PSH as Bangs

This may not be the real Lester Bangs, but he is in my memory.

A week or so ago The Daily Beast published an article titled “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting.” In it, musician and jazz critic Ted Gioia claims that contemporary music criticism is little more than celebrity gossip.

Gioia calls for more high-minded criticism that hearkens back to the music journalism of his youth:

When I was a child, Gunther Schuller’s byline appeared in Saturday Review, and Leonard Bernstein hosted music specials on CBS. In my teens, I could read smart, musically astute critics in many magazines and newspapers. I might disagree with the judgments of Harold Schoenberg, John Rockwell, Winthrop Sargeant, Robert Palmer, Leonard Feather, Martin Williams, Alfred Frankenstein, and others, but they knew their stuff.  Many of them were musicians themselves. Sargeant had served as a violinist with the New York Philharmonic. Frankenstein had played clarinet with the Chicago Symphony. Palmer gigged in bands before he started writing about them. Feather had recorded as a pianist, and although he would never put Oscar Peterson out of business, he knew his sharps and flats.

Then he blames Lester Bangs because “the language of lifestyle squeezed out musical assessment.”

Now I don’t imagine Gioia wishes that Billboard were written in such a way that would demand a degree in music theory to decipher, but he surely ventures into “Get off my lawn!” territory with his send up of music journalism. He is, however, gracious enough to admit that various blogs treat contemporary music with the care it deserves, but he chooses to focus his attention on the most popular periodicals.

I do believe that this lambasting of music writing is mostly unnecessary, but it did bring about a few posts from Owen Pallett–who has a new album coming out in May–that dissect pop tunes to determine why they are successful. The first examines Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and the second takes on “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk.

For this music theory layman, the articles are just technical enough to be over my head but not so heady that I can’t get anything out of it. The problem, though, is that I don’t believe contemporary music fans want to know why they like the music they do. It’s seeing sausage made. Perhaps we’re simplistic, but contemporary music is for consumption and we’re not much interested in production–despite Beck’s best efforts.

If you dare, venture into the comments of those Slate articles from Pallett. Theory nerds get down and love to argue–especially if they get to drag down a relatively well known artist. (Of course, theory nerds aren’t alone in this. The internet is particularly great at bringing out the worst of any community) The danger, for Billboard and Rolling Stone, is that they live and die on the cool. While I disagree with this sentiment, the average fella doesn’t find music theory too hip. If the comment sections of most music reviews devolved into esoteric theory arguments, some magazine executive is unhappy.

They’d much rather leave the nerding out of their publications and in the realm of non-mainstream blogs.

These thoughts are all half-baked. I love thinking about music production and theory but I cannot imagine that most music fans share my affinity.

What about you? What do you prefer out of music journalism?