When I started this column in February of 2018, my goal was to give a platform to music I loved that didn’t get much attention. What this looked like was unclear in part by design. The team here at Oddball Magazine thought I was a good writer they wanted on their staff, and has pretty consistently pushed me to expand my scope and style without pushing me in directions that hindered my growth as a culture critic, and the success of that has only been mitigated by how I sometimes tie myself down to an outlook too much. Now, in October 2020, I have changed my outlook on not just how I write, but what I’m trying to write and why. This shift has already begun, but I want to make clear what my purpose is, because it is in stark contrast to much music criticism in the last few decades.
Music criticism has never been great at getting across why you’d listen to a song. As I discussed last week, it’s harder than ever to find music you like so curators could be a great resource to the curious, and while radio DJs have expectations that undercut that, music critics should be able to be curators more easily. Some genres have these — examples include Metal Injection for metal, Fistful of Vinyl for folk punk, and Pitchfork for people who talk about how Thom Yorke is smart without any illustration of it — but they’re all written for people who already know why we listen to these things. Music criticism in this day of ubiquitous access to music and minimal guides through it, must demonstrate why this music is worth listening to in the context of a shared experience broader than it’s subgenre. It is well understood that rap and outlaw country are different representations of a similar lifestyle, and that premise used widely can create cross pollination beyond “Old Town Road”.
Fear of engaging with material is rampaging through the whole medium of non-fiction. Historians descend into gladiator pits to deny the subjectivity inherent in reducing years to sentences and political commentators deny Tom Wolfe had any valid point in blending political and personal lives. The mask of objectivity is so compelling to these writers that they glued it to their face, and all their life experiences are projected onto whoever they’re writing about. When you enter art criticism, music suffers from this the most. Television, film, and books have narratives they can analyze, but such is not a given for the music critic and as albums decline concept albums do too. Music is therapy, every musician will tell you this, and we as critics should assume the role of therapists — listen to the sometimes difficult to connect ramblings that we get out of our 50 minutes of them and make sense of them in the way someone outside their minds can parse.
And we still do this, sometimes. The whirlwind of analysis that erupted around Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” and Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” demonstrate the writers today are capable of transferring the more emotional analysis they dedicate to overviews onto a single song or album. I still don’t understand why “WAP” was the centerpiece of cultural analysis this summer, but it certainly was and my hat is off to Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B for finding a way to strike a nerve with vulgarity in this day and age where it’s nearly impossible.
But these pieces are rare because in our splintered culture the vast number of scenes that are now detached from any physical location are hard to wade through. Our culture has been splintering for decades and I’m in favor of that, but we also need to make clear paths between them. Cultural icons whose shadows are cast across our whole society are growing fewer in number, I’m unsure even Taylor Swift or Beyoncé have the cultural cache to have hit songs referencing them 50 years later, as Maroon 5 proved Mick Jagger had in 2010, although they certainly have earned such power.
It’s not shocking or controversial to say that social media has changed information transmission irreversibly, and the time for resisting it has passed. Communication as wide and vast as the internet has become has been chaos thus far, and the digital utopianists of the 80s and 90s have turned into technocratic authoritarians like Elon Musk, but now that we’ve all seen sides of society we never would have before, we will not forget them and trying to is simply engaging in denial. And while changing what our outlets look like are inaccessible to a foolish young woman who gave up on HTML at eight years old and instead took up the pursuit of how numbers make you feel, I can do my best to change what information gets thrown around in this chaotic nightmare, and I’m gonna die trying.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.