Music journalism

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Music journalism is media criticism and reporting about music. It began in the eighteenth century as commentary on what is now thought of as classical music. Today a more prominent branch of music journalism is an aspect of entertainment journalism, covering popular music and including profiles of singers and bands and album reviews.

Origins in classical music criticism[edit]

Hector Berlioz, active as a music journalist in Paris in the 1830s and 1840s.

Music journalism has its roots in classical music criticism, which has traditionally comprised the study, discussion, evaluation, and interpretation of music and its performance.

Before about the 1840s, reporting on music was either done by musical journals, such as Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung or the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (founded by Robert Schumann), and in London such journals as The Musical Times (founded in 1844 as The Musical Times and Singing-class Circular); or else by reporters at general newspapers where music did not form part of the central objectives of the publication. An influential English 19th-century music critic, for example, was John Davison of The Times. The composer Hector Berlioz also wrote reviews and criticisms for the Paris press of the 1830s and 1840s.[1]

Modern art music journalism is often informed by music theory consideration of the many diverse elements of a musical piece or performance, including (as regards a musical composition) its form and style, and as regards performance, standards of technique and expression. These standards were expressed, for example, in journals such as Neue Zeitschrift für Musik founded by Robert Schumann, and are continued today in the columns of serious newspapers and journals such as The Musical Times.[1]

Several factors — including growth of education, the influence of the Romantic movement generally and in music, popularization (including the 'star-status' of many performers such as Liszt and Paganini), among others — led to an increasing interest in music among non-specialist journals, and an increase in the number of critics by profession, of varying degrees of competence and integrity. The 1840s could be considered a turning point, in that music critics after the 1840s generally were not also practicing musicians.[1] However, counterexamples include Alfred Brendel, Charles Rosen, Paul Hindemith and Ernst Krenek, modern practitioners of the classical music tradition who also write (or wrote) on music.

In the early 1980s, a decline in the quantity of classical criticism began occurring "when classical-music criticism visibly started to disappear." At that time, magazines such as Time and Vanity Fair employed classical music critics, but by the early 1990s, classical critics were dropped in many magazines, in part due to "a decline of interest in classical music, especially among younger people".[2]

In 2007, The New York Times wrote that classical music criticism, which it characterized as "a high-minded endeavor that has been around at least as long as newspapers", had undergone "a series of hits in recent months" with the elimination, downgrading, or redefinition of critics' jobs at newspapers in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and elsewhere, citing New York magazine's Peter G. Davis, "one of the most respected voices of the craft, [who] said he had been forced out after 26 years."[3] Viewing "robust analysis, commentary and reportage as vital to the health of the art form", the New York Times stated in 2007 that it continued to maintain "a staff of three full-time classical music critics and three freelancers", noting also that classical music criticism had become increasingly available on blogs, and that a number of other major newspapers "still have full-time classical music critics," including (in 2007) The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Boston Globe.[3]

Popular music journalism[edit]

20th century rock criticism[edit]

US music writer Robert Christgau was one of the first rock critics in the 1960s.

Music writers only started "treating pop and rock music seriously" in 1964 "after the breakthrough of the Beatles...".[4] One of the early music magazines in Britain, Melody Maker, complained in 1967 about how "newspapers and magazines are continually hammering [i.e., attacking] pop music".[4]:116 Melody Maker magazine advocated the new forms of pop music of the late 1960s. "By 1999, the 'quality' press was regularly carrying reviews of popular music gigs and albums", which had a "key role in keeping pop" in the public eye. As more pop music critics began writing, this had the effect of "legitimating pop as an art form"; as a result, "newspaper coverage shifted towards pop as music rather than pop as social phenomenon".[4]:129 Steve Jones claims that both popular music articles and academic articles about pop music are usually written from "masculine subject positions as well, in the way that critics differentiate between pop music and rock, using terms like "trivial", "fluffy", or "formulaic" for pop (versus "serious", "raw", and "sincere" for rock), there is an implicit or even explicitly gendered dichotomy.[4]:96 Simon Frith notes that pop and rock music are closely associated with gender; that is, with conventions of male and female behaviour.[5]

In the world of pop music criticism, there tends to be a quick turnover. The "pop music industry" expects that any particular rock critic will likely disappear from popular view within five years; in contrast, the "stars" of rock criticism are more likely to have long careers with "book contracts, featured columns, and editorial and staff positions at magazines and newspapers. Critic Robert Christgau was the "originator of the 'consumer guide' approach to pop music reviews", an approach to writing pop recording reviews that was designed to help consumers to decide whether to buy a new album.[4]:4

In the realm of rock music (as indeed in that of classical music),[6] critics have not always been respected by their subjects. Frank Zappa declared that, "Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read." In the Guns N' Roses song "Get in the Ring", Axl Rose verbally attacked critics who gave the band negative reviews because of their actions on stage; such critics as Andy Secher, Mick Wall and Bob Guccione, Jr. were mentioned by name.

Critical trends of 2000–2009[edit]

In the 2000s, online music bloggers began to supplement, and to some degree displace, music journalists in print media.

Carl Wilson describes "an upsurge in pro-pop sentiment among critics" during the early 2000s, a "new generation [of music critics] moved into positions of critical influence" and then "mounted a wholesale critique against the syndrome of measuring all popular music by the norms of rock culture."[7]

Slate magazine writer Jody Rosen discussed the 2000s-era trends in pop music criticism in the article "The Perils of Poptimism". Rosen notes that much of the debate is centred over the perception that that rock critics "...regard rock as "normative … the standard state of popular music … to which everything else is compared."[8] At a 2006 pop critic conference, attendees discussed their "...guilty pop pleasures, reconsidering musicians (Tiny Tim, Dan Fogelberg, Phil Collins) and genres (blue-eyed soul, Muzak)" which rock critics have long dismissed as lightweight, commercial music. Rosen states that "this new critical paradigm" is called "popism" — or, more evocatively (and goofily), "poptimism". The "poptimism" approach states that "Pop (and, especially, hip-hop) producers are as important as rock auteurs, Beyoncé is as worthy of serious consideration as Bruce Springsteen, and ascribing shame to pop pleasure is itself a shameful act".[8] In 2006, Martin Edlund from the New York Sun argued that music bloggers are to some degree displacing newspaper and magazine-based pop music critics. Edlund notes that while the "Internet has democratized music criticism, it seems it's also spread its penchant for uncritical hype".[9]

In 2008, Ann Powers of the LA Times argued that "[p]op music critics have always been contrarians", because "pop music [criticism] rose up as a challenge to taste hierarchies, and has remained a pugilistic, exhibitionist business throughout pop's own evolution."[10] Powers claims that "[i]nsults, rejections of others' authority, bratty assertions of superior knowledge and even threats of physical violence are the stuff of which pop criticism is made"; at the same time, the "best [pop criticism] also offers loving appreciation and profound insights about how music creates and collides with our everyday realities." She states that pop criticism developed as a "slap at the establishment, at publications such as the hippie homestead Rolling Stone and the rawker outpost Creem." She notes that the "1980s generation" of post-punk indie rockers "has lately [i.e., in the 2000s] been taken down by younger "poptimists," who argue that lovers of underground rock are elitists for not embracing the more multicultural mainstream". Powers claims that with the 2000s-era "poptimism" critical approach, debates about bands and styles are "like the scrum in rugby", because "[e]verybody pushes against everybody else, and we move forward in a huge blob of vehement opinion and mutual judgment".[10]

Critical trends of the 2010s[edit]

Music critic and indie pop musician Scott Miller, in his 2010 book Music: What Happened?, suggested, "Part of the problem is that a lot of vital pop music is made by 22-year-olds who enjoy shock value, and it's pathetic when their elders are cornered into unalloyed reverence." Miller suggested that critics could navigate this problem by being prepared "to give young artists credit for terrific music without being intimidated into a frame of mind where dark subject matter always gets a passing grade," stating that a critic should be able to call a young artist "a musical genius" while "in the same breath declaring that his or her lyrics are morally objectionable."[11]

Reacting to the state of pop music criticism, Miller identified a major issue as critics' failure to "credit an artist with getting a feeling across," specifically pointing out critic Lester Bangs as "a ball of emotion at all times," who nonetheless "never really related to his favorite artists as people who develop a skill of conveying feelings. You don't feel that he comfortably acknowledged being moved as a result of their honest work. Artists in his writing were vaguely ridiculous, fascinating primitives, embodying an archetype by accident of nature."[11] Based on past experience as an artist receiving criticism, Miller argued against critics' efforts to maintain journalistic distance or objectivity, suggesting that "acknowledging and respecting readers' stylistic boundaries and keeping their own sentimentality in check" was counterproductive, and hypothesizing that instead, "readers actually want a critic to be their friend by listening through stylistic boundaries with special gold-seeking ears, and reporting how they unexpectedly turned into a love-struck adolescent over a vocal harmony or a piano run... digging the truth of musical experience out from under half-asleep habits of discussing it."[11] Miller further proposed "more music talk in music criticism" and suggested that readers would appreciate "sensitively modest doses" of musical analysis to support a conclusion "that great melody writing occurred or it didn't." For example, Miller noted that critics rarely "identify catchy melodies as specific passages within a song," in the way that working musicians might discuss "the A-minor in the second measure of the chorus."

Critic Robert Christgau responded to Miller's approach by writing, "The way [Miller] describes the songs he loves... is tremendously suggestive. If only he or some acolyte could spin a worldview around those observations, we might really have something to go on."[12]

Tris McCall of the Newark Star-Ledger discussed his approach to music criticism in a 2010 interview, stating, "Most of us [critics] begin writing about music because we love it so much. We can't wait to tell our friends and neighbors about what we’re hearing. That impulse never fades, but if you do it long enough (and I have been doing it for a very long time), you start to develop secondary reasons for doing pop journalism."[13] Consistent with Miller's recommendations, McCall continued, "Me, I am interested in examining why people respond to what they respond to. I hazard guesses. Sometimes I'm wrong, but I hope I'm always provocative."[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Bujić, Bojan (n.d.), Criticism of Music in The Oxford Companion to Music, Oxford Music Online.
  2. ^ Sandow, Greg, Yes, Classical-Music Criticism Is in Decline but the Last Thing the Industry Should Do Is Blame the Press, Wall Street Journal. Available online at: Accessed on March 9, 2010.
  3. ^ a b Wakin, Daniel J., Newspapers Trimming Classical Critics, New York Times, June 9, 2007.
  4. ^ a b c d e Jones, Steve (2002). Pop Music and the Press. p. 45. 
  5. ^ Frith, Simon, "Pop Music" in S. Frith, W. Stray and J. Street, The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 226.
  6. ^ Slonimsky, Nicolas. Lexicon of Musical Invective. ASIN 039332009X. ISBN 978-0-393-32009-1.  (citing many examples of insults in both directions)
  7. ^ Ewing, Tom. "The Decade in Pop". Pitchfork articles. August 27, 2009. Available online at:
  8. ^ a b Rosen, Jody. "The Perils of Poptimism". Slate magazine. May 9, 2006. Available online at:
  9. ^ Edlund, Martin. "Not All They Were Blogged Up To Be". The New York Sun. June 6, 2006. Available online at:
  10. ^ a b Powers, Ann. "Bratty by nature". The LA Times. July 27, 2008. Available online at:
  11. ^ a b c Miller, Scott (2010). Music: What Happened?. 125 Records. ASIN 0615381960. ISBN 9780615381961. 
  12. ^ Christgau, Robert (blurb), in Miller, Scott (2010). Music: What Happened?. 125 Records. Back cover. ASIN 0615381960. ISBN 9780615381961. 
  13. ^ a b Whiten, Jon (May 18, 2010). "Jersey City’s Tris McCall Joins the Star-Ledger". Jersey City Independent. Archived from the original on 2010-06-22. 

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