Whining about how blogging killed the radio star, er, I mean the professional critic, is getting to be a tiresome sport.
Nonetheless, a panel called "Death of the Critic?: A Roundtable on the Future of Music Criticism in the Digital Age," hosted by my long-time colleague and friend Ann Powers at USC's Norman Lear Center a couple of weeks ago, caught my eye.
The panelists were mostly veteran writers attached to at least one print publication. As the more "credible" critics, they usually assess what those wacky kids are doing on the internets. I didn't get a gander at the talks, but I can guess that since it is no longer cool to trash blogs, someone must have followed the common-sense talking points below.
Is writing about art & pop on the internet better or worse than in print? There be good blogs and cringe-y blogs. Eventually, you only find time to read the former.
The amateur v. professional thing? Well, the hallowed writers of (rock) music criticism weren't really inverted-pyramid professionals -- that was supposed to be the whole point of rock journalism. Hip hop writers were supposed to break the mold set by rock writers. Jazz writers, on the other hand, might as well be string theorists.
Is everyone writing about the same thing? Nope. Just as the mp3/MySpace revolution means more and more specific subscenes and more experimentation among some fans, the bloggyverse allows you to find someone writing about every genre and every scene.
Has the shrinking space and consumer report trending of criticism in mainstream (and even alternative) print outlets pushed a lot of longer-form, more idiosyncratic writing to the web? Duh.
Now, this discussion rarely mentions race or gender. Because the market and media pressures are all supposed to affect us the same. But they don't.
Ernest Hardy's talk at the panel hit a lot of my sore spots. He minces not:
He calls blogs kept by veteran writers and other passionate writers "slave shacks" where "the music and the criticism are still jumping."
And he hits the entrenched institutional issues in the head. It's not just the economy, stupid, it's about who is doing the choosing, who editors picture as either the knowledgeable or versatile writer when it comes time to assign (which of course, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: writers who are assigned different stories in different outlets look more "reliable" to yet more editors).
And remember, as more newspapers simply pick up a lot of material from wire services, syndicated and parent chains, it disproportionately amplifies the influence of those people with steady critic gigs.
In other words, the black & brown (and female) who bitch about not getting assignments -- despite having decades of experience -- are just bitter race/gender warriors. Of course, no one will say it. Because it would hurt to call our colleagues/bosses racist or sexist.
It's all very complicated, the same sort of pipeline issues you see in a lot of fields (journalism, academia, arts, science).
Class issues aside, it is still more likely that women and non-whites have to think hard about entering careers that require long apprenticeships and rarely deliver work that pays well steadily. Even for those of us who develop the ambition and learn the career path, we are less likely to have support networks and access to resources that allow us to make it through. And are more likely to be knocked off track by life issues -- family, health.
When I was a teen, my dream job was to write at the Village Voice. I never had the nerve to push my way onto an internship there (nor could I afford to work for free). When I did start working for an alt weekly after college (SF Weekly; Ann was my first editor there), I lost momentum after a few years for a lot of reasons -- I was still insecure about my talents, I got sucked into graduate school, I got tired of writing the same "Latin rock" story and did not know where to go next.
My music & arts criticism career has been start-and-stop through the past twenty years. Because I've had too many interests, because pitching is exhausting, because I get distracted by the need to pay the mortgage, because I've wondered if I didn't have better things to do.
And I can't say I have it figured out yet. But my own story aside, I am shocked at just how few women and brown/black people are out there. Ann is by far the most recognizable female pop music critic, because she has maintained a presence in major outlets (Spin, Village Voice, NY Times, LA Times). But for the average reader of writing about music, naming five other prominent women music critics takes some work.
There are a handful of Black music critics in major outlets (oh Kelefah Sanneh, how I miss you!). And I am glad for the return of Danyel Smith to Vibe. But now that Ramiro Burr is out at the San Antonio Express, I dare anyone out there to name a Latino music critic whose work you regularly read (Leila Cobo at Billboard is more like a business reporter in my book). Raquel Rivera is up-and-coming, but people only think of her when it comes to reggaetón, a "minor" genre. Oliver Wang or Jeff Chang aside, Asians aren't even on the map.
Want another marker of how crazy this all is, and proof of Ernest's point that we have in fact devolved? Check the TOC of the just-released "Best Music Writing 2008." Out of 32 essays, I count 3 5 women (sorry for the mistake, Daphne!), and maybe 3-4 nonwhites (sorry, there's about a dozen folks here I can't identify racially for sure). The also-ran list, which Idolator ran in four parts, does a wee bit better.
On yesterday's Soundcheck, Nelson George avoided the racial tally altogether, chanting the "quality" mantra. Which is legitimate, but the question is, how did the "quality" pool get to have so few writers who are not whiteboy music geeks? (This last said descriptively -- I have loved too many whiteboy music geeks, in print, in friendship and more).
So we plug away, look to own our presses (or blogspots, or typepads or wordpresses). There's nothing else to do.