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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Tunespoon: The devil’s pitchfork

Music criticism ruined music for me.

When I was younger I sought the best music out there. Google led me to Pitchfork.com, which offered its bright, shiny opinions. I trusted them. As uncomfortable as Animal Collective’s obnoxious yelps and screams made me, Pitchfork told me that this was the best new thing to happen to music at the time. My opinion assimilated to theirs.

I listened to pop through their cynical headphones. “Fireflies” by Owl City? Psh, that’s a cliched, emasculated moan of a Postal Service rip-off (I was in sixth grade). I looked back at my old playlists. KT Tunstall? Norah Jones? No, not anymore. I was a new kind of music consumer — a smart one, getting the most value for my allowance dollar — and my impressionable brain would only seek out the best.

However, I soon found out that music criticism’s criteria of best and worst are subjective. One of the most unbearably written and produced records I’ve ever heard, How to Dress Well’s Love Remains, proudly holds an 8.7 on Pitchfork. The review addresses everything I hate about the record — its unintelligible lyrics, soulless warbling falsetto, drenching-wet reverb, lazy melodies — as something to appreciate as different and original. I realized that something was up; there was absolutely no merit to How To Dress Well’s music. For someone else, it was a beautiful, ethereal listening experience.

By the time I was in high school, I consumed music like a competitive eater, taking pride in the sheer amount of music that I bought. But I owned jewel case upon digipak upon slipcase of CDs half-listened to — artists’ work treated with the utmost disrespect of mere cursory attention. My heart broke when I picked up Cat Power’s Jukebox and could only name a single song from it. I was purchasing Pitchfork’s and Spin’s and Metacritic’s recommendations at a too-fast rate. I subscribed to their opinions so fanatically that I had none of my own.

What a burden to maintain my musical identity. I absolutely had to stay above the mainstream… oh God.

I was one of those people. A snob-in-denial corrupted by the devil’s Pitchfork.

Last summer, a much hyped band, FKA twigs, dropped their critically acclaimed debut LP1 to laudatory adjectives like “irresistable” (from The Independent), “euphoric” (Consequence of Sound) and “singular” (Resident Advisor). The album sorely disappointed me. And that was OK. People having their own opinions is a beautiful thing, but no one has the right to brainwash another’s mind. From then on, I strove to master my own opinion.

Now that I’m older and capable of attempting to master my own brain autonomy, I see music criticism as utterly useless. Criticism is the evaluation of the merits of an artistic work. It’s an ever-expanding universe based on human opinion, a troubling concept in itself.

Unlike literary criticism, where a plot hole or out-of-nowhere twist is undeniably poor storytelling, a musical non-sequitur is often billed as “brilliant” or “experimental” (e.g. every Deerhoof album ever). Unlike video game criticism, where glitches are always unwelcome, glitchy and buggy music is “the future” (Aphex Twin, anyone?). Unlike film criticism, where cliches of the past rarely rear their obsolete heads outside of campy homage, many serious artists thrive on the days of yore (Foxygen’s ’60s, Daft Punk’s ’70s, Haim’s ’80s, Jessie Ware’s ’90s).

Quantifying a musician’s art with an arbitrary number rating or letter grade belittles the soul put into it. Even rating-less high accolades are harmful because that pressures the artist into that genre, rendering any aesthetic change dangerous, career-threatening territory (like if John Green exclusively wrote tween cancer dramas). Bad reviews are caution tape, warning many potential listeners to stay away; one man’s trash becomes everyone’s trash if that man is a music critic.

I won’t flog anyone for following a music journal. They might be the best way to discover music outside of the front page of iTunes. Acknowledge, but do not slavishly follow critics. They hold an unwarranted stake in the industry; they are theives whose only asset is their sense of taste. Your sense of taste is just as valid, just as meaningful and just as correct.

Your opinion gets a 10.0 from STEVEN ILAGAN. Share it with him at smilagan@ucdavis.edu!



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