Wednesday, October 5th, 2005

Against Apathy: Criticism That Sucks

When I used to read reviews like this one, I’d just be like, ennh whatever.

But now they are beginning to get me mad.

Not just because they’re overly self-conscious, indulgently snarky dismissals of artists, musicians, and writers I love–and full disclosure, who sometimes are, in fact, some of my closest friends or even me–but because they reflect a growing trend among young writers, the emergence of a new aesthetic that leads nowhere.

To me, being a critic means championing an alternative. The great critics became great not simply because they knew how to skewer a subject elegantly, but because they could make you believe that something new, urgent, and life-changing was arriving or had arrived. They championed a rebel aesthetic, and ideas like independence, difference, novelty, fun, antiauthoritarianism, you know, good shit.

These days, with the dot-com crash and a lot of alt-weeklies gone corporate, too many of us critics write like cubicle schmucks unlucky enough to not to land a job at Entertainment Weekly.

But it’s not the ambition that’s bothers me, it’s the lack of imagination.

There is no blood or fire. There’s just an unearned jaded-ness with the world. There isn’t a Johnny-Thunders-with-cigarette-and-guitar detachment, to be all Lester Bangs on folks, there is simply an utter lack of conviction masquerading as an outsider stance.

Which is ridiculous.

Because the one thing that so many of these critics don’t seem to appreciate at all is the desire for an alternative.

They’re basically engaged in creating an alternative to the alternative, which may not scan like “Laguna Beach” or “Extra!” at first, but sure isn’t challenging that kind of stuff at all.

Do you want the opposite of “conscious” aesthetics (a term I don’t believe in but let’s just make this point)? Here it is. Unconscious aesthetics–it isn’t self-aware in the remotest sense.

In fact, these unconscious critics get most rankled by folks who are still about being self-critical and trying to make a difference. At its most basic, it’s a knee-jerk remote-control reactionary aesthetics.

Really, you can’t trust their very definitions. Kenny Loggins=cool. Blackalicious=bland. ‘Nuff said.

The biggest struggle in their writing is a personal battle against boredom. (For the poor reader, it’s a battle to simply stay awake 500-word or even 100-word count.) The sum of it all is a thinly disguised effort to preserve the status quo–in politics, in art, in culture, in society.

Which is fine.

Let’s just call it what it is. A celebration of sameness. An indulgence of apathy. A reaction against change. A critical dead-end.

posted by @ 6:07 am | 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Against Apathy: Criticism That Sucks”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The dilemma faced by a weekly magazine is this.

    1. They are required to write about music to stay in business.

    2. 99% of music writing sucks.

    3. The only alternative to opionated writing about music is writing about music in a historical context.

    4. A historical piece is the antithesis of a weekly magazine.

    Conclusion: weekly magazines = shitty articles about music.


  2. Oliver says:

    I don’t know Jeff. I mean, I appreciate where you’re coming from but seriously, I just don’t know why it’s worth beating the war drum on this review. Garrett found the album boring and mediocre and he communicated this fairly well – I don’t think he did it maliciously and it seems like he took pains to note what worked and what didn’t.

    In my book, that’s decent music criticism. Is it the best I’ve ever read? Not really, but given the choice between 1) outright sycophantry (too many examples to note but why not start with The Source and work from there), 2) straight up ignorant hate masquerading as high-minded criticism (see Pitchfork and dozens of other WWW sites) and 3) an honest review lacking in “fire” or “passion”, I’m not really mad at #3.

    The way I see it, Garrett – bucking the New Times trend towards standarizing the same reviews in every fucking satellite paper – decided to write on a local group with a new album out. He didn’t happen to like the album but wasn’t about to go Bang-ian ape shit over it.

    And for this, he gets compared to Kogan? They’re not in the same ballpark, remotely. I’m not even sure they’re in the same sport.

    Sorry dude but there’s 1001 other reasons to be mad at the SF Weekly. Expressing boredom over a Blackalacious album which was, in my humble opinion, extraordinarily bland in all the ways (and more) that Garrett expresses…that’s not one of them.

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