This was written in 1999. There has been some improvement in music writing since then, but problems persist. One publication that consistently does a good job of covering and reviewing new music is the experimental electronic music magazine Grooves.

The Problem with Rock Critics

I realized that my indifferent feelings about the Rolling Stones' latest tour reflect how I feel about rock music in general, and especially most rock music criticism. Rock is now about 44 years old. No wonder it now seems no fresher than Dixieland must have seemed in the early sixties.

It seems any variation possible within the rock genre had been done by the mid-1980's. Get too innovative or wander too far afield and the music is no longer considered to be rock. Almost everything that seems fresh now derives from post-rock genres such as hip-hop, techno and industrial music, or from influences outside rock, including various international musics, lounge/exotica and experimental music.

These post-rock genres require a whole new way of listening to music. Melody and harmonic structure are relatively unimportant. The musician's technical abilities and personality are almost irrelevant. The important quality is the artist's ability to develop interesting sonic textures by combining and layering found, played and synthesized sounds, rhythms and music. However, it is not surprising that using time-tested compositional techniques to balance continuity with variety is still effective.

Music critics in the mainstream media and established "lifestyle" publications have mostly been clueless in understanding this musical shift. Their over-emphasis on lyrics and musician's personality has rendered them unable to appreciate significant artists whose work is primarily instrumental, while causing them to drool all over mediocre verbally-oriented artists such as, say, Liz Phair. This also explains why Beck, with his folk-rock roots, is the only post-rock artist to get a significant amount of attention from these old-school critics. Of course this blind faith in the cult of personality and the never-ending quest for a "New Dylan," "New Sex Pistols" or even a "New Madonna" is encouraged by the corporations that sell us the music since it makes their marketing efforts that much easier.

Music writers too often lack the understanding and vocabulary necessary to adequately describe the new music and technology. They should take a few tips from classical and jazz writers and learn how to create written descriptions of sounds rather than simply express their first-impression attitudes towards the music. They also need to make the effort to learn about the tools that artists are using. It's time for publications dominated by these old-school critics to make room for more open-minded writers capable of understanding and describing innovative new music, not just musical personalities. It's not impossible to describe and evaluate instrumentally-based new music, I've seen it done well, most consistently in musician-oriented publications.

On the other hand I must admit that my personal shift away from music rooted in the artist's ability to express his or her personality verbally is influenced by the fact that the lyrical expression of intense feelings and opinions, especially by people in their twenties, no longer seems so profound to me as I've grown older and more skeptical.

Every genre of music demands a different set of criteria for judging quality and most people won't go to the trouble to try. I make a point of investigating new music and trying to get an understanding, but quite often my first reaction to something truly innovative is negative. Since 98% of everything is crap it takes a while to find the good stuff. But isn't it the critic's duty to help listeners find their way through the manure pile to the best and most important music, new and old?

How to find good music on the radio in the San Francisco Bay Area

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