Yet, at a moment when the nature of American culture and political identity is in flux, critical writing about pop music has grown steadily more irrelevant. This is in part a consequence of the pressure the Internet has exerted on journalism at large: the venues are shrinking, along with the fees and the audience. But these problems have been especially acute for music writers, because the Internet has simultaneously undermined their utilitarian function as consumer guides by making music free. As Ann Powers, the chief pop-music critic at the Los Angeles Times, put it to me: What value is there in writing that the latest Metallica album is good, when readers can log onto the band’s MySpace page, listen for free, and decide for themselves? It’s not as though one needs to be an ethnomusicologist to determine that “Enter Sandman” rocks.
But pinning the entire rap on the Internet allows music critics to dodge some painful but necessary questions. How should journalists illuminate the zeitgeist at a moment when the dominant cultural narrative is that there is no dominant cultural narrative? Do critics have any special license to serve as pop music’s cultural interlocutors when anyone with an Internet connection can attempt to do the same thing? In other words: if anyone can make pop music, and anyone can be a pop-music critic, do we really need professional critics to tell us what it all means?
These questions hung over the conclave of prominent music writers that Powers gathered at the University of Southern California in September 2008. She had called the forum “The Death of the Critic,” and the title, though morose, was apt. As the panelists tried to diagnose their ailing profession, the usual suspects were trotted out: the leveling effect of the blogosphere, the Web’s fracturing of the cultural narrative. But perhaps critics should consider the possibility that the animating argument for pop-music criticism—that the music is important because it is a projection of popular experience—is exactly what has made it difficult for journalists to gain traction in the current era. We are living in an age when the audience is happy to express its opinions without any assistance from the press. Which is to say: pop-music critics are the casualties of a culture war that they helped to wage and win.
To understand how pop-music critics were soldiers in a war that rendered them irrelevant is to understand Robert Christgau’s critical sensibility. Christgau is best known for his consumer guide and album-rating system. But his more important legacy is the Village Voice music page, where as editor between 1974 and 1985, and then chief music critic until 2006, he helped to define a populist argument for why the music mattered. At the same time, he built a section that bridged two generations of critics, with Greil Marcus, Gary Giddins, Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Janet Maslin, and James Wolcott in the first wave, and Ann Powers, Eric Weisbard, R J Smith, Greg Tate, and Sasha Frere-Jones among the second.
By the time Christgau arrived at the Voice, Jann Wenner had already made the journalistic case that pop music was the language of the counterculture, the place where its utopian social vision met its politics. The Rolling Stone founder developed this connection not through rigorous argument, but by placing music in the context of political reporting. This had two effects. Wenner’s focus on the biggest names in pop music made the left-leaning political journalism seem part of a broad cultural insurgency. And the political journalism made the pop music seem as though it possessed a cohesive political message (even when it didn’t, which was often).
Christgau, who considered himself to the left of Wenner politically, nonetheless rejected the programmatic assumption that pop music produced predictable political ends. In his calculus, pop music was important precisely because it had no obligation to prefabricated ideology. In other words, while any one musician or song might have a political aim, what really mattered was the collective pressure exerted by disparate voices on the governing cultural narrative.