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Consolers of the Critical

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Consolers of the Critical

The statement in the press release regarding the new Raconteurs album, Consolers of the Lonely, was telling in its word choice—the album’s quick recording-to-release turnaround was designed so no one party would have the “upper hand”—but the quote wasn’t attributed directly to Jack White. I assumed it came from him because it’s consistent with his twitchiness and his authenticity fetish, but I suppose it’s irrelevant exactly who made the statement; what’s significant about it is the hardline defensiveness it reflects.

While I can’t say that it’s an attitude that’s entirely on point with regard to the broad critical community (the underlying competition among the most high profile music blogs to stay several months ahead of an arbitrarily defined curve, which I would speculate is the source of defensiveness here, really came to a head during the pre-release hype for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s first album and has only been scrutinized further thanks to Black Kids and Vampire Weekend), I also can’t say that it’s entirely unfounded. There is a definite impulse, as Ann Powers wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week, to be first, and a corresponding empowerment that accompanies it: Whether or not any one writer wants to admit to it, I like the idea that one of my reviews may have an impact on even one of the few people who read them.

At least for me, though, the more salient point that Powers makes is that good criticism is about furthering a conversation, about why a particular piece of work is enduring, how historical and cultural changes influence our perceptions of artistic value, or how something fits into a broader context (and the phrase “the context mafia” is dead-on). Criticism, when done well, isn’t just a matter of approving or disapproving of something, or of building “hype” for the explicit purpose of riding out the even-more-fun backlash a few months later. What the situation with the Raconteurs does, then, is expose exactly where the machinery breaks down: Writers feel increasing pressure from the PR side to have a statement (preferably a good one) ahead of release date, with the hopes that enough good “buzz” might somehow translate into better sales. Artists like the Raconteurs and Trent Reznor, however, feel that there’s something inherently dishonest with that process, in that it isn’t about contextualizing their work but is, instead, about music writers comparing dick size. Neither party, in this case, is wrong.

That said, I do think it’s worth noting—which Powers doesn’t—that there are far more instances of artists who have been the subject of significant “hype” within the critics’ community whose albums (both those that seemed commercially viable, like Anniemal or Arular, in addition to hard-sells like I Am a Bird Now) that have moved literally tens of units on their release dates. Anyone looking at music writers, either the print or online varieties, and their hype or their backlash as some kind of arbiter of broad-based influence is misguided.

Personally, it’s a tough balance. I like to think it would be easier were I not also juggling a full-time “real” job and grad school, but I can’t say for certain that it would be. I try to stick to street-date deadlines, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t rather spend an extra two weeks on most everything that I review to see if I have something more substantive to say about an album like, to pick one at random, the Punch Brothers’ Punch. To a similar end, I’d also be in favor of doing away with star ratings altogether; I’m already on record about how I feel about Ebert and his thumb and the set of expectations that go along with them. And I think the Raconteurs’ position reflects not only a reasonably well-justified defensiveness, but that same judgmental-thumbs perspective of what a good deal of current “criticism” offers: a consumer guide that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the content or the context of what’s supposed to be art. If they’re rejecting that, I can’t say that I blame them.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.