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The End of Rock Criticism?

By Wil Forbis


Anyone who runs in the same hip circles as do cultural elites such as myself knows that rock music criticism has a long and storied history. As a genre of journalism it stands alone, unabashedly combining hedonism with intellect, bombast with meditation, and ego with egalitarianism. Its originators --- authors such as Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau --- made a concerted effort to forge a writing style that was vibrant, opinionated and dramatic; so much so that it made other forms of artistic criticism --- theater/movie/TV reviews etc. --- look stodgy by comparison.

The explosive nature of rock writing can make it hard to digest. I can't count the number of times I've arrived at the bottom of a review with no idea what the author thought about the music. And the goals of rock criticism have often been unclear. During the 60s, when the first rock critics crawled out of the primordial soup, rock music itself was about upending many of the hierarchical rules and assumptions of mainstream society. With that in mind, how could one apply terms like "good" or "bad" to music?

Nonetheless, rock critics did; you could label them many things, but they were never relativists. Conventional wisdom in critical circles forcefully argued that the Velvet Underground was better than the Beatles, that Nirvana was more important than Guns-N-Roses. In this sense, the goal of rock criticism was the same as any form of criticism: to guide the common man --- an individual overwhelmed by the innumerable products that the age of manufacturing made possible --- to a product worthy of his attention. Rock criticism existed to steer you towards the good, and away from the bad.

A question inherent to the entirety of rock criticism (and for that matter, music criticism) is why do we like the music we do? This question is tackled by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in his recent book "This Is Your Brain on Music." After discussing the construction of the brain and the tools it uses to "digest" sound vibrations, he offers several criteria our brain uses to decide whether or not music is pleasurable. These include...

  • Consonance/dissonance
    As children, we prefer pretty "consonant" melodic intervals --- the octave and perfect fifth being classic examples --- to ugly "dissonant" intervals like the tritone (utilized at the beginning of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze.") Indeed, the hearing portion of the brain --- the auditory cortex --- behaves differently depending on whether a consonant or dissonant interval is sounding. However, an appreciation for dissonant intervals, like those found in heavy metal and modern classical music, can be learned.

  • Familiarity/complexity
    We prefer music we're familiar with. (Babies even show a preference for music that was played to them while they were in the womb.) But, as the saying goes, "familiarity breeds contempt." Eventually we get sick of things we're too familiar with --- food, people and even music. We want the challenge of music with added complexity. But music that's too complex, as 20th century atonal music is for much of the human population, also turns us off. What we really like is music that offers a nice combination of the predictable and unpredictable.

  • Contextualization
    Songs tend to represent ideas that have nothing to do with the notes or rhythms used in the music. There's nothing inherent in surf music that speaks of surfing culture, but when we hear surf music, waves and bikini blondes come to mind. And we use music's contextualizations to define ourselves. If we consider ourselves antiestablishment, independent thinkers, we will tend to gravitate towards music that has been popularized by subcultures that represent those values.

Of course, these sets of criteria do interrelate. Dissonance in music often corresponds to an aggressive contextualization (e.g. free jazz or punk or metal.) Consonant music sounds more familiar. We can't completely separate any one criteria from the rest.

Do rock critics use these criteria to judge music? Well, they don't discuss consonance/dissonance much, though they occasionally laud the harshness and difficulty of dissonance. (Lester Bangs was a big fan of garage rock, a style known for its melodic and tonal dissonance.) Discussion of familiarity/complexity is also only occasionally touched on; the conventional wisdom being that "simple" music which does not follow an intricate set of hierarchical rules is better. (Punk and pop = good; neoclassical heavy-metal and prog rock = bad.)

Critics do focus on contextualization. They largely panned hair-metal because it was hedonistic and they don't like hedonism (at least the ego driven, misogynistic version of hedonism espoused by bands like Van Halen and W.A.S.P.) In the 1970s, they lauded punk because it purported to be about overthrowing existing social structures, a philosophy most rock critics support.

So how effective has rock criticism been over the past 30 years? It's not without its victories --- there are certainly bands and pieces of music that would not have received attention if not for the advocacy of music journalists. But we're all aware that there's a disparity between music that is popular and music that is critically acclaimed. (This is true in film, literature and art criticism as well.) Why can't rock critics convince more of us to like the "right" kind of music?

A rock critic has one main tool at his disposal: the argument. For an argument to be effective it has to utilize objective logic. (Few critics would get much traction writing columns like, "Well, I like this, but it might not be your cup of tea.") Unfortunately, as argued by "This Is Your Brain on Music," the enjoyment of music is a subjective experience. It's dependent on each person's toleration for dissonance, each person's level of familiarity with music and music styles, each person's sense of complexity and each person's contextualization. And these things cannot be argued away using logic. Our taste in music is a lot like our taste in food. You can't convince someone to like the taste of peanut butter if they don't. (This may not be entirely true. If you fed someone peanut butter while stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain, they might come to find peanut butter tasty via its association with pleasurable sensations. The same thing sometimes happens with music. A person hates reggae, but goes on a vacation to Jamaica and has such a good time that they start to associate reggae with that great vacation.)

Now, many rock critics realized this long ago and much of what's called rock criticism is less about argument and more about discussion. Nonetheless, this does imply a failure to achieve the goal of guiding people towards music they will like. To some degree, technology is attempting to capitalize on this failure. Software tools like the Amazon Search Recommendation Engine and Pandora recommend or play music they think you will like based on what they know about your CD collection or what you've listened to in the past. I've found the Amazon Engine on target about half the time, but that's better shooting than an untargeted advertisement or the collection of music reviews in Rolling Stone. (I've never used Pandora.) It stands to reason that as technology improves --- as it better understands the fickle algorithms our neural circuits use to process musical taste --- such software applications will only get better.

However, I don't think we'll ever replace the rock or music critic (though you might be able to replace the paid critic.) The truth is, a lot of people simply don't have much taste in music. This is not to say they're morons, but simply that their antenna for music is not finely calibrated. In the old days, when the record industry was producing only thousands of records per year, these people sought guidance to find the best music of the moment. In the modern MP3 era, where the democratization of music has caused a tsunami of sound files, these people are close to helpless. But, just as the Internet engendered the amateur musician to create a product competitive with professionals, amateur critics now abound. (It's getting to the point where we may need critics of rock critics in order to filter out the mediocrities.) As the demand increases, so too does the supply.

And there's a reason for that: people like hearing the sound of their own voice. (No one knows this better than I do.) Some might na´vely presume that rock criticism exists to serve the public, but that would be incorrect --- it is subservient to the critic's ego. The rock critic, perhaps more than any other type of critic, is driven by self-aggrandizement. (I suspect the best rock critics would have no problem with the statement.)

This explains the difference between the critics' rock music and the public's rock music. Whether they're consciously aware of it or not, critics are using a subjective framework to judge music good or bad, just as the public does. And their primary goal with this framework is not to educate or inform, but to create pretty words on a page. Towards that goal, the needs of the music listening audience will always take a back seat.


What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email -

Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.



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