Criticism is dead. It has joined the ranks of radio, print media, landlines, and Netflix DVDs. It has found a new sword on which to fall––a new way to drive itself into obsolescence. It’s an ouroboros; as soon as it makes some progress into the throngs of mass culture, it has already started to eat its own tail.
Music criticism specifically has a complex history. From the filthy rock-and-roll boys’ club of Rolling Stone and Creem in the late ’60s to the Pitchfork-perpetuated push into late ’90s and early 2000s white male-dominated independent music scene, and following the pendulum swing to poptimism, and the emergence of rap- and hip hop-centered publications, it has never been representative of the scope of art being produced. This is a fact.
But Pitchfork and Rolling Stone are still running, clinging to cultural relevance. In June of 2022, Creem launched a comeback. Podcast, film, and documentary journalism are filling niches where the print and even online word have become obsolete.
As this evolution proves dynamic, increasingly it is punctuated by chilling hurdles. The internet has positioned the critic up against the wall of its own absurdity.
Internet fan culture is a cult at best, a complete scourge at slightly worse. This is not a novel observation of the internet, yet the levels of detachment from any sense of reality exhibited do nothing but ascend to a level of out-of-touch–ness that renders the whole enterprise of engaging with art impossible.
In 2020, Taylor Swift’s folklore was released to an exceptionally positive reception—probably the most positive of her career until that point. To some, even the most positive of reviews were not enough; anything less than a perfect 10/10 seemed due cause for outrage.
Music critic Jill Mapes, in a glowing review for Pitchfork, explained why the magazine had collectively decided to give the album only an eight on their 10-point scale. This was heinous. She revealed to Daily Mail, “I’ve gotten too many emails saying some version of, ‘you are an ugly fat bitch who is clearly jealous of Taylor, plz die.’”
Veteran New York Times critic Jon Caramanica received the same treatment. Swift stans went as far as to complain about his criticism under a post memorializing Civil Rights leader John Lewis.
This is more than jarring—it is actively terrifying. Name-calling, violent threats, and doxxing are real and actualizable in this age.
The cadence of this response is so completely out of touch with reality. These fans will never have any tangible impact on the lives of the people they idolize. Taylor Swift will never know what they do in her defense; the relationship can never be anything but parasocial. And yet, their actions will affect the critic—as an individual and as a collective. When Playboi Carti fans leaked photos of critic Anthony Fantano’s divorce papers, they affected him, not Carti.
Collectively, this forces the critic to stop being a critic––to stop critically engaging with art. Then what’s the point, besides fanning the flames of capitalism? The critic always has to grapple with their role as an advertiser; their opinions of art, pushed forth by media conglomerates, are in some ways, always a tool to sell said art. This is a necessary position in a system that does not value art nor compensate artists. But inspiring fear for one’s physical security is the surest way to put an end to critics’ honest engagement. Reducing the critic to that position is a gross oversimplification of their role: writing is always a pragmatic endeavor, but it can never be wholly pragmatic, so long as it is honest.
A critic is an artist as well, moving through the same capitalist spheres. Criticism doesn’t pay. It never has, and it especially doesn’t now. So now what?
In a personal conversation, a music critic who has held multiple positions at Pitchfork and who recently published a 350-page compilation of their work described these things as cyclical. They pointed to grassroots efforts in self-publication, specifically by queer, female, and/or BIPOC writers, as a possible beginning of a new cycle––one that hopefully won’t begin with its tail in its mouth. “I think people in this sort of post-pandemic world are like, ‘Well, I’m gonna follow my passion,’ or they’ve sufficiently interrogated their capitalist patriarchal damage and think [they] want to be in a community with people. People are finding energy and interest in building things again.”
See, criticism does exist for this other reason, outside of mere advertising. It allows people to engage with, celebrate, connect, and talk about art. So long as things are being created, people will have something to say about them.