by Nick Hanover
Yesterday at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia Conference, Austin Chronicle music editor Raoul Hernandez put together a panel of former and current Chronicle staff to discuss whether or not music journalism was dead. Though Hernandez tried to frame it as a subject that he intended the other panelists to vote on in order to to reach some kind of consensus, it morphed into a more free form debate, heavier on generational conflict and odd generalizations than actual answers let alone any kind of agreement. This led to the question and answer section of the panel being cut, which is unfortunate because many of the best points raised by the panel’s two youngest contributors– Playback columnist Kevin Curtin and features writer Libby Webster— are worth expanding on, namely the increasing value new perspectives and local coverage have and how those elements call any music media death sentence into question. So why is it that the panel’s elder statesmen are so passionately convinced music criticism is dead?
For the past couple decades this has been a subject media on the whole has fiercely debated, as any critic spending time on Twitter can tell you. But it has been an especially active topic at conferences like AAN– almost a decade ago I attended a similar panel at EMP’s Pop Conference with the more optimistic title of “The Future of Thinking About Music for a Living,” which stirred up a lot of passionate conversation. Not surprisingly, most of the go to statements about the state of music media haven’t changed in the following decade.
That Pop Conference in 2007 might have focused on “the kids” not knowing who Robert Christgau and Simon Reynolds are, but in 2016 the AAN Panel was curiously fixated on David Fricke, the longstanding Rolling Stone columnist whose star had fallen so far before he was laid off from the magazine he spawned one of music culture’s best parody accounts.
Webster in particular was cornered a number of times about whether she knew who Fricke was and if she thought he was “still valuable,” like some music critic flip of the unfortunate fake geek girl trend. Webster effectively argued that while she knows who Fricke is, she doesn’t feel his style of criticism is valuable to today’s readers, who care less about goofy puns of song titles and masturbatory personal writing than they do about cultural and political framing and new perspectives. Webster was also adamant that the point other panelists made about kids not reading bylines today absolutely was not true, but that in fact they just happen to be more interested in bylines from writers who better represent them than the David Frickes of the world.
This eventually led to the most tense exchange of the panel, and one that symbolizes why the “death” of criticism, which one end of music writing is bemoaning, is perhaps welcomed by another end. Hernandez mentioned a review Webster had written on a book by elder statesman critic Chuck Eddy and how he had welcomed her perspective as someone who could approach the material without the bias of a longtime fan. This prompted Andy Langer to essentially argue that Webster had no business reviewing Eddy’s work because she was not already immersed in it. Pitchfork writer Brian Howe was also in attendance at the panel and summed it up like this:
Like this one dude actually blatantly implied that only 40+ white guys could have valid opinions on Chuck Eddy. WHAT #AAN2016
— Brian Howe (@Brian_Gray_Howe) July 7, 2016
Whether Langer intended it or not, the implication was that young critics must abide by two paradoxical rules: that they must first be fully aware of the predominantly white male critics who preceded them and that they must also abstain from engaging with this now untouchable vintage criticism. Though Michael Corcoran came to Webster’s defense and argued that her take wasn’t just allowable but vital, even he offered up a confounding statement earlier in the discussion when he claimed that music criticism first had value when a white critic acknowledged that “music made by black people was better than music made by white people in blackface.” On its surface that statement seems to be a condemnation of the whitewashing of genres created by black artists, but there is still an element of gatekeeping, the subtle argument that those black artists only mattered once a white critic gave them a seal of approval.
For critics like Webster, this practice of criticism determining which art should be viewed rather than exploring why the art matters is of course a dead end, so why shouldn’t this style of criticism be allowed to go the way of the dodo? Particularly when that form of criticism essentially blocks out anyone who doesn’t look, sound and think like Andy Langer. Can criticism that can’t critique itself really be alive? And how can the medium evolve if we can’t look back at its historical figures and determine who is still relevant and who has only been celebrated because of nostalgia? How does criticism become more open if we can’t talk about the gatekeeperism that allowed it to reach such a homogenous state?
These questions are connected to points Kevin Curtin made about the anthropological angle of music writing. Curtin is in tune with this angle more than most critics, since his Playback column is basically a running chronicle of the Austin music scene. While the Chronicle has major issues reflecting the actual diversity of the Austin music scene with its covers and feature stories– symbolized best by groundbreaking hip hop duo Riders Against the Storm, who made history this year with their back-to-back-to-back Band of the Year award wins yet still haven’t been the subject of a single Chronicle cover feature– the Playback column under Curtin’s watch has been one of the best sources for staying up to date with what is happening in every element of the scene. Playback is frequently the first place where many of the city’s punk and hip hop artists get ink and as Hernandez pointed out, Curtin has become the paper’s most recognizable new writer as a result.
Though Curtin himself is white, he constructs much of Playback out of quotes from the artists themselves, giving them a platform and visibility. As Curtin pointed out in the panel, music criticism isn’t about selling records but about preserving history and helping readers sift through the massive amounts of music being created each day. Curtin argued that without criticism, we wouldn’t know about community scenes and how they grow and shrink and evolve or die. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t much money in this form of criticism, because it’s “our obligation” to not let these scenes go unchronicled. And now that music and writing about music have both become more democratized, people who had been shut out of the industry are finally getting to tell their stories and they’re eager to see more people like them reflected in media as well.
Music writing is undoubtedly in a precarious position right now, but where Hernandez, Corcoran and Langer see doom or already feel death has been confirmed, Curtin and Webster symbolize the ways criticism isn’t just surviving but becoming more valuable. Had the panel put more effort into letting more non-white male voices speak (not a single black writer was on the panel and the audience itself also appeared to be entirely white), I think this would have been even clearer, particularly when so many of the best critics operating in the field right now are women and people of color. If music criticism as we knew it is dead, let’s celebrate that notion rather than wring our hands. Let’s acknowledge that death is a necessary part of nature, and from death better things blossom.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover