Where is the criticism?

One of the reasons why I began writing my music journalism course was because I became totally and utterly fed up with the poor standard of music journalism one tends to find around the place. But it transpires that lack of critique isn’t limited to music.

As I found through Lisa Dempster‘s tweets today (3 Dec 09), the lack of real critique, in Australian media at least, is also a problem where food critics are concerned.

Lisa highlighted Stephen Downes’s article on Crikey, titled Dishing the dirt on food critics. One of Downes’s comments, which I find particularly pertinent, is this one:

Reviewers are supposed to be reporters, and by its very nature what is written on editorial pages is believed by readers to be unbiased, independent and unaffected by anything other than serious-minded fact-finding and analysis.

In any criticism – music, food, books, film, whatever – this notion of independence and lack of bias is absolutely essential. One of the issues about music journalism, and especially metal music journalism, is that many publications and websites are populated by writers who are fans of bands, and who are not objective enough. While good critics are taken seriously, they are quite literally few and far between.

Some people might be inclined to suggest that ‘serious-minded fact-finding and analysis’ is impossible regarding subjective opinion. But, really, it isn’t. As I wrote in part  four (101 d) of my music journalism course:

you need to approach your evaluation of a band’s performance with a certain professional distance. You have to analyse, judge, interpret a performance through a range of criteria.

Knowing what the criteria are is, in itself, a fact-finding mission; it is also a very serious-minded, analytical process. Regardless of whether you critique film or theatre (which is where I began writing critique), books, food, music, or anything else, you can never do a good job of things until you have this perspective firmly in hand.

I was curious to see Downes’s article, because, to be perfectly honest, I had never given food writing a great deal of thought – beyond, of course, the usual ‘wow what a difficult job to do right’. In all cases, a critic has to be fully prepared for backlash at an honest review – as Lisa herself found when she blogged about Melbourne’s Lord of the Fries. You can read all about the waves her writing caused here.

Downes makes some incredibly valid points about criticism in general (ones with which I agree and talk about often), despite his article being geared towards food journalism. Here is a small sample:

There are several factors that account for this relentless positivism. First, it’s far easier to gush than to criticise.

Second, food journalists who enthuse are, generally speaking, more attractive to big publishers and editors than real critics.

Third, and of greatest concern, is a growing chumminess between some food critics and the people whose work they are supposed to be independently assessing.

I agree wholeheartedly with the first point: gushing is easier to write, and to maintain, than is serious analysis. Similarly, music journalists who enthuse are always more attractive, especially if it is regarding major label, mainstream releases. The last point is also a concern in music: there are particular majors who will wine and dine journalists to get them to change their reviews. I know this because of I have friends who do, or have, worked at major labels. I refuse to disclose who or what this concerns; suffice it to say that criticism of any kind is not always the clean business that people think it is.

The other concern that Downes points out is that, increasingly, food journalism is seen as ‘publicity’. This is also the case in music; the more reviews you have of a release, the greater that publicity for that release. One of the key roles of a music industry publicist is to engage with journalists and editors to get their labels’ material reviewed, on time, when it needs to be – when it’s of greatest import to the label and the artist. Priority releases get talked up and reviewed first, others can (or should, perhaps) wait.

But this point is one that I found particularly interesting:

Because I am banned from one of the restaurants in which Adam D’Sylva cooked, I thought I should ask if I’d be shown the door at Coda. Initially, he couldn’t make up his mind. He’d had so much good publicity already, he said, and he and his partners really wanted only good publicity. He used the word ‘publicity’, by the way, not ‘review’ or ‘assessment’, and he knew of my career as a professional critic. He wanted to talk with his backers, about it. I said I’d ring him back in a couple of days to learn his decision. We spoke by phone a few days later. He said that he, personally, would love to have me in.

But his backers, Sportsbet, were nervous about it and had decided to ban me.

While one doesn’t see this type of banning in music journalism – at least, not so obviously – it happens in other ways. Although technically illegal, ‘pay for play’ (as it’s known) is when a publication’s content is driven largely by the wishes of that publication’s investors, sponsors, or major advertisers. It does happen. It happened to one publication that I used to write for, which is why I moved on: my work stopped being published, despite the hard work I put into it.

The role of critic is one that isn’t taken seriously enough in Australia, in my opinion: either by those who want to “be” a music (or food, theatre, film, or book) critic, or by many of those in major positions who publish it.

Australia needs a stronger culture of critique: not just to drive grassroots improvement, but to regain – especially for the public audiences – a sense of reality in whatever field the criticism takes place.

What do you think about this? Is criticism something that isn’t taken seriously enough?

5 thoughts on “Where is the criticism?

  1. I couldn’t agree more, I wish that there were more honest critics being published. There is nothing worse than spending money to go and see a show, or eat at a restaurant having read the reviews, to find that the write up was nothing like the reality of your own experience.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Di! It’s a shame, isn’t it. As soon as marketers realised the internet could be gamed, it was. Maybe it’s an opportunity to rethink business models for such work, and find a profitable (and enjoyable for all parties) method of making honest critique available.

      But also, I think, much depends on the curators and editors. And that’s a much trickier proposition.

  2. I’m exploring “payola” in my thesis on rock journalism in Australia and it seems like payola is embedded at nearly every level…those in the know are aware that criticism is basically non-critical and when it is critical, they tend to think there’s some behind the scenes machinations to produce that result too. The cancer killing grassroots journalism has all but metastasized in Australia and it’s really a pity.

    1. Yes, that’s what makes me sad. Real criticism gets looked at askance as much as pay-for-play criticism. And the flipside of this is that if the critic writes material that isn’t to someone’s tastes, then people get more offended than they ought to be. I live for the day when indie critics like myself get some real recognition.

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