Dead As Disco

Lots of film critics have lost their jobs! And book review pages have been cut in papers all over the country! Music criticism kinda sucks! What can this mean? Why only that criticism is dead!

Okay, so maybe that’s a little much, but it’s basically what Patrick Goldstein says in the LA Times, joining a chorus of worriers about the state of contemporary criticism.

As [movie critic Leah] Rozen explains: “Editors everywhere have been affected by the influence of service journalism to the point where you find them asking why critics are going on at such length when all the readers really want to know is — should they go to the movie or not?”

Goldstein presents this as if it’s a problem. But isn’t that really what most people browsing the movie section of their local paper, or even flipping to the entertainment section in magazines like People (where Rozen works) want? And why shouldn’t they? For the vast majority of people, a Friday night at the movies is just that—and nothing more. Most people really don’t care about and have no use for lengthy dissertations about the ways in which Steven Soderbergh borrows from Godard. They just want to know whether to see Ocean’s 12! Playing blame the audience doesn’t work for music studios trying to combat piracy, and it doesn’t work for cranky critics who remain convinced they deserve $2 a word for 1) their insights into obscure movies few people want to see or 2) their complaints about Big Dumb Movies that everyone’s going to see anyway.

The flaws extend beyond film. In pop music, especially at top-of-the-food-chain publications like Rolling Stone, critics have a distressing tendency to pull their punches for leading artists.

In some ways, this is a legitimate problem. Music criticism tends to be pretty anodyne these days. Look at the left sidebar on the Metacritic film page it’s covered in yellow and even a few red squares – indications of lesser critical grades. Then flip over to the music page. It’s almost all green, with a few yellows mixed in. Surely, the quality of pop music isn’t that much better than the quality of popular film.

But where mass outlets like Rolling Stone have weakened their brew, new media outlets like Pitchfork have filled in the gap. In the early days, in fact, Pitchfork made its name on negative reviews. They’ve since broadened their tastes, but for a while, “elitism is sexy” was more or less their operating credo, and even now they remain unafraid of negative, even very harsh, reviews. Trenchant criticism hasn’t died; it’s just shifted venues. (The same is true of film, as anyone who reads Reverse Shot or The House Next Door knows.)

Meanwhile, I simply refuse to buy the argument that the loss of book pages and film-review jobs is a bad thing. Yes, it’s a bad thing for professional critics. Yes, it’s tougher for those lucky few thousand folks to make a living reading books and watching movies! On the other hand, the internet has actually created vastly more opportunity for aspiring critics to get their work read. The barriers to entry in top-end publications are still high, but those outlets are no longer the only options for critics on the make. So we’ll see fewer professional critics, sure, but we’ll also see far, far more criticism.

And yes, some of it will be bad. But on the whole, I’d guess that it will create a net gain in serious, thought-provoking criticism of just about every medium. Meanwhile, most of those truly elite outlets — the New Yorkers and the Washington Posts — are not going away. We’ll still have Lane and Denby and Edelstein to help focus our thinking. But we’ll also have the Cinetrix and Andy Horbal, and a million other voices and perspectives — an endless, well, web of ideas to inspire and challenge us. The fracturing of traditional structures of power and influence isn’t the same thing as death, though it may feel like it to some at the top. From where I stand, criticism isn’t dead; it’s more alive than ever.