Music Criticism Has Gone to Hell

That’s the opinion of this Daily Beast writer, anyway–and he makes some good points.

Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients. Or an expert on cars who refuses to look under the hood of an automobile.These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music.  Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.

I’ve just spent a very depressing afternoon looking through the leading music periodicals. And what did I learn? Pretty much what I expected. I found out what the chart-topping musicians are wearing (or, in many instances, not wearing). I got updates on their love life, and learned whose marriages are on the rocks. I read updates on the legal proceedings of the rich and famous. I got insights into the food preferences and travel routines of megastars. And I read some reviews of albums, and got told by “‘critics” (I use that term loosely) that they were “badass,” “hot,” “sexy,” “tripped-out,” and “freaky.”

Continue reading.

Here’s my theory on why there’s been a decline in the quality music writing.  (1) Publications are suffering and aren’t willing to pay living wages to serious, qualified, trained music journalists anymore so they’re leaving the business; (2) Anyone can start a website that reviews music; (3) The number of critics (real and wannabe) is far greater than the number of paying jobs.  Many are willing to write for others for free just for a chance at being heard.  This isn’t always a bad thing–hell, I do it and people do it for me on this site–but overall it’s hard to advance the cause of music writing and criticism this way; and (4) We’re living in a celebrity-obsessed TMZ-powered culture where style trumps substance like never before.

Anyone wanna argue?


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

5 thoughts on “Music Criticism Has Gone to Hell

  • March 18, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    Well said from both of you. In the old days when I’d read Peter Goddard and think, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” I meant his opinions, not his musical knowledge. And the part about Harry Connick Jr. surprising J-Lo with an actual musical term…wow! He’s a skilled singer and musician, she’s a gorgeous, sexy woman and a so-so singer, and now we know why.

  • March 18, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    There never was a “good old days” when critics reviewed albums solely on musical merit. It’s always been a bunch of narcissists telling us how much better their tastes are then ours. Heck, Rolling Stone is an epic fail on this count.

    What’s really changed is that no one has time to read long reviews anymore so it’s all just soundbites, like fashionistas judging what people wore at the Oscars.

  • March 19, 2014 at 6:06 am

    I find music writing has never been very good (present company excluded of course). Hasn’t it always been the case that the paying jobs are fewer than the people that want to do it? And anyone with a photocopier at work could start a zine going back to the 80s. I find the real issue with music writing had always been: it’s rarely written by musicians. They end up writing about what they know; that’s often words (lyrics), fashion, gossip or social theory. The musician magazines (e,g.: Guitar Player) do better but their mandate is to usually focus on only one instrument not the whole album or artist.

  • March 19, 2014 at 10:36 am

    I agree that it tends to be pandering to the general population and spends more time concerned with celebrity-isms than actually delving into the music. And everyone who is writing is either a) a professional journalist who is afraid to say what he/she really thinks of the music or b) a blogger with an opinion trying to show how obscure the music is. Neither are really giving a review of what the music is really about. Always short, sound bites with great meta tags to get their ‘content’ noticed.
    I find very few honest professionals (except a few, maybe). They are afraid they’ll piss off some record exec. who is paying their bills or funding their comp music collection. Focus on who’s with who and the celebrity culture is more of what the people who buy POP music want to read. Most underground music has many journalists and writers and bloggers who champion the bands they like. They write from the heart. But they are few and far between. Where are the Lester Bangs when you need them?

  • March 19, 2014 at 11:12 am

    It’s a no brainer, music journalism pretty much died in the 80s. This is not a new issue. Music journalism is now fluf and positive based, nothing gets a negative review in fear of pissing off advertising labels. Look at the 100 plus reviews in Canada’s biggest national free monthly Exclaim! Find me one negative review. It is against policy.
    Pitchfork stood out by actually printing negative reviews and got a bit of indie street cred for doing it, despite the elevated hipster quotient.
    And yeah, much like more bands menas more bad bands, more writers follows suit…


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