Monday, January 22, 2007

Everyone's a critic....

Literally, according to Brian Raftery of, in an NPR story by Jacob Ganz from January 5 with the headline "Voice Music Poll Undermined by Internet":

"I feel like it makes a little more sense for an online property to be doing this," says Brian Raftery, an editor of, a blog in the Gawker media network. In November, Idolator announced a critics poll of its own, to be called Jackin' Pop. Raftery and his co-editor Maura Johnston -- like many bloggers -- both work from home. In a Manhattan cafe, just a dozen blocks away from The Village Voice offices where Harvilla will put together Pazz and Jop, Raftery argues that the web has changed the very nature of music criticism.

"I think right now the world of music criticism -- whether it's blogs or alt weeklies or newspapers putting their stuff online for free everyday -- the day to day, hour to hour metabolism of talking about music is only found on the Internet," Raftery says."

Of course the Village Voice poll referenced in the headline is Pazz and Jop, long the pet project of Robert Christgau, fired from the Voice after the paper changed owners. The article continues:

"Robert Christgau, who says he will vote in both polls this year, has been a witness to that change. He's seen the critical establishment grow from just a few dozen writers into a new world where everyone with an Internet connection can sample the music of the day and post an opinion on it. When everyone's a critic, what's the point of a critics' poll?

"Has the Internet made the rationalization of critical opinion easier? Not in my opinion. I don't think so. Because there's simply too much for anybody to digest. You need gatekeepers," Christgau says."

So on the one hand you have Raftery's "day to day, hour to hour metabolism" and on the other you have Christgau's "rationalization of critical opinion." (We'll ignore the "gatekeeper" comment.)

Never mind that the edge had long dulled for the Pazz and Jop poll, long before Al Gore invented that new fangled interweb thang. (Admittedly, last year's Pazz and Jop, topped by Kanye West, had a few curveballs, including both Astor Piazzolla and the Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman reissue Song X topping Shakira's Oral Fixation Vol. 2.) Never mind also that Idolator's poll, oddly titled Jackin' Pop, is as dull and predictable as music polls in general are these days. If Jackin' Pop is supposed to represent some sort of blogger revolution, it's a dismal failure. The greatest thing about the music blog universe is the proliferation of unusual, outre, under-distributed and underground music. The Jackin' Pop poll reads pretty much exactly as one would expect any major media poll to read. (Although it is interesting to disaggregate Jackin' Pop's demographic, perhaps one very effective tool at the "rationalization" of critical opinion that doesn't require a "gatekeeper," just a pull down menu. For example, by age, the under 30 voters have Clipse, Joanna Newsome and Ghostface Killah in the top 5 albums, the over 40 voters pile it on for Dylan, Springsteen, Dixie Chicks, etc. Cross reference at a glance to media outlet: newspaper critics? There's Dylan and the Dixie Chicks again (admittedly with Clipse and Ghostface Killah in the top 5 as well). Alt.weeklies? TV on the Radio, baby. Finally, blogs? Almost identical to the top 5 albums selected by writers under 30. Draw what conclusions you will).

The point is that Christgau has a point. There is too much to digest, even poking around simply in the tiny internet realms of creative improvised and composed music, let alone the entire field of jazz. Entirely by accident, I've stumbled on orgasmic encomia about Chris Botti shows and strange claims referencing recently deceased Michael Brecker as the greatest tenor saxophonist since Coltrane. I've read essays by the children of jazz greats (Professor Darius Brubeck) calling into question the legacy and artistic integrity of geniuses such as Ornette Coleman. (Whose 2006 release, Sound Grammar fares thusly on Jackin' Pop: invisible except for voters over 40, who placed it at 16). I've waded through jaw droppingly passionate 60-comment firefights waged between musicians, critics and onlookers over the musical merit of figures like Bill Dixon, who, no matter his uncontestable brilliance is virtually unknown to the general public. The sea of words swells every day and it does sometimes feel...indigestible. Comment strings are howlingly funny sometimes, simply idiotic at others. (Witness someone named simply "jazzlunatic" responding with typical internet bluntness to Taylor Ho Bynum's guest post at destination-out, for example.)

On the other hand, I have grown fond of Raftery's "day to day, hour to hour metabolism." In the short time that I've been checking into jazz and so-called "free jazz" blogs, I've had many eye and ear opening experiences. But what the NPR article neglects to mention is the impact of the audio blog, the MySpace page, any and all internet outlets where the music itself is instantly accessible, without middleman and with a minimum (or complete absence) of critical opinion. The most amazing resource is the mp3, certainly. Who needs a music critic when you can download the music yourself and simply listen? This alone has changed the nature of music criticism. Let's say you've occasionally heard ecstatic murmurings about a legendary genius, but have never heard any music by him or her, maybe someone like Japanese madman Karou Abe He's out there (on the net I mean) and thanks to Web 2.0 you can hear him, see for yourself if the myths and legends are borne out.

Perhaps it's underground and already marginalized forms of music that ultimately will benefit most from the blogosphere. From this perspective, it's laughable that the NPR article makes a big deal out of a critic's poll on a blog owned by a media company challenging the supremacy of a critic's poll in the Village Voice.

The NPR article concludes:

"The Village Voice will release this year's Pazz and Jop in February. Idolator's list is scheduled to be posted today. Young acts like TV on the Radio and Joanna Newsom are expected to do well.

But don't count out the veterans. Asked to predict a winner, both Harvilla and Raftery picked Modern Times, the 31st studio album from Bob Dylan."

Let me guess: both Harvilla and Raftery are, like yours truly, over 40.

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