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.
To a certain degree, Christgau’s critical method was self-referential. He had no aesthetic or political litmus test to determine that Cat Stevens’s Buddha and the Chocolate Box was terrible and that Van Morrison’s Moondance was great (although he was allergic to nostalgia and the creeping pretension of the rock-and-roll auteur). Instead, he figured out why he liked a given recording, put that process into words, and then hashed it out with his readers and fellow writers.
Yet this personal approach by no means excluded broader social and political ideas. In fact, listening and reacting often became an exercise in social criticism for Christgau, because he conceived of pop as engaged with mainstream culture. “Rock-and-roll was a medium that insisted on individual freedom, on pleasure, and, at the same time, created social connections among disparate people,” he told me recently. He went on to say: “Carried to its emotional conclusion, [the music] put pressures on capitalism. I looked for writers who could elucidate the details of these tendencies and their contradictions.”