What Ted Gioia Missed, and Absolutely Nailed

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You might have read Ted Gioia’s recent piece on The Daily Beast entitled “Music Criticism Has Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting.”  Gioia laments the current state of music criticism, arguing that it rarely includes analytical discussions of the music in the way that football commentators often include details of how a particular play or strategy works in their analyses.  He suggests that the bulk of music criticism is just focused on the lifestyle aspects of the music, which lessens the discourse, appreciation and understanding of the music.

While I do find much of what he says to be spot on, I do disagree with him a little bit, or find that he missed a couple things.  But, I also find that he absolutely nailed current trends in the way music is discussed and appreciated, and I agree with the negative consequences.

First, it could be that he is looking for the kind of criticism he prefers in the wrong places.  While quality criticism did appear in mainstream venues, as Gioia notes, that is no longer the case.  I don’t expect high quality criticism to appear in the pages of Billboard or Rolling Stone, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there.  It’s just harder to find, and may appear on little known blogs, independent or local non-profit publications.  Sure, it may not appear where it used to, but quality music criticism has not completely vanished, it just moved to a new address.

Second, it seems as if he feels that music critics no longer possess technical knowledge of music.  He writes that “In my teens, I could read smart, musically astute critics in many magazines and newspapers.”  He then goes on to list several long past critics who could either play or were versed in music theory.  While true, there are still many critics out there who are composers, players etc.  Kyle Gann, for one, is an excellent contemporary composer and writer.   This gets to my first point – Kyle Gann, and others like him – are not being published in the high profile and popular venues they once were.  But that does not mean they are not out there.  Many of the contributors to the small jazz publication in Kansas City are some of the city’s finest jazz musicians.  Do they appear on nationally syndicated tv shows?  No.  Are they out there and doing good work?  Most definitely.

Third, and where I disagree with Gioia the most, is in terms of the way he critiques the focus of lifestyle.  His piece reads as if lifestyle reporting is a new thing. He notes that the word “lifestyle” is a relatively new occurrence in the music.  While that may be true, that doesn’t mean that that type of reporting emerged at the same time as the word.  As my S.O. made me aware, Photoplay magazine, which began covering the movie industry in the 1920s, was all about lifestyle reporting, even if it may not have been referred to as such; lifestyle reporting is not a new phenomenon in the arts and entertainment realms.  I actually enjoy reading the JazzTimes features which show musicians in their homes and talk about their personal lives – it humanizes them and brings them down from the pedestal that critics often place musicians upon.  This may not be the kind of lifestyle reporting that Gioia critiques, but it definitely deals with the lifestyles of musicians.

Regarding the relationship between music and lifestyle, Gioia also writes that “For most people living in the world, circa 1920, music was embedded into their life, not chosen as a lifestyle accessory.”  I find this problematic, as he seems to be arguing that music is no longer embedded into the lives of the contemporary music audience.  I am swayed by Pierre Bourdieu who argues that judgements of taste and one’s consumption of music, or literature, or art influence and helps to form one’s lifestyle.  This is different than choosing music as a lifestyle accessory.   Sure, Bourdieu is talking about lifestyles in a different manner from the gossip reporting and lifestyle journalism Gioia critiques, but lifestyle is inseparable from one’s consumption of music.  For example, the aesthetic of punk music affects the lifestyle of those who make and consume punk.  Punk musicians and fans come from a particular social context where the music is the result of social practice and context.  Or in another example, my technical knowledge of music does not mean I do not have a lifestyle that is affiliated with the music I consume.  The appreciation and knowledge of music and lifestyle are not mutually exclusive.

But, I have to praise him for several things, most of which is his critique of Jennifer Lopez’s negative response to Harry Connick Jr. talking about the pentatonic scale on American Idol.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s classic….

I love when Connick asks Lopez, “What’s wrong with challenging America?”  And that, I think is what Gioia is getting at.  I’ve read critiques of his piece that basically boil down to: “It’s just another old guy complaining about how much better it was decades ago.”  While sure, I think Gioia’s piece can be read that way, he is absolutely spot on with his  argument that “The biggest problem with lifestyle-driven music criticism is that it poisons our aural culture.”  By devaluing the importance of understanding how music works and using that as a way to grasp and appreciate music, those who do so devalue those who do understand how music works.  As such, this also prevents people from learning more about music and helping them to enjoy it in new ways.  In short, current music criticism often fails to challenge America.

I got into a short lived facebook argument just prior to writing this post with someone who felt my technical knowledge of music and its history made me an elitist snob, therefore making my opinion on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” invalid.  It is similar to Lopez’s response to Connick’s lesson on the pentatonic scale: demonstrating a fairly basic technical knowledge of music made Connick a snob.  His knowledge and inability to be swayed by licks threatened Lopez and put her on the defensive and got in the way of her enjoyment of the contestant’s singing.  When most of the widely available music criticism is devoid of the kind of criticism Gioia would prefer, it does kind of dumb down, or assume that Americans aren’t smart enough or aren’t interested in knowing more about music.  By making gossip and uneducated surface level criticism the norm, demonstrating a knowledge – as Connick did – becomes abnormal and threatening.

And even though I differ with Gioia on a few things, this is where he is spot on.  This kind of criticism is dangerous, but, it is worth noting that it is not the only kind of criticism out there.  I think the answer to fixing the problem is not by having critics stop acting like gossip critics (which Gioia suggests), because that is asking too much.  As long as publications are willing to pay for that kind of writing, writers will take the gig.  The way to fix it is by seeking out and advocating for and praising all the good work that is out there, not by denigrating the entire practice writ large.

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