Sunday, May 22, 2005

Ten Years After?

Daniel Okrent, in his farewell column as The New York Times’ “Public Editor” offers a list of “13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did.” At No. 6 on the list is the problem of “blind spots” in critics. As he puts it, “If a critic just doesn't like the work of a particular playwright (or painter or singer or novelist), both the playwright and the readers lose out. He never gets a fair chance; we never get a fresh take.”

This is a bit unfair, really. It ignores the possibility that what Mr. Okrent sees as a blind spot is actually the ability to recognize and dismiss no-talents and hacks. Secondly, it suggests that not liking an artist’s work makes it impossible for a critic to offer a “fresh take,” a notion that comes dangerously close to dismissing someone’s opinion before they’ve even articulated it. Negative reviews can be more perceptive than raves, and it’s not uncommon for a reviewer to dislike different works by an artist for completely different reasons, but Mr. Okrent seems inclined to lump it all under “just doesn’t like the guy” and write off what’s being said.

Still, I suspect all that justifying is merely a smokescreen, set up to provide a context for what he really wants to say: That critics should have limited tenure, and be booted out after X number of years. (He suggests 10.)

Were the issue as simple as wanting adjust for bias in dealing with certain artists, the obvious solution would be to rotate assignments through the multiple critics. If Jon Pareles covers the current U2 album, then Kelefa Sanneh is given the next one. Simple.

But Mr. Okrent, like a lot of newspaper vets — and a lot of bloggers, and a lot of politicians, and a lot of readers — doesn’t seem especially comfortable with the idea of opinion in the daily paper. It’s a deeply ingrained prejudice in journalism, the notion that what critics do is less deserving of respect than what reporters do. After all, reporters work to uncover facts, whereas those who trade in opinion just make stuff up. And as we all know, opinions are worthless, as everyone’s got one. Even as august and erudite a writer as Virgil Thompson recalled that, during his days as music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, his position in the newsroom pecking order was only marginally above the copy boys (and then only because he got by-line).

Mr. Okrent isn’t just uneasy about reviewers; he also blasts several of the Times’ Op-Ed giants — Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd and the now-departed William Safire — and clearly would rather writers marshal “facts” than infer conclusions. But that’s only part of it. One of the other things critics have, along with the option of opining, is the power that comes with offering opinion from a pulpit as lofty as The Times. And, of course, the longer one holds that pulpit, the more authority one’s sermons garner. I suspect that’s a dynamic that makes Mr. Okrent deeply uneasy.

Of course, one might expect a critic like myself to chafe at the notion of “term limits for critics.” However much I might argue that it’s foolish to toss away the knowledge that comes from experience, some readers will presume that I just don’t like the idea of being eventually forced out of a job. To which I can only say, Well, who would?

But the truth is that term limits are, for the most part, not needed in pop music criticism, as few in the field last a decade even now. A while back, I looked up the first review I wrote for Rolling Stone, in 1979. But rather than re-read what I had to say about now-forgotten rockers Trillion, I checked the by-lines on the other reviews in that issue — and was shocked to realize that only two other were still writing. One was David Fricke, who remains at Rolling Stone; the other was Ken Tucker, who still reviews but has long since made music just a sideline. The rest were gone, and in some cases completely forgotten.

Many music reviewers, particularly in the dailies, eventually migrate to other beats, such TV writing; that’s the move Tucker made before leaving the Philadelphia Inquirer (Eric Deggans and Roger Catlin also spring to mind). And there also seem to be editors who believe that pop music is meant for young people and should be reviewed by young people, a view which occasionally results in forcibly removing older critics from their beat. (Age discrimination law doubtless keeps that from happening as often as it might.)

Those who do stick it out — who not only manage to keep pumping copy but actually continue to offer insight and a thoughtful, informed point of view — ought to be applauded, not punished for their persistence. But I suspect I’ll be waiting a long time before someone declares Music Critic Appreciation Day a holiday.

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