The state of music criticism in 2021

That’s about the difference in virtuosity not emotional response to music though isnt it?

There’s nothing instrinscly more valid about the (I assume, I’ve never actually heard him) skill and sophistication of Coleman or the joy that Steps brings many people. It’s just different, that’s where writing something valid and interesting about music veers into snobbishness isn’t it?

No one has to like or be interested in anything written about Steps or Coleman but quite a few people will of both.


its being equally important to write as a critic about them doesn’t mean there are no differences between them. I’m not a poptimist or whatever at all, but pop is genuinely worth thinking and writing about. And I would guess the ship has sailed as far as talking about what we currently value about art, (and say that is a good thing!)


I don’t know how you’d really speak about sophistication regarding music without getting into technicalities, which sort of goes back to my original point about the democratising of this stuff.

If you reject ‘expertise’ and technical understanding/historical/contextual evolution/whatever on the basis that it isn’t available to Everyman without some effort and education (ie it is elitist) then what is the point/meaning of public criticism?

Criticism is reduced down to ‘I like that’ or ‘that bit hurts my ears’.

I can’t see how ‘music critics’ have a valuable roll in a scene where democracy is valued over artistic merit.

Imagine art galleries if this applied to visual art!

To put it another way: there’s as much skill to distil an idea into a perfect tweet as there is to write a book. They’re both totally different disciplines but can both equally communicate a thought or feeling or offer a window into the meaning(lessness) of existence.

People think my job doing social media is easy but there’s often decades of experience to work out exactly what fragment of a Glastonbury set would go viral or how to get a million people to join a conversation. Timing, phrasing, knowing whether to use a gif or a jpg or 5 minute video… it all requires knowing how to play the internet like a weird instrument.

Great pop music is often far harder to craft than a meandering 20 minute ambient jam track. Pop music requires so many skills to make a piece of music connect with so many people.

Poptimism has been a big movement in music writing but partly that’s because with so much competition the need to have a depth of connection as well as a cultural resonance in this weird attention economy, requires pop to be art and art to be marketing savvy.


What if “music criticism” was rebranded “music appreciation” - would it help?


100% more accurate for current state of play I reckon.

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critics have no value

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I would say that what you’re describing is ‘craft’ not ‘art’.

I’m not denying that the 15 writers and producers and the 30 musicians on a Harry Styles (sp?) record are talented people who are experts at their craft. I am saying that (to me) the result is not comparable with, say, Spiderland (for sake of examples we all understand).

I’m not saying that one is ‘better’ than the other, I’m saying that they are not both ‘art’.

It’s never going to be objectively observable and provable that any one piece of work took more effort, had more insight into the human condition, was created with nobler purpose than another.

So if that is the case then who gets to decide what counts as good art or important art? People with influence and power in society shaping and reflecting that.


more than that even it’s structures that mean that when a work has more reach and attention it is treated as needing more analysis either because it must be worthy or why would it be popular or because people believe that it’s popularity must speak to wider trends in culture. So the surface is always mined for meaning and depth. For every success there are 1000 failures which speak equally to culture and human endeavour.


I suppose I feel like the alternative (as now) is worse; that where you have no distinction, there isn’t a significant enough motivation and thus the outcome (viewed as a total) is so much lower than it might otherwise be.

You make an excellent case though, and I should give it much more thought.

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imo it should be treated like kneading bread, when something rises to the top stuff it down and squish it.


My point (no doubt inexpertly expressed) was simply that this is only one way of writing about music. There are lots of equally valid ways.

Just enjoy the music you enjoy and enjoy the writing about music you enjoy.


I think over the last decade or so it’s become the genre that inspires the most expansive and in-depth journalism, whether or not it’s warranted compared to other less 'pop’ular genres

(I mean it’s all warranted in my opinion, and I hope that doesn’t come across at a dig at pop music, but I sometimes wonder whether time spent on an umpteenth Lorde post-mortem might be better spent championing less mainstream art)


There are a million ways to write about music, definitely.

To criticise music though? If technicalities are wilfully rejected due to perceived elitism/Killjoy-ism then the nature of broad ‘criticism’ becomes nothing more than a public sharing of personal taste, doesn’t it?

Imagine a restaurant critic who isn’t allowed to talk about how the food is cooked, and the constituent parts of the meal etc. What would be the point?

“I liked this meal; it was warm and I was full when I ate it. It made my tummy sleepy. The table was in a room. I had another meal last week; this one was nicer. I like yummy food; if you like food that I like then you would like it here.”

Consider how ‘classical’ (or orchestral, or formal or whatever) music was hobbled by the advent of recorded music. Until that point, the composer’s tradition was to Bravely Soldier Forth into the unknown; pushing boundaries and frightening the children. Then comes records, and suddenly Joe Bloggs is in the driving seat and Joe Bloggs wants easy listening from hundreds of years before; they don’t want the cutting edge stuff that contemporary composers were naughtily monkeying with.

If pop (widest sense) has nothing by way of motivational factors to drive it forward (such as serious criticism) then aren’t we destined to be stuck in an endless snake/tail loop of ever simplified piffle? because that’s what ‘the kids’ (of each generation) want?

Which is more desirable? ‘Elitist’ qualification by means of serious criticism, or a ‘democratic’ race to potato printing?

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The cutting edge becomes the set of tools that the quotidian uses. This is a positive. You do not get to modern pop music without first swimming in an ocean of innovators. Listen to the sound design and arrangement (not to mention the performance) on Into You by Arianna Grande. It is incredible, and it is the result of an understanding of how sound, psychoacoustics, harmony, composition, and human emotion work that has been arrived at over hundreds of years of innovation, but placed in the hands of Max Martin it is a huge intravenous dopamine shot.

To dismiss pop music is the easy way out. It positions one as somehow more refined without ever having to meaningfully engage with what makes people love music, enables one to stack certain cultural artefacts over in the ‘better’ section and punch down on people who don’t recognise them. Gary Barlow is not an innovator, he’s not a sound-sculptor, he’s not a virtuoso, but he can make rooms full of thousands of people feel something real and elemental. Miles Davis was not a lyricist, told no stories of human connection, but could make rooms full of thousands of people feel something real and elemental. There is no difference.

For what it’s worth, I agree with the idea of ‘music appreciation’ rather than ‘music criticism’, because positivity is better and it also better illustrates to me the relationship between the writer and the artist (as a critic, are you intending for the artist to take what you said on board and make changes next time? Or are you finding meaning and enjoyment, hopefully, in what the artist has produced), and I also like the delayed review idea. If I were to create a website that did such a thing, I would have a first impression box too, because I find that push and pull between what grabs and what clings to be really interesting.


I just have

In your opinion - In mine it’s clearly not

This maybe true in the sense that it is highly calculated in terms of composition to obtain the highest return (popularity) on investment (because it is highly derivative of other stuff that has been generated since the early 00’s and really exists as capitalist product to be consumed - what is the difference between Britney Spears,Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry, Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora, Jessie J, Usher, Justin Bieber, Halsey, Kelly Clarkson to name a few when they all work with similar producers/writers which ultimately leads to similar pieces of musical/lyrical content?

I may be misunderstanding your argument but you seem to conflate mass popularity with quality which suggests that these are mutually inclusive when in my view music and all other arts this very much not the case most of the time

Agree with your last paragraph though - especially about initial impressions :grinning:

For me music criticism and or appreciation in the past has been a great helper in shaping/understanding my tastes (especially in my teens) for the simple reason that we have finite time to enjoy things the various artistic arenas provide us as we can’t listen see, taste feel and smell every piece of culture that world has and will provide - so why not rely on “arbiters of taste” when you need them?


In a non-shitty way, yes, you are! But I probably didn’t put it very well. I’m not saying anything about popularity. The best bands will never get signed, you won’t hear them on the radio. Being popular =/= being good, but also being obscure doesn’t make you good. Some popular stuff is brilliant, some is shit-awful. Some obscure stuff is brilliant, some is shit-awful. It’s easy to punch down on popular stuff that isn’t good because ‘Oh the masses, they are so stupid, why do they not like this art that they cannot access due to lack of time, botheredness, musical education and instead enjoy this stuff that I don’t like?’ I just think people shitting on pop music is lazy bullshit. You don’t like it, you don’t have to listen to it. You don’t see the value in it, that’s fine. Not everyone can extract the same value from everything. You see it going the other way too, people dismissing stuff like jazz or drones or electronica as ‘noise’ or ‘pointlessly arty’ when there’s actually beauty in all this stuff. Dismissing any form of creative expression so brutally is always a bad idea.

I’m not really arguing with you here, btw, so I’m sorry if that comes over as combative or anything, it’s not my intention. And yeah, it’s worth having people who are well versed in the music they like (your arbiters as you put it) who can tell you whether this Scandi pop banger or dense electro record or garage rock revival band or whatever is actually worth your time.


The only music criticism I’m aware of these days relates to kpop, and I hate it. It’s mired in xenophobia and misogyny, with ill disguised surprise at the fact that kpop artists break global music records and dominate western charts. Example: BTS have been doing really well since last year on billboard’s music charts, and they asked them about allegations of chart manipulation through fans mass buying their records. Their leader answered: “slamming us or our fans for getting to No. 1 with physical sales and downloads, I don’t know if that’s right … It just feels like we’re easy targets because we’re a boy band, a K-pop act, and we have this high fan loyalty”, and he’s right, they are easy targets, they’ll never have mainstream success in the west despite their incredible achievements, achieved through a combination of factors that nobody has been able to replicate, not within the kpop industry nor within Western artists. You’d think they’d be written about with the absolute awe they deserve, whether the writers enjoy their music or not, but their achievements are downplayed, their fans are looked down upon and the motivations for their dedication simplified and generalised to superficial things like the band’s looks or being attached to the wave of western fascination with South Korean entertainment (dramas, kpop, webtoons etc). BTS are the biggest targets but not the only ones, the way English speaking outlets more often than not reduce kpop artists into answering stupid questions like “which western artist would you like to colaborate with?”, running with the assumption that artists aren’t involved with the production of their work (which they are in many cases), asking kpop groups about other kpop groups as if they are one monolithic entity (which just stinks of someone going ohh you’re (ethnicity), do you know (other person of the same ethnicity). Grim. The bar is so low that when a western media outlet humanises and treats a kpop artist with respect, its a revelation. So many times, kpop artists get treated like a novelty act which isn’t even xenophobia anymore, it’s just full on racist


Absolutely agree 100% with this - I was very much getting into the post punk/synth/new wave movements of the late 70’s/early 80’s around the time in the early mid 00’s that the NME well publicised backing the likes of The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, etc I just couldn’t understand why they were being regarded so highly (with little actual critical discourse) when it arguably been done first (and better imho) in that earlier time period but was if I vaguely recall very rarely mentioned?

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