June 18th, 2003

OK, so I know I’m late getting to this, but it’s all Barbara Flaska’s fault. I rely on her to hip me to this stuff. And then she goes and doesn’t blog for like a week and I’m cut off from the world of music criticism. Please don’t abandon me any more, Barbara.

Anyhow, she’s back, and she points us to the difficulties critic Phil Freeman has been encountering for having had the audacity to write an actual piece of music criticism. That’s right, Phil panned the new Metallica disc in the pages of Cleveland Scene, and he’s getting bashed in the skull for it.

You’ve gotta read the review first and then scroll down on Phil’s blog to see what happened (it’s in a post from June 6). Absolutely absurd. I’m certainly not someone who sees eye-to-eye with Freeman on music all the time (he’s dead right about the wonders of the new Radiohead, but what anyone hears of value in Coldplay, for instance, is a complete mystery to me — in fairness, I’m sure Phil would have a similarly befuddled reaction to my taste if he were in any way aware of my existence), but I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment of what’s behind the attack on his Metallica review.

I haven’t heard the record (and I hope I never will), but I don’t need to hear it to recognize that Freeman’s review is fair. Fair doesn’t equal positive; it equals thoughtful. Freeman knows how to hurl a zinger, for certain, but he’s not one of these slam critics who just shoves insult after insult out there and calls it a negative review. The guy thought about the record, he sized up why (in his opinion) it doesn’t work, and he spelled out what he thinks is wrong with it. That’s the definition of a fair review.

But Freeman’s right. A lot of publicists (major label publicists, mostly, but I can think of a couple of indies, too) don’t want fair reviews. They want raves. Actually, what they want is for you to lift a few nice little lines from their press release, engage in a bit of your own verbal fellatio and slap five stars at the end of the thing next to your name. And the real problem, as Freeman notes, arises from the fact that there are all these writers out there who are more than happy to do it. Promo whores. The music journalism equivalent of the alleged film critics whose names are forever attached to the glowing quotes you see in ads for movies that can only suck. So when they run into an actual critic, they freak the fuck out.

Makes me very glad I’m not a critic, because, man, I can’t even begin to express the ratio of shit to quality music among the stuff that shows up in my mailbox. Fortunately for me, I’ve carved out a career as a writer of features and think pieces (if I can be so egomaniacal as to call some of my work that) rather than a writer of reviews. Chances are, if I’m writing about something in a newspaper it’s because I think it’s good. I can be thoughtful and positive. I try to temper my recommendations with honesty (take that Kathleen Edwards piece — I say the record is good, but point out what I think is wrong with it, too), but it’s unlikely anyone’s gonna get mad at me, because ultimately, I’m saying, “Hey, this is worthwhile.” If I were being assigned reviews, I’d eventually end up in the same boat as Freeman. Or maybe not. Because if I had to spend enough time with bad records to write pieces about them as thorough and thoughtful as Phil’s Metallica review, I’d be out of the music journalism business within a couple of weeks. I’m not exaggerating.

Here’s the thing that both publicists and fans should recognize: Freeman’s the kind of music journalist who should be encouraged and lauded for his work, even if you think much of what he says is complete shit. Because he’s not making any statements, positive or negative, lightly. And because he’s not someone whose opinion a reader can simply discount because he loves or hates everything that crosses his desk. Editors ought to seek out critics like that. Publicists ought to realize that a degree of toughness means that if a guy like Freeman says a record is good, people are gonna believe him. Publicists should also recognize that music journalists owe them nothing by way of what they write. I believe we all owe it to publicists to return their calls and emails, to be polite when they are polite, to say, “You know, I’m just not gonna be able to write about that band,” or “You know, I wish you luck, but I just don’t think that’s something I have time for/care about/find exciting …,” to give them a heads up, as Freeman does, when we write about one of their acts, and to thank them when they help us out by getting us a promo, setting up a review, getting art to our editors quickly when we forget to ask until 10 minutes before deadline, and whatever other kindnesses they afford us. But that’s it. What we write is between us, our editors and our readers. And being honest with the readers, even if honesty doesn’t always please them (it doesn’t), has to be the top priority.

Music journalists need to remember that we’re writing not for publicists, nor bands, nor concert promoters, and certainly not for record labels, but for our readers. And as long as you believe what you’re doing is being honest with your readers about whatever your subject is, and as long as you’re actually taking time to try to say something useful and thoughtful about that subject, you should never have to worry about what those other parties make of your work. It isn’t that way, of course, thanks to tons of promo whores, a few spineless editors, and an array of magazines that live to stroke their advertisers, but that shouldn’t change the way a good critic writes. All it should, and does, change is the way such writers are received by the industry they cover and many of the possible outlets for their work. That is, write honestly, do the right thing, and now and then you’re gonna face a shitstorm, plus you’re never gonna get work from the Entertainment Weeklies of the world (as if that were something any self-respecting writer could possibly want anyhow). It’s a lousy price to pay, but it beats the hell out of betraying yourself and your readers.

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