Everett True

PhD research: Neil Kulkarni on the role of the music critic | ESSENTIAL READING

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Pauline Kael

As you’d expect from Neil, quite some answer. (It isn’t a competition, though – not this time.)

What is the role of the music critic?

A qualification – I know you think of yourself as a music critic Everett but I don’t think you are, or rather I don’t think what you do can be circumscribed in that ‘role’ (i.e. a set of behaviors/obligations attached to that job) – music criticism is just part of what you do. I think you’re a writer first and foremost – you might reject that as too faffy/romantic but that’s the way I see myself, a writer who for the past 20 odd years has written almost exclusively about pop music. Why? Because pop made us, molded our consciousness and the way we look at ALL art. All a ‘critic’ does ultimately is critique – a writer does that and a lot more.

I’d say most of my ‘critical’ heroes: Pauline Kael, David Thomson, Orwell, Bangs, Reynolds, you, Taylor, Pricey, Lucy Cage, Frances May etc are writers I like to read writing about anything – s’just that they’re all kinda monomaniacally focused on a particular art-form – crucially though you get the sense with all of them that there’s a life going on behind that analysis, a life that itself has to negotiate and find space around that obsession. THAT ASIDE THOUGH – & finally to answer your question I’d say the role of the music critic is to try and use language to be as beautiful/light/dark/intense as the music they’re describing and to be as honest about their TOTAL (physical, mental, stylistic, psychological, political) response as possible. Anything else ain’t music criticism, it’s a needy attempt to be part of the party. Music criticism has little to do with ‘reportage’ or journalism per se: it’s about being able to hear something, then let the thoughts flow down from head heart and soul and out thru the fingers. You should write how you talk – if that means occasionally sounding like a right pompous/pretentious cunt so be it. The best writers are the ones where you can spot/feel their voices within a matter of a phrase or sentence. The ability not just to make words stick to a page/screen but give them a sense of life, make them walk and talk with your own spirit – s’tricky and the best music critics have always done it. I’m not sure that qualifies as a ‘role’ (and it’s certainly not lucrative) but it’s the only way to stay the right side of the angels/sanity in this shittybizness.

In what way are power relations around traditional taste-maker critics changing from print to web 2.0 environments? Were these power relations around traditional taste-maker criticism already changing before the advent of web 2.0 environments? 

Always reminded of Brecht: “There are times when you have to choose between being a human being and having good taste” & Genet: “To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance” – I’m dubious about feeling like a ‘taste-maker’, if only cos my reverse-Midas touch usually ensures a band’s demise/disappearance, if only cos some of my favourite pop hacks have gloriously always refuted notions of ‘taste’ (or set up their own inversions of those canonical hierarchies). Also the best writers never come at you like they’re talking DOWN to you – s’always like they’re talking across to you, assuming a certain level of smartness, or at least making you feel like it’s gonna be fun catching up with where there heads are at. That’s not a ‘power’ relationship, it’s one of sharing an experience of music and refusing to dumbdown or condescend either to yourself as writer or the reader, maybe kicking a few doors ajar onwards to other music/books etc – that relationship changed in the mid 90s when suddenly the pusillanimous pie-chart wielding ABC-terrified (both in circulation figures & class-group senses) cunts who ended up owning pop writing started frantically worrying about what ‘the kids’ wanted. Dual twattishness – underestimation of the readership from the same people I used to see backstage at festivals sneering about the crowd out front (without realising that the way kids talk about pop is usually sharper/faster/funnier/more-brutal than anything someone with a wordcount & deadline can normally come up with). I’d say the power-relationship you refer to has entirely collapsed now but it started along time ago in the 90s when the whole music industry (press/pr/labels) were in retrospect massively unprepared for how technology was gonna tear down the structures/strictures they were so comfy in.

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