by carl wilson

Forced to Write About American Idol?
Call Our Help Line Now


My imaginary big sister Ann Powers has an essay today in the L.A. Times that seems curiously unpegged - perhaps rock-snob readers writing in to complain? - but neatly sums up the pro-pop shift among music critics, a subject discussed in my book, as she kindly mentions. She describes it as the result of a kind of generational coming-full-circle: pop criticism begins as an in-your-face challenge to elitism; as time goes on, like any other field, it tends to develop its own elitisms, but that founding iconoclastic impulse always surges up from somewhere to dethrone them.

I'm not quite sure what point Ann's making by pointing out that artists like Steinski and Fleet Foxes are highly rated on Metacritic now - she seems to imply that the next generation yet of critics (the post-Pitchfork generation) may make its own stand by challenging the poptimists to a duel, but I doubt it. Even the most pop-loving critics also have their more esoteric loves, because we're still all, like, nerds. But from what I've seen, younger critics don't tend to remain anti-pop purists nearly as far into adulthood as I and many of my peers did - partly because our positions were affirmed/enforced by a self-conscious counter- (or "alternative") culture that doesn't exist in that mode now. Which comes with its curses and blessings, its liberations and its blinders.

At Creative Loafing's Tampa Calling blog, Wade Tatangelo intelligently speculates that the trend may be economically based: With the crisis of critical authority brought on by the Internet and the (also 'net-related) decline of newspaper sales, he says, critics are losing their jobs and those still employed are in more vulnerable positions: Maybe they take an interest in American Idol because they can't afford not to? There's something to that - I remarked in my book that unlike, say, an academic specialist, a working critic has to address a broad audience, and one who wrote only about the ultra-weird and never about the popular eventually would be out of a job. In the book I add "(rightly)", but it's debatable.

Certainly I know people who've been required professionally to review shows they wouldn't have volunteered to watch. Tatangelo says that a couple of years ago he quit a job rather than cover Idol - and that he's not sure he would feel emboldened to make a similar move today.

But wait, imagine a film critic who proudly resigns his job rather than write about a popular movie or genre of movies - say, movies based on comic books. Would we think that guy was a hero, or kind of an asshole? Wouldn't we point to great film critics who have written favorably or unfavorably about blockbuster popcorn flicks and found insightful aesthetic and social analyses there? If you're being told what to say by your editors, that is cause to make a stand; if you're being asked to cover a major phenomenon in your field, that's the job, bucko. Granted, in the more flush past of newspapering, you'd probably have been able to slough off lower-status assignments to the junior critic, and today there usually is no junior critic. And nothing against Tatangelo making life choices that make him happier. But there's a boon to critics being pushed out of their aesthetic habits to observe what's happening out in what remains of the mainstream - it gives us the function of conducting that cross-conversation about common cultural objects that those lamenters of the semi-mythical, semi-extinct monoculture say they miss.

Whether we jumped or were pushed, then, the shift towards pop actually helps answer the substantive question of what professional critics are for, not just the marketing one. Ideally the "end of criticism" could be more like the end of thumbs-up, three-stars-out-of-the-crab-nebula reviewing (or rather its migration to the amateurs and Metacritic) and the renewal of engaged cultural journalism.

That sounds rather over-saturated in rosy hues, of course, but see for example my colleague Robert Everett-Green's new series in response to the fooforaw over the reduction of "classical" music on CBC Radio 2, where he takes a step back and says (in chorus with this weekend's festival at Harbourfront, about which more later), well then, "What is 'classical'?" (and whatever it is, why is the government obliged to provide it a radio station?).

It's a superb corrective that makes me very glad Robert's back from his couple of months on leave - but it's also indicative of the value of the pro-pop realignment: I wouldn't call Robert a "poptimist," but as someone with an extensive high-culture background and leanings, he probably wouldn't have had the same perspective if he'd been born a generation or two earlier; as it is, though, he (like, say, The New Yorker's Alex Ross) is able to appreciate and advocate for music in all its messy, unpigeonholeable, crosspollinated complexity. If you're for that, dial in and press "2."

General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, July 27 at 4:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)



Hey Carl et al.,

Weirdly enough I've been in hospital with a now-removed, inflamed gall bladder and missed this whole thing. I'm happy to see my piece caused some discussion. One thing though, and I think this happened partly because of the piece's headline (which I fought against!) -- "Pop Critics Embrace the Mainstream"...

I meant for the main point of my piece to be that pop critics are both innate contrarians and creators of taste hierarchies, and that these tendencies haven't abated even though we now more happily write about mainstream subjects. I'm amused/flummoxed by the fact that the hipper-than-thou attitude that once invaded our writing on esoteric subjects now seeps into what we write on the most accessible of mass culture. We are still "bratty by nature" (the headline of my piece in print) and mean to each other -- even moreso, maybe, now that the blogosphere has allowed for low-level exchanges, though I'll also say that none are quite as visceral as Stanley Crouch punching out Harry Allen in the Village Voice offices back in the day.

Carl, you wrote a whole excellent little book on this very subject basically.

I agree that it's in critics' best job-security interests to take up pop culture right now; what's intriguing is how hard it is to create a new language that really suits the mainstream, to get away from elitism and into some different kidn of head. Anway, points to ponder. I'm still at half-mast health wise so I hope this response isn't just dumb. But again, glad my thoughts stimulated great responses across the board.

Your sis (Susan Dey to Danny Bonaduce?)


Posted by Ann Powers on July 31, 2008 7:07 PM



Nothing like discussion of the CBC to kill a party.

Posted by zoilus on July 31, 2008 3:31 PM



@schmatta: Oh yeah, don't get me wrong - I have very little confidence (though a smidgen of hope) that the CBC's going to get the Radio 2 overall right. Naming things like "Jann Arden" in their advertising for the changes precisely shows the way that they've missed the point (as some of the Radio 1 changes have the past couple of years). I agree entirely that their job is to serve content and populations that aren't commercially served, and that they shouldn't be pandering but expanding the minds of their audience in a way that an advertising-dependent broadcaster can't do.

However, I think the "let's defend classical music" crowd has shouted down an intelligent discussion of the CBC's mandate - how it can be made a more multicultural, cross-generational version of the CBC's intelligent, critical, wide-ranging tradition. It seems to me like that version of the CBC lasted from the 60s to the 80s and that it's been completely confused about itself ever since. The classical advocates' snobbery and ignorance about the other under-exposed forms - along with some of the anti-classical types ignorance about Canadian composition, for example - is all to the bad. There are a few programmers for the new shows who are trying to make a difference, but am I really optimistic? No. I think it'll be a mess. But then hopefully they'll fix it and find someway to move forward without falling apart.

(And the first thing they should do is reinstitute Brave New Waves, which did everything they say they want for twenty years, with precious little help from CBC executives.)

Posted by zoilus on July 29, 2008 3:02 PM



the radio 2 debate. (robert everett-green's series)

the hoohaw over pop vs. classical at cbc radio 2 misses another, i think, bigger angle on what's happening. it's not just the high art vs. low art argument. it's about non commercial - non mainstream vs. things populist and (automatically) accessible. that is the more profound tension in the network's renovations - and panic to be 'relevant'.

i thought, perhaps naively, that our public broadcaster was set up to serve the public good. and part of the public good is to enlighten and entertain. to present art and music and culture that doesn't appeal to commercial interest. that can't find a 'buyer' (western classical music included). a mandate to bring our own culture (as widely as possible), and 'the world' to canadian tax payers/stakeholders. to serve the public good.

people can't know what they don't know. you know. they can't be informed or turned on if they aren't exposed to it anywhere (and i'm sorry, but its not on the internet in any coherent way). it's a great and vital service of a civilized and progressive society, acting through its government - to help them find out. that is worth paying for.

this kind of mandate used to let in new music, pop, and 'other' categories. there used to be room for challenging stuff. (brave new waves, two new hours, radio 3). there also used to be smarter classical programs. but management doesn't want anything to sound too smart. that's alienating, you see. friendly and fluffy and fawning are the new tones.
so, expect even lighter classical fare (in whatever remains of the classical category) in the fall. and a blanket of familiar songs, in familiar and safe styles. no matter what the cbc says about 30 000 songs that never get played on radio - they're certainly not going to go out on a limb and dig into the variety available. they cancelled all the programs that used to delve. it's a great big beige blob that they're building. and a lot of it is being programmed into black boxes and organized into unwavering and repetitious playlists.

i also think it's worth mentioning that radio 2 was supposed to be for ALL canadians - not the narrow 35-49 demographic that EVERYTHING on the new network is aiming for now. and the cancon quotas for the new shows will give anyone a rash.

i don't think any of this is good for culture. our culture.
its not about the death of classical music for me. its about the death of an intelligent, conscientious public service.

Posted by schmatta on July 29, 2008 12:24 PM



I don’t totally buy poptism. There is a vast amount of pop music in the world – and in the cities where music critics make their living – that is simply ignored or dismissed in exactly the same snobby, rockist way that it always has been.

It’s one thing for Billboard chart pop music to be given careful consideration on its own terms, but what about Bollywood, or Hong Kong pop? Once you get away from Soundscan, there’s a hell of a lot of popular music around that doesn’t get any kind of consideration from critics. Why does a critic’s choice have to be between the latest North American best seller and some tiny, grassroots band, when so many other mass cultural subjects exist?

With wavering consumer confidence in North America and Europe, and booming economies in China and India, how long is it going to take for entertainment providers to wake up and realize that these are more attractive markets? How long will North America and Europe be seen as the top of the entertainment food chain, when hundreds of millions of emerging consumers represent a more lucrative growth opportunity for major labels, internet media and motion picture studios? And it's not just "over there" - how does this interface with the substantial Asian populations in many North American and European cities? What does the crossover look like?

Are most North American entertainment critics/media outlets looking for angles on this larger, multi-faceted, and extremely pop phenomenon or are they busy trying to get the jump on yet another power pop band that won’t even sell 10,000 copies of their CD or play a show for more than 500 people?

As an example, though not strictly musical, the Toronto Star has increased its Bollywood coverage in the last few years. The biggest motion picture industry in the world is no longer treated as an exotic niche – especially when Bollywood movies are usually in the top ten grossing movies each week in Toronto. Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan are considered stars, period. Advertising and coverage of South Asian events seems to have increased dramatically. The value of this audience is a key driver of this increase, kudos to the Star for tapping in to a huge market which is underserved in Canadian mass media. Britain's mass media is much futher ahead on this score...

“The renewal of engaged cultural journalism” doesn’t have to be a rosy, optimistic prediction. If most North American critics are blind to/unwilling to or unable to cover new manifestations of mass culture, then it’s time to hear from new voices who can chase those crowds and write about these issues.

That said, if these issues can be somehow be reduced to star ratings and top ten lists then everyone's happy. People love to argue about that shit the world over and editors know it.

Posted by dacks on July 29, 2008 9:00 AM



Isn't the whole pop-high culture/low culture argument completely moot by Bob Dylan/Simon and Garfunkel, who quote both? As far as commercial pop (Britney Spears et al), it's not so much the monolithic stature that creates the monoculture, as it is the niches working together under the same ideological push (to sell pop, clothing, concert tickets and cellphone rings in one thirty-second extract of a 3:30 pop song). By and large, realizing that music itself is so finicky, the unconscious machination of the monoculture has brushed music aside as an affectation attached to the larger monocultural objects (cellphones and iPods).
It's wildly simple McLuhan on this one- the monoculture is not defined by the item we use the media to discern, but by the media itself, which, again, would be iPods and cellphones.

That and television shows continuing to be letterboxed, despite the aspect ratio of a standard television set.

Posted by Matt Collins on July 29, 2008 12:07 AM



The critic's role, for me, has always been to seek out and explain new trends. This implied an advocacy position. What's going on? What is good? I agree with the poster who asked how it is possible to write intelligently about some pheenom who is replicating Mickey Mouse Club pop. What position can a critic honestly take? Does that performer's audience care what some critic thinks? Will anyone else be convinced to look at some dead thing with fresh eyes? What's the point?

Posted by Half on July 28, 2008 9:46 PM



Without particularly addressing any of your larger points, I'm dubious about the film-critic/music-critic comparison, if only because there's so many more CDs released than films. That, in turn, means that more specialization is, from the outset, theoretically more possible (and that it's theoretically possible for a film journal's critics in a major city to see nearly every film released, whereas no one would dream of contemplating such a degree of completeness with every album released, much less every song). I certainly think it's true that if you want to write for a relatively mainstream print outlet, you can no longer be picky (if you ever could - my brother-in-law had one music-reviewing assignment whose editor insisted that if he was going to compare the artists under review to other artists, those other artists had to be extremely well-known - my brother-in-law joked that everything had to be compared to Elvis, Dylan, or the Beatles). Perhaps the question is: what is the critic's job? Is it to express a positive or negative review of the cultural object in question, to provide a "Consumer Guide" (speaking of Christgau)? Or is it to engage, in various ways, with what that cultural object might mean to people? Unfortunately, especially given the shrinking space available in mainstream media for any sort of reviews, it seems increasingly as if editors (and casual readers) would be satisfied with a mere grading of the material (a practice I find lazy and reprehensible, FWIW).

Posted by 2fs on July 28, 2008 8:41 PM



@blackmailismylife: No one's denying that there are celebrities that everyone knows and shows that are popular across a broad middle demographic. However, I think we're aware now that for most people those things are a secondary part of their cultural lives and there are other aspects, whether ethnocultural or subcultural, that are more important and personal to them. "Monoculture" by its nature - mono, one - denies that. You can't have "some monoculture" just as something can't be "more unique." The monoculture was always a myth. It was just a myth that a lot of people believed in. Believing in it now is an extremist position.

Posted by zoilus on July 28, 2008 4:23 PM



@maura I guess what I meant to say is that there's still plenty of monoculture to go around. If it weren't so robust, maybe we would've been spared "Two and a Half Men."

Posted by blackmailismylife on July 28, 2008 6:09 AM



This is a complete non-sequitur, but you mentioned Fleet Foxes in your post, and I just saw them yesterday at the Capitol Hill Block Party. I saw them two or three years ago at this same event playing on a side stage and thought at that time that they had potential. I've also seen them at least one other time since and enjoyed that show too.

But this show yesterday was really breathtakingly good--a testament to the jaw-dropping power the human voice singing in harmony.

Even if you're not sure how you feel about the record, take the opportunity to see them live. It was far more worthwhile than I expected.

And to try to bring this back at least a little bit to the actual subject of the post, if pop leaning criticism is helping to make it safe for indy rockers to sing in tuneful 4 part harmony, I'm in favor of that.

Posted by j-lon on July 28, 2008 2:19 AM



It's not unpegged; it's part of a package about the collapse of high-low cultural fences. (There are a couple other pieces as well.)

Posted by Matos W.K. on July 27, 2008 10:49 PM



my only fear is that taking people out of their element and forcing them to write about something with which they have no experience will probably just result in the same few sentiments (positive or negative) repeated ad nauseum. while we might luck into a few innovative observations from that approach, we more often get a forced and patronizing "maybe the other side ain't so bad after all (in small doses)" conclusion.

that said, i'm all for critics who cover every genre to some extent, because i'd rather read reviews of sci-fi, for example, from someone else who isn't a crazed sci-fi aficionado, but can recognize the good from the bad. whether any good actually exists in American Idol is the more pertinent question. sometimes i wish i was less passionate about music, so i could write about it better (more objectively, i guess, whether academically or cynically).

Posted by allana on July 27, 2008 8:40 PM



but the pageviews you tout come mostly from coverage of music-related celebrities, no? your jessica simpsons, your britney spearses, i.e. people who are covered by tmz. also, i mean, if you work for a portal site, you're benefiting from something similar to the always-desirable "aol effect"; your content is there by default. which means that trainwrecky topics like simpson, spears, et al are

i think as far as what *music* people actually listen to, and i'm not talking about the subjects tackled by the likes of us weekly and tmz here, there is less of a monoculture than ever before. lil wayne and coldplay are pretty much the dead cat bounces that prove the rule. even the jonas brothers and miley cyrus are popular in a niche, the radio disney one. and they just happened to blow up in a popcultural sense because the "teen idol" niche is one that people have looked to as a bellwether for cultural trends a lot in the modern era.

Posted by maura on July 27, 2008 8:06 PM



The Internet did it. I spend my workweek programming the music channel of a large portal site. If I even tried to introduce new, but well-known artists (Hi Coldplay!) to my audience, they will simply ignore them. In retrospect, I was foolish to abdicate 'Idol' to our TV team. Their 'Idol' blog totally kills and our audience connects with that coverage deeply.

More to the point, this audience doesn't care much for music period, so it behooves a critic to peg their coverage to things people do pay attention to, like TV.

By the way, 'what remains of the mainstream' is pretty silly. Contrary to Xgau's belief, the monoculture still exists. If you don't believe me, I've got the pageviews to prove it.

Posted by blackmailismylife on July 27, 2008 7:42 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson