Friday, January 01, 2010


I think 2009 was the year I finally stopped caring about critical consensus. It was definitely the year I felt most distant from my “peers.” I clicked on Pitchfork dutifully every morning M-F, and at least four days a week was confronted with reviews of albums that meant less than nothing to me musically or sociologically. The same thing happened when I stumbled across a Slate piece or some random daily paper article trying to make me think and care about Beyonce or Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga (whose videos are frequently pretty awesome, but whose music has yet to be even half as good as the visuals that surround it). I was as disconnected from what the loudest critical voices were discussing with each other as I have ever been.

There was a time when I would have seen this as my fault, when I would have been upset with myself for not keeping up, when I would have felt like it was my responsibility as a critic to know what Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors (not to mention all the mainstream pop and country and hip-hop acts) sounded like. But this year, that didn’t happen. I finally internalized cultural atomization and the existential futility of generalist/broad-stroke music criticism.

When you try to go large-scale, you end up lost in a fog of platitudes and generalizations that offer no insight and may in fact impede real understanding of individual works of art. Art doesn’t fit into sweeping narratives. Each album or song must be taken on its own merits, instead of trying to contextualize it within a genre or, worse yet, hammer it into some imagined soundtrack to an equally ill-considered version of history.

The rewards of being a music critic are so low at this point – you don’t even get the free CDs anymore half the time – that trying to be an omniscient cultural arbiter only makes the striver look foolish and hubristic. Critics can’t make bands, and they can’t break them. It’s all just diary-keeping now. (If we're being honest, it always was.) Solipsism is the future – the ever-increasing use of the first person singular in reviews and even features is proof of this, and that’s a major psychological breakthrough every critic needs to make, soon. I’m comfortable with my tastes (metal, jazz and Latin music), but more importantly I’m at peace with my own insignificance. I know I’m having no measurable impact on the shape of pop culture. Technical death metal is never gonna top the charts, jazz is gonna keep selling jazz numbers, and Paulina Rubio is never gonna be as big as Shakira. And I don’t care. I’m just out here enjoying the music, and occasionally sharing my thoughts with whoever happens along. I hope my fellow critics will embrace their own insignificance in 2010. It’ll probably make their writing better.


floodwatch said...

Well put. It appears we both had the same revelation in 2009, but until reading your post just now, I had always assumed my lack of interest in the Pitchforksphere and whatnot was attributable to me simply getting older and out of touch. I used to feel bad about it, then realized that like yourself, I just didn't care anymore.

I can't help but feel pity for some of these up-and-coming bloggers and wannabe writers who genuinely think that they're going to make a comfortable living writing about contemporary music (usually hip hop) on the Internet, much less making some kind of impact in generating buzz about a band/artist.

"Embracing Insignificance" will hereby be my theme for 2010 - I hope you don't mind my appropriation.

Derek Walmsley said...

just saw this. Well put indeed. Lots of truth in this, and no reason to be despondent about it.

James said...

hey Phil, not sure if you've heard of this record label but they've been reissuing classic Aussie rock for the last few years. Thought there might be one or two things you'd be interested in.

However, the site is down at the moment, so use this link instead: