Music Industry Could Use More Informed Critics

By Rob Patterson

One panel discussion topic at this year’s South By Southwest music conference was “I’m Not Old, Your Music Does Suck.” Given my age and feelings about much of the new music I hear from young artists these days it was a matter I can relate to.

Before I go any further, I must first address a word that troubled users when I used it in a previous column: suck. As a rule for what I write here, I don’t use it. When I used it before, it was — as now again — quoting its use by others. Readers emailed me to complain about the term, decrying its use as a debasement of the language and in poor taste. I understand and, as a man of the language, even sympathize with such concerns. On the other hand, it is a part of the contemporary lexicon, and as such I will not shy away from it. My apologies to any that may take offense at it. But when it comes up as part of a topic for commentary, I refuse to avoid a common usage.

Now back to the matter at hand. The panel was oriented towards the music media, and some of its speakers were my peers as a music journalist/critic. When I first came across the topic prior to SXSW, I felt the issue could be better phrased as “You’re Too Young, And Your Music Could Be Better.” (It also avoids that hot button word.) Yes, I suppose at age 57 I am old, much as I try to deny. In spirit and consciousness, I still feel young, though not as young as I once felt. And that’s a good thing: I have the blessings of wisdom, perspective, experience and a knowledge base that come with the years I have lived.

I have written about music since 1976. Even before then, I was an avid music listener and buff ever since I got my first transistor radio for Christmas in 1959. As serious music journalism and publications emerged in the late 1960s, I voraciously read them. One of the panelists, Ed Ward, was someone whose reviews turned me on to some music I still treasure today. I’m proud that I was able to join the rock critic cadre and Ed became a friend and associate who has edited me and vice-versa.

One speaker decried the lack of “gatekeepers” in the music scene today: critics whose opinions in decades past had their part in defining how acts were perceived. Record company talent execs and radio programmers also served as what could be called gatekeepers. And with the plethora of music being recorded and released today, there are far less gatekeepers in the industry than ever. And also far fewer reliable critics that address and assess the quality, appeal, cultural relevance and content of the music being made. In the blog new world of music coverage, the aim now seems to be more finding and touting the latest trendy artists in a headlong rush to be cool rather than looking at music with a critical perspective.

But I never considered myself any kind of gatekeeper. Rather, I saw my role as a critic to be a reliable source of judgment on what I heard. And when something impressed me, I was more of a gateway than gatekeeper. But as a part of that duty — and I use that word as being any kind of cultural critic is a duty and responsibility — I look at music with a critical eye.

And an informed one at that. And what I find lacking in younger music critics and bloggers as well as many artists is a depth of perspective and knowledge. This was demonstrated when one of the audience members spoke to the panel about how the rise of The Beatles and other rock acts of their day knocked artists like Frank Sinatra off the charts.

Not true. In August 1964, as the British Invasion was booming, Dean Martin bumped The Beatles from #1 on the charts with “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.”

And in the days of Top 40 radio, even we young rock fans listened to and enjoyed Dino, even if he was the music of our parents. Even after The Beatles, Sinatra continued to be relevant and respected even if he didn’t rule the charts and the music world as he did in decades past.

Yes, we were young and full of ourselves and also our youthfulness. But as a gathering of my old peers after the panel discussed, the music we loved like The Beatles led us back to The Everly Brothers and Muddy Waters. It’s a process of discovering the originators and innovators and the revelatory music gems they created that I still pursue today. It’s music that enhanced the sounds created by my generation, and still enhances my life and my writing on music.

The issue I see today with much of the music I hear is that it is too young and driven by our culture’s obsession with youth and the newest and latest thing. But the artists who do reach back and learn from those who came before them are the ones that will endure.

It’s like what Sir Issac Newton said when someone asked him why he was such a genius. His reply? The reason he saw further is that he stood on the shoulders of giants. Too many young artists today ignore the giants that came before or fail to grok what made them great.

When I was young, we still looked up to the wise ones that preceded us. Today’s young musical creators would be better served to follow our lead.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2011

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