) nail their routine in the movie’s final scene, the artist that represents Pat’s worst moments now pushes him through his greatest triumph.

Pas de Deux

While this transformation of Stevie Wonder’s music from associations with pain to ecstasy is not the subtlest use of pop music to undergird a film’s plot, you totally buy it because of how this musical plot interacts with the other songs in the film. Interspersed between renditions of “My Cherie Amour” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” are songs by Led Zeppelin, 2012 breakout band Alabama Shakes, and in some especially poignant moments, Dave Brubeck (his joyous and cute “Unsquare Dance” and unimpeachably graceful rendition of “Maria” from West Side Story”). The emotional range of the music used in the film is quite staggering, approaching Wes Anderson territory. The songs pull you back and forth through varied emotional states, attempting to create the same emotional bipolarity in the viewer that the main characters experience. This emotional whiplash reaches an apotheosis in the final dance competition scene. While the other, more serious contestants dance to canned salsas and bossa novas,  Pat and Tiffany begin their routine with the  aforementioned Stevie Wonder tune, which gets  awkwardly and hilariously interrupted by the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl.” The studio-perfect elegance of Stevie’s tune couldn’t be more contrasting with the thrashing, garage-composed White Stripes anthem. I couldn’t stop laughing with delight for the next two minutes.

And then all of that raucousness dies off,  leaving behind Brubeck’s “Maria.” Paul Desmond’s airy alto sax sucks the air right out of the room, leaving a vacuum of focus on the two dancing protagonists. When the pair nail their big move, it is not accompanied by applause and sweeping strings, just the Brubeck quartet’s cool and calm demeanor. The fact that triumph is not accompanied by musical euphoria as well shows that Pat and Tiffany have a new control over their feelings, no longer whiplashed between extreme highs and lows.

While this final dance scene may not reach the sublime Andersonian heights of a “Rushmore,” it’s crafty use of music shows how “Silver Linings Playbook” isn’t your average rom com. While the guy gets his girl in the end, the usual emotional cliches are discarded for feelings that are more honest and human. There are no straight love songs in the movie because they can’t encapsulate the dark and messy feelings the characters carry throughout the film. By using music as more than just sonic wallpaper, “Silver Linings Playbook” makes us believe in this happy ending.


1. The real Pat Solitano’s trigger song (the movie was based on his memoir) was not “My Cherie Amour,” but Kenny G’s “Songbird.” Although I find this endlessly amusing, I am glad the filmmakers changed it because I don’t think I could get over it. It’s funny how changing one song could turn the movie into an absolute farce.

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December 29, 2012 · 12:27 pm