“It is now the conventional wisdom among music critics that most reviews are three-star reviews,” says Ann Powers, the pop critic for the Los Angeles Times. “Everybody seems to feel like it’s become their job to be positive. There’s so much music being made, it makes sense for people to want to know what’s good so they know what to buy, but I’m not interested in writing that way. I get e-mails all the time from people who read my pieces, which are more essayistic than the thumbs-up, thumbs-down kind of thing, and they want to know if I think they’d like the album. I tell them, ‘I don’t know!’ ”
The culture of criticism in pop, a music geared to teenagers, is functioning more and more like the social economy of adolescence, in the opinion of a longtime rock critic who made the point on the condition of anonymity. “The world of music writing is becoming a lot like high school,” he says. “Writers do not write about music so much anymore. Their job is to look cool and to align themselves with the right albums at the right time so that they’re not belittled or kicked out of the cool club. I think that has really become a problem. People are afraid. There’s this fear that you could hurt your career or your image if you go out on a limb and say, ‘I don’t like The Hold Steady or Arcade Fire.’ So, for various reasons, people have decided to focus on the positive and be of good service to the readers.”
This is a school of critical thought with acolytes of many robes, and slow times in a field can justify overzealous advocacy as much as a boom can. In fact, critics in seemingly endangered areas of the arts (classical music, jazz, dance, independent film) can sometimes engage in boosterism out of a sense of purpose shared with the artists they cover—and, perhaps, a common sense of beleaguerment.
“There’s a great deal of trepidation and defensiveness in classical music writing,” says Greg Sandow, the classical music critic for The Wall Street Journal, who is also a composer. “Everyone’s afraid that they might harm the music, as if it’s a child who requires their protection.” Boosterism, he adds, is endemic: “In one case, I was with a critic who absolutely hated something and didn’t say so in print. I think that classical music sees itself as in some kind of danger—and it suffers from a sense of entitlement, so composers and producers sometimes squeal in outrage that the media is not covering their work. What I tell them is, ‘Go do something interesting. Make news. Then you might have a better claim for more coverage.’ ”
The higher mission of critics in all realms of the arts, formal and informal, popular and not-so, is, of course, to subscribe neither to pro-forma positivity nor negativity, but to confront the work intelligently and honestly, and to stir readers to thought and to feeling.
The point, as Sam Tanenhaus puts it, is the argument. “The Times Book Review publishes a lot of quite negative reviews,” he remarks, “and sometimes we put them on the cover, and people are mystified by this. You want to provoke interest in the reader, and the way the critic does that is to abandon himself or herself to the work. Now, it may not be the happiest abandonment, but the sense is that there’s something serious at stake—that it matters whether this book is good or not. The writing about the book matters. The argument matters.”
From the beginning of 2007 to the middle of 2008, approximately 25 percent of the staff jobs in arts journalism were eliminated, according to Douglas McLennan, the director of the National Arts Journalism Project and the editor of the aggregation site Arts Journal (artsjournal.com). The work these critics used to do has been replaced by wire-service copy or by freelance pieces, or it has gone away entirely. “That’s a pretty big hit for a profession, and since then, it’s been getting even worse,” says McLennan. By the end of 2009, he projects, there will be half the number of full-time, paid critics than there were at the end of 2007.