Is rock criticism dead? Or just phony?


I’m not sure yet, but I’m starting to wonder if “Rock criticism” has anything whatsoever to do with music any more.

Isn’t it rather a branch of sociology, the study of fashion, the affectation of slightly superior taste? Could, indeed, the slightest knowledge of or interest in music, constructive thoughts and words about the actual, organised sounds vibrating the air, even be a drawback? Is knowledge of music just some anorak stuff for saddos? Like musicians for example?

Forget the music, and the task becomes much simpler. The writer just positions him or herself as either a defender of the old (as in the T-shirt above) , or the new, some sort of chronological snobbery. Here’s what you do: you station yourself upwind of the types of music you know least, (and therefore believe stink)….. like jazz, for example, but I guess there are others….and away you go.


This was in the weekend “Frankfurter Allgemine”

“If you hang around pubs, and find yourself among a clutch of music critics chatting, you risk an evening of extreme boredom. Bearded hoodie-wearers, their faces growing ever redder, will discuss Brazilian vinyl imports, body politics in R & B, the revival of Dutch trash techno. An onlooker could easily find himself wishing he would rather be among a crowd of ride-on lawn mower manufacturers. One coud say: music critics today are a boring as most music.”

Wer heutzutage beim Kneipenbummel in eine Traube parlierender Musikkritiker gerät, setzt sich der Gefahr aus, einen äußerst langweiligen Abend zu verbringen. Bärtige Kapuzenshirtträger, die sich stundenlang mit stetig röter werdenden Köpfen über brasilianische Vinyl-Importe, Körperpolitik im R ’n’ B oder das Revival des holländischen Trash-Techno unterhalten, können beim Zaungast nur den Wunsch auslösen, lieber in einem Pulk plauderseliger Sitzrasenmäherhersteller zu stehen. Man könnte sagen: Musikkritiker sind heute ebenso langweilig wie die meiste Musik.

Yes, this piece did indeed strike a chord. Bald men arguing over a comb. Who cares apart from them?


There has been a substantial readership for my piece about Nick Hasted’s comment in the Independent about Radiohead alienating audiences by turning themselves into what he pejoratively called a jazz group. Hasting was, according to most of the people commentating on my piece, or indeed on the Independent’s website, using the word jazz to diss music he feels is beneath him.

I’d also read on Friday this long puffpiece about Massive Attack by the Guardian’s “Head Rock and Pop Critic” (sic) Alex Petridis.

C’mon. What is as plain as day is that Petridis’ piece is just an extended plug for a record launch. But why should that be an excuse to write it without ANY substantive mentions of how the music actually sounds, of the methods used. Or is the tonal palette here so narrow there is actually nothing to say?


Peter Hum may have started the backlashagainst these kind of attitudes in this blog post about Pat Metheny.

Someone please find some counter-examples? I do hope there are some to balance out my conjecture. I would sincerely like someone to convince me that rock criticism is not what Hans Keller used to call a phony profession; that there is still such a thing as knowledge of music, rather than just posing and attitude!

Categories: Uncategorized

5 replies »

  1. Lots to think about!

    The rock concert reviews that I'm most familiar with seem pretty good at placing the music played in the context of the musician's/band's career, but yes, there's less about the music itself than what I might try to write… not sure why.

    What I've read also pays more attention to things like the rapport between musician and audience, audience reaction, between-song banter, etc.

    Does that mean the the criticism is “phony?” Not sure. Different, definitely…

  2. A big thank you to Professor Simon Frith for the following:

    What does a rock critic do?

    This is certainly an interesting question and for a very old rock critic like me it’s easy enough to agree (I often do) that rock criticism isn’t what it used to be. But we do need to disentangle some rather different issues muddled up in your text.

    1. It is certainly true that most of words written about rock in the press aren’t criticism. As a general rule of thumb one can say that feature articles (like Alexis P on Massive Attack) are driven by the agenda of publishers and their press teams, with new works to sell and stars to build, while reviews (of concerts and records) are still forms of criticism. But this is true of all art forms (its common enough to read a feature piece puffing a film, for example, that is slagged off by the critic over the page). In general (there is social science research to show this!) over the last fifty years newspaper arts pages have expanded but an increasing proportion of their pages is devoted to features. Space for critics to develop criticism has been steadily squeezed. This is true for all the performing arts.

    2. It is also true that much—probably most—rock criticism isn’t very good. There are two many reviewers who lack the critics’ essential quality: curiosity. I’m always struck, for instance, how many rock critics dismiss the Mercury Music prize’s ‘token jazz record’ as a token jazz record without wondering why it was chosen and listening to find out. But again I’m not convinced this is a particular problem of rock criticism. It’s easy enough to find examples of jazz or classical critics equally dismissive of the kinds of music on the basic of prejudice rather than listening.

    3. This leaves the nub of your question; does a (good) rock critic need to write about the music (or does he/she write about other things)? Well yes. A critic is describing (and assessing) a musical experience—whether in personal/individual or social/collective terms—and this experience has to be related to what was heard—to sounds. Which is not to say that those sounds need to be described in technical language. In fact, describing music—translating a musical experience into words which can be translated back by the reader into the imaginative experience of the music—is extremely difficult (which is why there are very few good critics in any form of music). A good critic, to put this another way, has to be a good writer as well as a good listener (it’s always worth going back to GB Shaw’s collected reviews to see this). At their best critics can, in fact, describe concerts of records in such a way that the imagined experience of the music is even better than the real thing! (I found this true of many of Greil Marcus’s record reviews, for example, and of some of Geoff Dyer’s semi-fictional accounts of jazz performers.) I don’t see why rock critics shouldn’t, like all other critics, aspire to be good critics.

  3. Interesting. Even though I am a musician and used to be a journalist, I never wrote about music because I feel it requires a more encyclopedic knowledge of music than just the item in hand — unlike regular features journalism, which simply requires a ton of research on a given issue. I absolutely agree with the previous post — esp point 3.

  4. A musician friend of mine – Leo Condie from the Low Miffs, who are currently touring with Malcolm Ross of Orange Juice – sorry for plugging – once said/quoted that “writing about music is like dancing about painting”. Words can only go so far towards explaining and describing an album, gig or single, but that's no excuse for not even attempting to provide this description.

    Rock critics, in my opinion, can't and perhaps shouldn't write *solely* about the music, as rock perhaps more than any other genre depends on a certain amount of sociological posturing, following of insane modes of fashion and a reaction to current society. Although Bob Dylan is an excellent musician, for example, it would be impossible to write a review which explained his music in detail if one didn't refair to the civil rights movements, snobbish folkies and perhaps Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouach.

    Most modern rock “critics”, however, get *too* bogged down in fitting a musician into a cultural niche or rhapsodising over their unique dress sense. A few months ago I read an article on La Roux in NME. The first half of it was concerned almost entirely with her appearance. There were no mentions of synthesisers or guitars or vocals or anything. The article ended with a reference to her Mum being June from the Bill.

Leave a Reply