Cover of STOP ME IF I’M TALKING TOO MUCH: On Music Criticism

Ah, shit here we go again. 

I’m thinking about Ohio, where I was born but haven’t lived since 2013. I am often thinking of Ohio—where I was born but haven’t lived in since 2013—just as I am often thinking of the music and writing that made me in my youth (which I am arguably still amidst). Ohio is the Midwest and allegedly, so is Chicago, where Fall Out Boy, my favorite band as a teen, is from. Though the guitarist, Joe Trohman, also grew up in Ohio prior to moving to Chicago where he would join the hardcore sphere but grow weary of its rancor, and join together with some other guys in the scene to form a band within the much maligned genre of pop-punk for a little respite. Was Fall Out Boy my absolute favorite? It’s much cooler to say Hole, especially now that Courtney Love has largely been rehabilitated in much of the public’s eyes. No one’s accusing her songs of being written by Kurt Cobain because do teens even listen to Nirvana like that these days? And you know what? I do believe Olivia Rodgrigro (and/or her team) directly referenced Hole’s seminal album Live Through This and more specifically, the second track, “Miss World.”  Courtney’s reaction was a bit harsh but who could blame her, as a person whose work has been continuously minimalized though heavily referenced? Maybe I’d rather be wrong sometimes or even often, than to let my contributions be misattributed to an inferior successor or imitator, like the way Azealia Banks remains on the defensive. I once spent a better part of a year analyzing her as a person yet not enough, still, as the artist. When she said, “they do that shit to fuck with us,” on Hot97 and she talked about holding on to hip-hop for her life I wondered if everyone was willfully misunderstanding her. I mean regardless, I was dancing to the “Big Big Beat,” and crying to “Soda.” And I said it first, about the treatment of her in comparison to Kanye West (whose current beliefs aren’t so shocking if you go back and look) to the founder of a Tastemaking Music Publication over a pile of coke in an apartment in Williamsburg with a best friend. Some months later when the Tastemaking Music Publication ran an article about the treatment of Banks in comparison to West with a byline that wasn’t my own, I swallowed a lump in my throat because coincidences happen, true. It’s all for the best because some of the shit Azealia be saying, I don’t cosign. So it’s water under the bridge. I’m sure he doesn’t even remember. I hardly do. 

When the degrees drop into the low sixties and it becomes just cool enough to wear a turtleneck, I’m listening to Astral Weeks. In an office in the Financial District, the wall comprised of large windows is overlooking the water and the sun is warming. I’m alone so I’m reading about Astral Weeks or rather I’m reading on Astral Weeks again, which means I’m back to Lester Bangs. You might say his writing was bad and I suppose you’d have a case. He was flawed to be sure, such as his propensity for humor that hinged on homophobia or misogyny or when his frank vulnerability staggered into self-pity. Sometimes when reading his work I wonder, was he just trying to piss people off? (Yes, how juvenile). And what the fuck did he have to be so angry about? Young, white, and a man in the 1970s? Was the emergence of disco really that unsettling? But when he was right, he was right and when his writing was good it was incendiary. Like “On Astral Weeks,” in which he positions the album as “proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction.” Or his article The White Noise Supremacists, which showcases the open and underpinned racism of the New Wave movement, still relevant to white dominated cultural arts scenes in New York City. 

I describe myself as an essayist who at times, writes about music rather than a music journalist or critic. But it was through music criticism that I first envisioned a career as a writer after encountering the likes of Bangs and Cameron Crowe. Experiencing their work as a teenager brought me out of the notion that my chasmic love of artists and the desire not just to know, but to understand the songs that I coveted was not a solitary affair. In the winding essays, with sentences that ran too long because there was a desperation not to end before the point was made, I saw my own obsession reflected. I could tell these writers too, spent entire days nestled over a favorite album, rewinding their favorite snippets which allowed them to refine their arguments in favor, defense or against a particular work. As Jessica Hopper writes in her 2015 essay collection, The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Critic, “It’s behavior that comes from an inextricable soul-entanglement with music that is singular, boundless, devoured, celebrity and willfully pathetic.”

The fact that music writers were called rock critics regardless of the genre being covered, points to the then supremacy of the wayward child of traditional blues. Though music coverage was never exclusively white or male—both in its subjects and curators—it certainly was dominantly so, like many sectors of the arts. The aughts brought us poptimism, which, with the guidance of writers like Kelefa Sanneh, encouraged serious inquiry and analysis of all music but especially the maligned areas like the women dominated pop landscape and hip-hop. “Guilty pleasures” were out and instead, thorough explorations as to why any song was gratifying (or not) were in. 

There have always been writers and publications filling the cultural voids left in spaces more dedicated to prioritizing white voices and art (think Ben Fong-Torres for Rolling Stone, and publications like Jet and Black Music Magazine). There wasn’t simply a dearth of nonwhite writers who suddenly came to the forefront in the new millennium but rather it seems more mainstream brands and publications turned to look around, noticing what was already happening in other sectors and, perhaps in a cynical view, realized that covering a plethora of genres could be profitable, particularly when noting the decline of rock bands topping the charts. 

I don’t mean to undercut changes made in favor of inclusivity or to diminish the significance of widening perspectives and opportunities within an industry notorious for its closed gates. But I’m wary of positioning marginalized writers as course correctors of history with the primary aim to set the record straight and save criticism from its assumed white self. To position nonwhite (and non cis male) writers as interlopers, we reinforce the notion that whiteness is the norm and the standard. Culturally we are interlinked, with subsets moving along, against, and in spite of each other not in isolation. Moreover, it’s showcases the limitations of DEI measures, where magazines, like other industries, may enlist the voices of the other in times they deem needed but dispose of them when the optics are no longer crucial, profitable, or marketable. 

In the pages of Rolling Stone, Creem, The Village Voice, and NME, gonzo/new journalism—or memoir/personal essay if you’re a woman—which utilized first-person experiences to contextualize their works was ushered in. The celebrated voices of the past were sometimes working with better pay or at least some pay. Importantly, there were  a variety of outlets that published not just music criticism but longform writing with an internal structure intact of editors, fact-checkers in addition to writers. All of which have become increasingly less viable especially for emerging and unestablished writers. 

Lauded or detested, Pitchfork, which began in 1996, is likely the first publication to come to mind for most people when thinking of music journalism and criticism in the 21st century. In the time since I began working on this essay, Condé Nast announced that Pitchfork will be folded into GQ. What this means exactly seems unclear beyond the layoffs of Pitchfork’s editor-in-chief, Puja Patel along with numerous other staffers. I never wrote for Pitchfork but read it frequently. In researching any artist or music adjacent topic, an article published in Pitchfork usually found its way bullet-pointed into my notes. The publication generated buzz for new and established artists, particularly those deemed indie, though the distinction of that label was becoming increasingly murky. It also became known for its criticism style with irreverent, biting reviews. Some might accuse these reviews of haughty assuagement, only marginally interested in the discussing work at hand (this style was of course in the fragmented legacy of Bangs who in turn, was following the leads of the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Truman Capote). 

While much criticism may be warranted,  more than reviews were run in Pitchfork such as Doreen St. Felix’s internet breaking essay on Rihanna’s “Bith Better Have My Money or Jayson Green’s revealing feature on the nostalgia-industrial complex in music led by Hipgnosis Songs Fund or Sunday Reviews described as an “an in-depth look at a significant album from the past” not already existent in the site’s archives. 

It’s rare to enjoy every piece of work by a single writer let alone an entire publication. In the moments after encountering a sentence that reads as false or incomplete I concede to my own judgements, understanding deeper my own perspective. Or perhaps, I find my beliefs foundationally altered. I’ve often suspected Pitchfork’s biggest critics were more incensed by the ratings, ratings next to reviews—a system I found unnecessary, as I find all rating systems—than the actual writing. Who now will be the foremost receiver of ire for disagreeable album reviews? With its seeming dissolution, we are losing yet another space of scrutiny and curiosity. 

These mass layoffs come after what was deemed as the Hot Strike Summer of 2023. Many of the companies responsible for shuttering publications or certain verticals and eliminating jobs are the same ones who have retaliated against employees for criticizing Israel and the United States for enacting genocide against the Palestinian which has intensified since October 7th but is part of a much longer history of zionist occupation. There is a clear vested interest in limiting cultural discourse exhibited not only by the disposability of writers in the United States but by Israel’s intentional attack and murders of Palestinian writers and cultural workers.


What’s the point of music criticism, anyway? Ed Sheeran wants to know. Pointing to the wide availability of music, Sheeran recently told Rolling Stone that people don’t need reviews, they can make up their own minds by finding a song and listening to it. One can question the ease of “searching” as the tools we’ve relied on for instantaneous discovery such as Google, are increasingly less effective. Yet, Sheeran’s declaration does emphasize a few common concerns.

First, he showcases the tension between the Critic and the Artist, the dance between the creator and the judge who scrutinizes and draws conclusions based on what authority exactly? The derision between musicians and critics is about as old as the forms themselves and embodied in the love/hate/respect relation between Lester Bangs and Lou Reed. The power within in this dynamic may depend on the level of fame and esteem garnered by both parties. Often it is the Artist with more brawn. The Critic is presumably a fan as was the case of Bangs who fervently admired Reed which is why he also saw it his duty to admonish the rock pioneers when necessary. But it is the Artist who takes the risk by setting forth a work for public consumption and evaluation, they’re not just talking or writing about it, they’re doing it. 

Of course, the Critic is also a creator of some sort. If they’re at all decent they take into painful consideration not only their subject but the form that will contain their subject. No one sets out to publish a bad essay anymore than a person strives to put forth a bad album. Perhaps Sheeran can’t be blamed for a dismissal of an industry to which he has been victimized as a punchline, a glowing effigy of the ills of poptimism (though with the blurring of music criticism with public relations, he has also undoubtedly been supported in his path to multi-billion streams).  When a few sneering writers don’t reflect the general populist’s intake of an artist, do their opinions hold much stature? 

Which brings us to theme two: everyone—and I do mean everyone—is a critic. However, not everyone is a writer and even fewer are there writers being read. I suppose the operating logic is why listen to an opinion when there are so many viewpoints to be heard? For me, the answer is in the question. Many people—and this is point three—don’t love the idea that their own thoughts and opinions can be altered or even influenced by others (ironic, considering how much the influencing industry thrives). Some of these people may be still advising their peers to “wake up sheeple!” sadly enough. While music reviews can leave a reader with an impression of a song or album that may influence their decision to further engage the artist, its sole purpose isn’t to assign good or bad. For that I suppose we could look to rating systems of stars, grades, and 0.0-10 scales that are often made outside the control of a writer. Though easily screenshotted and shared to convey a work’s general reception, rarely do these metrics reflect the writing’s examination beyond “stream or skip.” 

Reviews and essays decipher artists’ intent as the writer perceives, often illuminating the writer’s position themselves, for better and worse. If a song is unsuccessful the best reviews don’t merely state it as fact but assess the conditions that led to failure. Articles that surpass the general summary of press releases in marketing packages, convey the vitality of the piece and decode the precise components that make a work worth listening to. Effective criticism locates the music and its artist’s milieu, observing how it relates to the cultural present as well as the past. It inquires, even if it can answer, a work’s functionality and aim. 

“Not just a life of the mind but a life in the mind, perpetually observing one’s own responses,” as Parul Seghal writes for the New Yorker. Selfishly, yes, it is the expulsion of whatever compels someone to comment even when it seems no one is there to listen. Yet, crucially it is also the engagement of others.

For years now, we’ve seen the structural collapse of many media outlets. While most of this is a result of greedy corporate overlords, the general malaise of capitalist and post-capitalism et al, I wonder if there is a small portion that is all of ours to own. There was an earnest acceptance of so-called critiques that gave much air time to “cancel culture”, “(anti)woke”, and “culture wars.” There was an isolation of writing thought of as a given rather than explorations of collective power. After news of Pitchfork broke I saw publications and editors post about their music writing opportunities—more than one were from places or people who had ghosted me on written pieces or ignored my emails. 

I offer this not as a petty gotcha but as a reminder of the better respect we can all afford each other. I am not without culpability. Earlier I stated that I’m not a critic but an essayist who covers music and culture. Now I wonder if such positioning is one of cowardice and ego. Distance allows me the benefit of measured critique yet siloing myself prevents connectivity necessary to cultural community. 

A thriving cultural lifeforce is a threat to an imperialist state. This is evident in the US not just in mass media layoffs but in this country’s commitment to undermining civil rights movements. The importance of criticism, of thought, of inquiry, of art, and expression can be grimly seen in the actions of Israel which specifically seeks to extinguish the lives of Palestinian voices who reflect a robust network of art, thought, commentary, and philosophy within their traditions. But Fargo Nissim Tbakhi’s Notes on Craft: Writing in the Hour of Genocide urges against the passivity of catharsis and witness much writing, including my own can be susceptible to. This catharsis can be found in the vague use of imagining and hope without action. There are fermenting prospects that offer alternatives to legacy publications and traditional career routes. It’s not just that a new way is possible. It’s the only way forward. 

When writing from the imperial core, it’s difficult to discern at what points connections drawn between struggles and peoples threatens to subsume rather than uplift. And yet, I rather be wrong in an attempt, than to ignore what a global devaluing of culture and arts implies for us all.  


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