April 4, 2010

Critiquing the Critics

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I hope that everyone has their favorite critics, people who can enthuse them enough to seek out a new movie or musician, and conversely, can silence any interest in a given topic with a few well-placed words. Given the chance, these people can lead you to a new band or let you know that you really do need to see that new blockbuster in theaters. Rather then define your tastes, a favorite critic can act as a guide to discovering new (or old) works that genuinely interest you.

For me, A. O. Scott has been my critical voice on movies. Judging from his work with The New York Times, our tastes usually agree, as he tends to see the power in films that at first glance may seem unimaginative (Avatar) or crude (Hot Tub Time Machine). More importantly to me, his writing is interesting, funny and usually touches on some broader theme outside of the given movie. In short, he is informative and enjoyable to read.

Recently, an article of his in the Times caught my eye. Soberingly titled, “Is There a Future for Arts Criticism?,” Scott recounts both the history of criticism and its current state, spurred by the cancellation of his movie criticism television show, At the Movies. In his piece, Scott proves that as long as there have been critics, they have had their critics. To establish his historic point, Scott employs quotes from T. S. Elliot and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in which they denounce the role of the critic. In his more contemporary examples, Scott cites Variety Magazine’s release of their senior film and theater reviewers, Todd McCarthy and David Rooney, as well as the recent rise of Twitter and review websites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Now, as Scott writes, “Everyone’s a critic! Or maybe no one is.” The future of criticism is as uncertain as it ever was.

Which leads me to my question/ point/ ramble. Why do I write? In an age where it is increasingly easy for anyone to throw their own two cents in on anything they want, from a recent art show to the economic and social policies of our federal government, why on earth would anyone want to write 300 words on a CD release, 700 words on a movie or (perhaps most importantly) 1000 words on a first person column? I should also add, in this age of Tweets and 200 character user comments, why would anyone want to read this?

Whenever I am writing critically, there are two things I am thinking about. First, how good (inventive/ interesting/ poppy) is this? I am firmly of the belief that a work of art can immediately strike you as “great.” When I first heard the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, I knew, without any knowledge of their influence and credentials, that it was unlike anything I had ever heard before and distinctly special. This is the exact same feeling I had when first listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who on my own.

However, there are cases where an album might not be great in the traditional sense, but still merits critical praise. My example of this comes from Lester Bangs, one of my personal favorite writers on popular music. He was the unwielding champion of the visceral enjoyment of music, something in which I believe very strongly. One of his favorite bands, The Count Five, symbolizes this way of thinking to me. These boys from San Jose, California were most definitely not a great band, epitomizing the various music clichés of the 1960s, from wearing capes onstage at concerts to lyrics about “making love to a woman with a big, big mouth.” Although they scored a top ten hit with their single “Psychotic Reaction,” the band had absolutely no impact on popular music whatsoever. Despite this, Bangs chose to immortalize them in his essay “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” based on how much he enjoyed listening to the band, and the power they were able to command, while still being incredibly derivative of an entire scene. And its true. Although The Count Five sound like every other one hit wonder garage rock band that came of age in the ’60s, I still listen to them. For the sole, indefinable quality of their being fucking awesome. This is also why I still believe that Avatar was the best movie of last year. Yes, I understand that it is a bad ripoff of Pocahontas and may or may not be racist, but I did not walk out of any other movie last year feeling more satisfied with what I just watched.

I like to think people read our drawn out, overdone reviews because they’re interested. Pitchfork Media, a website which has quickly become the standard bearer for new independent music reviews, has become successful for their depth. While they offer instantaneous judgments on how good a music release is with their “out of 10” ratings, their reviews are long and thoughtful. Their most read reviews touch not just on the release in question, but a band’s history, influences and contemporaries. Rather then offering a bullet point on an album, these reviews are able to show a full picture of a band.

So then the question: Why do I write? I guess the answer is I write because I read. Throughout my life, it has been the articles and the essays I’ve read, not the Tweets or facebook status updates, that have informed me of what is worth listening to and watching. I write to put an album or a movie in a broader context, to showcase both their influences and contemporaries so that if something catches you as interesting, you know where to find its building blocks and peers. At the end of the day, it’s impossible for the limited space of “social media” to capture the different aspects of an artist’s sound and history that I want to read about, and try to establish every time I review an album. I can only hope that someone is reading.

Original Author: Peter Jacobs