Trust me, I’m a (Music) Critic

Trust me, I’m a Music Critic

Battle of Ideas

Barbican Centre – Free stage

London

Saturday 18 October

Creative Conundrums

The writer Brendan Behan infamously described critics as ‘like eunuchs at a harem: they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they don’t know how to do it themselves’. Yet while venomous put-downs between artists and critics are nothing new, critics at Glyndebourne this year found themselves in the midst of a Twitterstorm after making disparaging comments about an opera singer’s weight. Some outraged commentators accused the critics of sexist double-standards, arguing that opera critics should judge only the singing; others complained they were engaging in ‘body-shaming’. One of the critics, plus a few defenders, retorted they were justified in making such harsh judgements on artistic grounds and that their critical duty was to judge the work, not protecting the feelings of performers.

The argument seemed to reflect many of the uncertainties around the role of critics today. There is anxiety from some quarters that professional arts critics are being pushed out of the cultural mainstream and being replaced by amateur bloggers or non-experts pointing to the loss of the BBC’s once flagship Review Show as evidence that serious criticism is no longer valued. Others counter, however, that social media has rejuvenated the discipline, offering a greater platform for informed opinion and debate than ever before. Optimists point towards the seriousness of alternative music sites such as Pitchfork, and the flourishing of online reviews sites for classical music, as proof that arts coverage can thrive online.

Yet for others the debate is less about platforms than the role of a critic as arbiter of artistic value. When the BBC announced earlier this year that it would remake the famous series Civilisation, some commentators lamented the lack of a successor to Kenneth Clark, but many more felt it was important that the new series reflect a diversity of opinion rather than Clark’s patrician Eurocentrism and that few would accept such a highly loaded ‘personal view’ of culture.

What role do critics play today? Is their job to act as more as informed reviewers and guides to the cultural landscape or do they have a greater role to play in shaping taste? Is serious criticism in seemingly terminal decline or are critics simply being held to stricter account in the digital age? On what criteria should critics base their judgements?

Panel 

Christopher Gillet, opera singer; columnist, Sinfinimusic.com and Opernwelt

Cathy Graham, director of music, British Council

Ivan Hewett, chief music critic, Daily Telegraph; professor, Royal College of Music; broadcaster; author, Music: healing the rift

Amanda Holloway, commissioning editor, Sinfini Music

Simon Millward, director, Albion Media; former London art critic, Wall Street Journa

Chair

Dr Tiffany Jenkins, Sociologist and Cultural Commentator

Produced by

Tom Hutchinson clarinettist; teacher; arts project manager, Royal Philharmonic Society

Tiemo Talk of the Town Review

The question is not whether you like or dislike something or someone, but why does the performance matter? So said Cathy Graham, Director of Music, British Council and one of the panellist’s at ‘Trust me I’m a music critic’.

As a Blogger of comedy shows, that as well as Amanda Holloway’s (Commissioning Editor, Sinfini music)‘”Don’t be boring. Don’t be rude,” were the two recommendations that stood out most for me. I am not a music critic, but the debate was nonetheless pertinent to myself as the issues cut across various artistic forms and largely centred on a discussion between the role and value of a Critic versus that of a Blogger. The professional v the amateur.

As a Blogger one can operate on two levels – on the one hand as a fan of a particular art form and/or artist(s) and on the other as an authentic critic with the knowledge, objectivity and literary and critical skills to deliver effective critique.

I would say there are a number of qualities required for good writing, be that as a Critic of a Blogger. Firstly, your knowledge of the subject; secondly your writing ability – the capacity and creativity to produce interesting prose, that is “not boring and not rude,” as some would say. Thirdly, the vehicle for driving forward for your opinions is important. If you write for a national newspaper you are naturally going to have a much wider platform than a Blogger read by a readership in double or three figure numbers as opposed to 1,000s.

As one attendee noted, we all have opinions, but a reader wants to read an informed opinion. That lead to a fascinating debate involving “Hattie” which got to the crux of the matter. Hattie is a heavy metal fan and friend of an audience member who spoke a few times to say that when it comes to heavy metal he trusted his mate Hattie’s opinion and taste.

However, as others said, Hattie may have “poor taste” or know nothing about what is good or bad heavy metal. Who is the final arbiter of taste? What makes Hattie’s opinion any less valid than that of the Editor of NME for instance?

Talking of heavy metal, there was far too much noise pollution going on during the debate. Not of the heavy metal variety, but from the constant footfall and chatter of people passing by. This was the consequence of this being one of the free debate’s in an open space at the Barbican. However it’s a measure of the quality of the debate that in spite of all that, it captivated the attention of all present. It was packed, leaving standing room only for late comers. I think next year Battle of Ideas need to look at moving all talks to dedicated rooms if they can.

I spoke and said Critics can be somewhat elitist and thereby do not necessarily speak to or for the majority just because they may have expert and wide knowledge on a subject or genre. Whilst amongst the cognoscenti of a particular genre that may be all well and good, but what if the target audience for an act/art form do not agree? I recall a time when I used to frequently read Brian Sewell’s film reviews in the London Evening Standard and deduced that more often than not if he loved a film I’d hate it and vice-versa, so his reviews still helped me decide whether or not to see a film, just not in the way he would have envisaged!

Thinking about it, that’s fairly logical as why on earth would the opinions and taste’s of a white, middle class man, 30 years my senior, chime with a 20 something Black man. They wouldn’t. Yet I would not argue with his expertise as a film critic who has seen them all and can spot the references to countless films probably made and forgotten years before I was even born!  Brian Sewell certainly and undisputedly has a highly informed opinion, but thankfully it’s not the only voice in town.

Bad reviews and read reviews!

It was insightful to hear the comment that the most interesting reviews people like to read are the bad ones!! Note to self: review more bad gigs!!

It was remarked upon that reviews are important to artists, the industry and to the all important business of selling tickets. I agree with that and would by that presume such interested parties all want to read rave, 5 star reviews of their shows. That’s not always going to be possible and if it were, there would be no reviews of bad performances or albums for instance. If people weren’t turned off by that, they would be turned off by reviews that were uniformly glowing.

Though I blog on a wide range of areas, from theatre, to talks to topical news, my primary focus and expertise centres on comedy reviewing. Comedy, as with many other art forms is clearly subjective. One Comedian providing full on belly laughs for some, may be seen more as a provider of spare ribs, as opposed to giving “bare rib ticklers” as they may say (not) on the streets!

It’s important to be as objective as one can. Bloggers need to earn their reader’s trust and arguably have a harder job of gaining this than the professional critics writing for the national’s who have the kudos and readership assumption that they are experts on their subject matter and therefore know what they’re talking about. A Blogger without the assumed status and credibility of a national newspaper or magazine to assist them, have to work somewhat harder to gain credibility. It can be done though and there are advantages to being an independent Blogger. You are not tied down and restricted by assumed political or other affiliations and leaning’s that are associated with a particular publication.

One Editor commented that he is looking for informed opinion and critique. Another said  it his job to decode the performance seen and help the reader understand compare and put into context what they have seen.

On that note, I have to say this was one of the most interesting debates of the two day Battle of Ideas conference. Though primarily centred on classical music, it was not irrelevant in any sense, as the messages and discussion were equally applicable for myself.

I made the point that there is a distinction to be made between reviewing a relative newcomer compared to a veteran. You may still operate the same star rating system, it’s just that it may be a lot harder for a seasoned performer to get a 5 star review as the standards expected of them will be much higher and they will be judged against their peers. So for instance a Richard Blackwood, Lee Nelson or Jim Davidson will be judged against a higher standard than a non TV comedian with only a few years experience under their belt. Factors being critiqued will cover such factors as stage craft, the jokes, originality, their likeability, audience reaction and interaction to their performance.

In addition, the experienced comedian will be judged more against past performances and their peer group, whereas the newcomer you are seeing for the first time, has the advantage of freshness and no past performances for the reviewer to judge them against.

Simon Millward, Director, Albion Media; former London art critic, Wall Street Journal when asked what makes a critic worth reading, said, it’s knowledge. Anyone can have an opinion. They’re 10 a penny, but an informed opinion separates out critic from opinion.

Conclusion 

Returning to the key questions posed by this debate.

What role do critics play today? Is their job to act as more as informed reviewers and guides to the cultural landscape or do they have a greater role to play in shaping taste? Is serious criticism in seemingly terminal decline or are critics simply being held to stricter account in the digital age? On what criteria should critics base their judgements?

I think Critics play the same role they always played, to critique performances, be they live or on film, books or recorded shows. They can shape taste, but not to the extent they might once have thanks to Bloggers, the internet and plethora of choice available to the general public now via satellite television, social media, numerous print publications and radio stations, which means there are so many more outlets for opinion formers to put across their opinions, whether they are considered to be informed or un-informed ones!

I wouldn’t say Critics are being held to stricter account, it is more the case there are more people sharing their views and opinions than ever before. With live television, for instance of football matches or popular TV shows, allied to Twitter and Facebook, the armchair general’s with mobile phone in hand are offering live public opinion instantly. That if anything, is shaping and sharpening the critical ability of Critics to prove that they have more to offer than Joe Public does with their instant views.

Cathy Graham, director of music, British Council, concluded the debate by saying that critics expressing passion will ensure that the medium of Critical reviews lasts. It is not a question of whether you like or dislike something, but why does the performance matter?

© Tiemo Talk of the Town

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Links:

Battle of Ideas 2014 – Trust me I’m a Music Critic 18th October 2014

Battle of Ideas 2014 – Tiemo Talk of the Town reviews

Battle of Ideas 2013 – Tiemo Talk of the Town reviews

Battle of Ideas 2012 – Tiemo talk of the Town reviews

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One Response to Trust me, I’m a (Music) Critic

  1. Pingback: Bloggers, Vloggers and the You Tube Generation review | tiemotalkofthetown

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