Friday, December 05, 2003


Ok, so Sam Chennault asked this of me on his blog:
"I was a bit distressed to find Oliver Wang recommending this article.

After reading the article, it seems to be your run of the mill nostalgia piece that uses seniority as a crutch and mixs in rockist cheap shots at celebrity/pop culture and a recommendation for the De Capo's Best of White Criticism guide.

Yeah, we all give credit to Lester, Greil, and the other inhabitants of the rock crit cannon...but I really think that now is one of the best times for music criticism. With the advent of file sharing, people's music vocabulary and their thirst for new and dynamic styles has increased ten fold. And the internet has really brought the democratization of music criticism. Sure, a lot of the criticism "published" on the web may be half assed and amateur, but different perspectives never hurt anyone.

With music criticism, I'd personally like to see (off the top of the dome) a new subjectivism; renewed interest in how, where and why people actually engage with music; and a further departure from formalism. There are a lot of critics/ journalist doing it and doing it well.

And Oliver, your piece in the Guardian was great. So why are you gonna let this bitch-ass 40-something (probably) try to demean the new(er) generation of critics?"

To which I can only say to Sam: I wasn't suggesting the Herald article was perfect or that I agreed with every single opinion expressed. Da Capo can get the gas face f'real though I didn't think the Herald article really said that much in support of it. But here's the reals:

I passionately disagree that music journalism is better now than it has been in the past. While I'm heartened by your positive attitude, as far as I'm concerned, much of music journalism, especially hip-hop journalism, is absolute garbage or at the very least, a lot worse than it should be. Let's count the ways:

1) Rap journalism has never been more toothless, irrelevant and in the pocket of industry as it is now. For a far more comprehensive and articulate explanation of why, I'd refer people to Jeff Chang's "Word Power: A Brief, Highly Opinionated History of Hip-Hop Journalism" in Steve Jones's Pop Music and the Press. He makes the excellent point at the end of that essay that after Biggie and Tupac were murdered, the Source's, Vibe's, XXL's, etc. of the nation had the opportunity to really confront their own value system and what they were contributing to hip-hop's community. Rather than step up and really start critiquing from within, most simply capitulated to the predominant values of the industry and most base interests of the culture. Investigative journalism and hard-nosed opinion-making in rap mags is all but dead - when it falls to the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone to research who killed Biggie and 'Pac while rap rags quietly tip-toe around it, afraid of pissing off the wrong people (read: potential advertisers) you've pretty much lit up a big neon sign that says "we just want to party and bullshit" and lost whatever mandate may have existed for them to actually be hip-hop's inside voice - both in terms of responsible reporting as well as serving as a consciousness.

And frankly, no one can convince me that the level of writing in any of these major mags is as good now as it was 5-10 years ago. That's actually across the board - from The Source all the way down to URB. If you just compare the generation of active writers in the early '90s with the current pool of talent, it's thinned out. That's not to say there's not great writers abounding, but it's fewer and far between and what you don't see are the kind of all-star staffs that places like Vibe and XXL used to field. I'm not remotely on some ego shit with this because I was never part of that earlier wave.

2) Meanwhile, over at the mainstream music mags, you have a lot of wanna-be hipsters trying to write on hip-hop without much of the knowledge base to really tackle it responsibly. Their criticism is long on style, short on substance which is pretty much the general problem with music journalism writ large. As the article notes, many publications have been cutting back on word lengths, aiming for sweet, short and snappy but it's come at the expense of writing that builds into something and is willing to get deep. While I appreciate economy as next as the next guy, what we're seeing is a generation of blerb-meisters on the rise while long-form essayism is all but gone. Call me old school but I think it's important to have writers who are capable of doing more than just breeze through 100 words of clever, snarky comments. I love reading Blender for its list festishes and what not but their review section just depresses me and having spoken to several of the folks who write for that section, it depresses them too. Now, everyone has seemingly followed suit, even the Village Voice.

3) The Internet has created far more opportunities for aspiring writers to find a venue for publishing - indeed, my early criticism came in the form of newsgroup postings even though I didn't think of it as "writing" or "journalism" at the time. To that degree, I am grateful that it exists to give many people the opportunity to channel their voice somewhere. However, as you note, much, if not most, of the writing online is "half-assed and amateur." What's lacking online in most cases is any degree of editorial input that would help guide and improve the writing that's out there. So yes, I agree, the Internet has helped to "democratize" the field (insofar as those with access are now being heard, but of course, this doesn't mean doodles for the population that still lacks access, namely the poor and people of color, surprise, surprise.)

4) I was talking with Joan Morgan yesterday b/c I'm trying to recruit her for the EMP conference next spring and she was sharing her observation that while there are more women writing on hip-hop today then when she got started in the late '80s, the amount of critical racial/feminist voices has actually decreased. I think this is immediately apparent when you survey the landscape. Definitely more bylines from women, but what's lacking is an active engagement - not to even mention critique - with the same kind of social issues and concerns that last generation's women writers really brought to the forefront in their writing. This isn't some "boo hoo, no one's talking politics anymore" lament for the good ol' days - I don't expect people to write about hip-hop in 2003 the same way they did in 1993 because times have changed. But is hip-hop (or rock for that matter) any less sexist and misogynistic or irresponsible? Hell no. Yet, with the exception of a few voices - Elizabeth Berry's Jay-Z piece for example - can anyone say there is a cadre of critical voices anymore as there were in the heydey of the Lisa Jones, Lisa Kennedys, Joan Morgans, Danyel Smiths, et. al. of the last generation?

I'm not say there's no good journalism and criticism being written - there are MANY writers that I have tremendous respect and admiration for who are slugging away everyday. But I think it is totally valid - whether you're a 40 year old rockist or a 20 year hip-hop fiend (of which I'm neither) - to say that the state of music journalism right now, sucks. Between the death of smaller publications that once provided some balance in the field (Option and Ego Trip, R.I.P.), to the conglomeration of mass media outlets over the last few years (hello Clear Channel!), to what Chang has called the "Blenderization" of writing styles, I really think we find ourselves in troubling times and I'm glad people are willing to call this shit out. It's not an unmitigated disaster but we - as writers - could be doing a better job of contributing writing that doesn't pander to the status quo (andI included myself as one of the guilty in that regard).