Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Who Likes Short Shorts?

In the Washington City Paper, Jason Cherkis has an essay about celebrity rock critics and the damage they have done to the noble and exulted trade of record reviewing. It’s a provocative swipe at those littérateurs — Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen, and so on — who’ve gone slumming in the album reviews section, and has drawn considerable notice in the blogosphere and on the I Love Music board.

Although some of the comment elsewhere has touched on the whiff of resentment beneath the prose — How dare these poseurs take bread from the mouths of actual music critics! — the snark and nitpicking has largely glossed over the real point behind Cherkis’ rant, which has to do with the low regard with which editors view music writing. Gripes Cherkis, awkwardly, “criticism has become cameo—stunt casting.”

It certainly is true that editors outside the music ghetto seem distressingly ready to believe that pretty much anyone with an interest and enthusiasm can write about popular music. Unlike classical, which seemingly requires if not musical literacy then an awareness of the musical canon, pop is presumed accessible to anyone with ears, and thus fair game. And, of course, the fact that newspapers and magazines invariably have on staff one or more obsessive fans with a lot of knowledge about a select few acts only reinforces that idea.

But criticism isn’t about knowledge — it’s about insight. And while it’s unlikely that someone with limited knowledge may have great insight, it’s just as true that having knowledge is no guarantee of having insight. Critical thinking involves making connections between various bits of info, seeing a bigger picture or greater context, and being able to explain it all in cogent, straightforward prose. It’s not something writers are normally encouraged to do (especially in journalism, where outside of the arts the practice is damned as “editorializing”), nor is it something that comes easily to most people.

Cherkis suggests, wrongly, “The problem with author-critics is that they’re critics who refuse to be critical; purple prose is their abiding principle.” No, the problem is that they’re approaching reviewing at the “how do you feel?” level so beloved of TV journalists. They natter on about memories and emotional response and social significance, things that go a long way toward explaining why they’ve devoted several thousand words to the subject, but which tells us precious little about the music itself.

Then again, so what? Rock criticism has been doing that for decades, since the early days of Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy. In the mid-’60s, those who tried to analyze the Beatles musically were derided as over-intellectualizing fuddy-duddies, and it was the practitioner of the trade who could balance vernacular enthusiasm with technical expertise (Jon Landau and the late Robert Palmer chief among them). Far more common in the reviews section were slices of autobiography, bad fiction and attempts at psychoanalysis.

That hasn’t changed much, either. True, there are many more journals covering popular music than there were 40 years ago, and many, many more writers eager to be published therein. But the main difference Cherkis sees is in the length of reviews:

“All you have to do is flip through any music magazine—Rolling Stone, Spin, Blender—to see the editors’ patience for real criticism. The majority of Entertainment Weekly reviews are only 75 words. In Spin, many reviews are whittled down to a couple of sentences before being anonymously dispatched with a grade. That means fewer words to suspect, doubt, tear at, take a record apart to see how it works (or doesn’t). Fewer words to change the way someone thinks about how and why art is made and experienced—which is, after all, the real purpose of criticism.”

This is where I’m obliged to play the heretic, because while there are many things wrong with music criticism today, short reviews is not one of them. Much as I would like to believe that great insights are being choked off as the average review’s word count declines, my experience is that the opposite is true. Less really is more.

As a guy who owes at least part of his reputation to reviews of a sentence or less, my preference for short and sweet may not come as a surprise. But sad truth is this: It’s a rare critic who actually has a raft of genuine insight into an album. More often than not, what gets set down are observation, description and rhetoric (not necessarily in that order), which is usually centered on a single idea about the album or band, then whipped into some semblance of essay form. Most could easily be condensed to 20 or 30 words of actual argument — and, frankly, should be. And once that couple dozen words are fleshed out with a bit of background and a supporting example or two, you’ve got a very nice 100- or 120-word review.

Writing short is also harder than writing long. It requires more thought, more discipline, more re-writing, more focus. There’s less room for self-indulgent wordplay, and less opportunity to show off. And perversely, writing short is harder when you have less to say, because there’s no space to pad out a paucity of ideas with clever prose. (Perhaps that’s why the celebreviewers are allowed to wax on at length…)

Cherkis is spot on in singling out Sasha Frere-Jones’ work in The New Yorker as worthy of both space and praise. SFJ’s recent take-down of the White Stripes was one of the best pieces of rock criticism I’ve read in a while, and not just because I agreed with his opinion. In addition to placing them in the cultural landscape, Frere-Jones addresses both the mechanics and the aesthetics of the Stripes’ sound, and manages to point up the band’s failings in a way that seems like genuinely constructive criticism. Still, Frere-Jones’ advantage isn’t that he has space, but that he packs it with meat, not filler.

GTR = SHT is legendary for good reason.

It's not the quanity, it's the quality. Further, there are very few music writers out there who can write a compelling, insightful review beyond 500 words. Most are way better at 250 or less, and frankly, I'd rather the music press cover MORE artists/albums than less. Longer reviews mean not only less extensive coverage, but less opportunities for crits to get assignments.

Besides, bitching about the lack of words in a review completely ignores the contributions of Xgau, whose influence on short reviews is potent.
Thanks, anon. And not only does Christgau write short well, he is also a master of the long-form essay (and, more importantly, understands when each is appropriate).
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