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Beyond the Echo Chamber

16 January 2006

Every December/January, during the period when so many writers are looking back at the year that was, I come across at least one article which asserts the same thing, partly in jest: That there’s a tried-and-true method to the critical madness, that year-end list-making is governed by unwritten rules and equations. It’s always important to be wary of group-think, so the general approach taken by these articles – being critical about critics – is something I find worthy. Yet the articles themselves always bug me to no end, mostly because of one assumption that they share: When critics like music that no one else has heard of, it’s because they’re trying to impress you with how cool they are.

A recent article of this type was Philadelphia Weekly’s “Critical Breakdown” by BRIAN MCMANUS, a ‘translation guide’ to year-end lists. It’s funnier than most, and does make a few timely jabs at the level of agreement among critics, albeit without acknowledging that sometimes critical agreement might be a sign that the album really was noteworthy. But again he dismisses lists where the critic chooses albums that few readers are likely to know about, categorizing those ‘sleeper’ picks as albums which no one else knew about for good reason.

But what purpose does music-writing serve if it isn’t to make you learn about new music, or at the very least rethink the music that you’ve already heard? Isn’t it more useful to read a list of 10 albums that you’ve never heard of—all of which the writer sincerely thinks are fantastic—than to read one more list of the same 10 albums that you already know are supposed to be ‘important’? My whole lifetime of reading music publications has been all about discovery. You read about music you’ve never heard of, and if it sounds enticing to you, you check it out. That’s the supreme purpose of a music magazine, as far as I’m concerned. [Wait—you mean that mags aren’t for music writers to show how much cooler they are than everyone else?! -ed.]

With the rise in blogs and other Internet publications, there’s more places, for someone with a computer, to read about music than ever. Couple that with daily newspapers and mainstream magazines covering a few indie-label musicians that years ago wouldn’t have been given the time of day (BRIGHT EYES, for one), and it seems like a relatively democratic time period, when ears would be open to lesser-known indie-label bands. So why does the world of music-writing still often feel like an echo chamber, driven by the machinations of hype and PR?

During Slate’s recent ‘Movie Club’ roundtable discussion among movie critics, the critics brought up a similar topic about film reviews, the way that readers often complain when critics recommend smaller films that they hadn’t heard about before. JONATHAN ROSENBAUM writes, “When people in such places bitch about any of us critics writing about movies they haven’t seen, what they’re really saying is that the only new ‘information’ they find permissible is some form of advertising.”

The worlds of film and music are quite different in terms of how new works are advertised and distributed, yet the basic idea Rosenbaum expresses is pertinent to the music industry as well. How an album becomes well-known could only be summarized by some complicated equation that takes into account radio, video, the Internet, magazines, record store displays, advertising, and more. But it’s so important, for writers and readers, to not just pay attention to the labels, musicians, and publications that scream the loudest, or can afford the loudest megaphone.

So much of the music that means the most to me found it way to my ears almost against the odds, minus the help of big money or hype. It’d be a real shame if I steered clear of proclaiming those bands’ greatness for fear of being labeled a snob or thought of as someone who likes unknown bands just to seem better than everyone else.


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