In a panel focused on music criticism, various depictions of the "rock canon" resonated with themes about the future of criticism and the genre of rock music and really the whole point behind all of this writing. Not that I think a definitive statment can be made, but the sometimes nuanced, sometimes obvious conflicts were brought to light in the back-to-back presentations of Randall Roberts and Tim Quirk.
Roberts, by going through a history of how the Rolling Stone Album Guides played a part in his introduction to rock, succeeded in both explaining what lies behind the canonization as well shaming the impulse to canonize. Excerpts from Dave Marsh's oft-ridiculous critiques and obssessively detailed (and borderline maniacal) spreadsheets organizing the RS rating systems by race, gender, location, etc. painted a stunning picture of hypocrisy. If rock music is supposed be about rebellion, non-conformity, novelty, and a rejection of stifling restraints, then everything that the RS guides strive to do is baseless, because in effect they are just creating a whole new hierarchy, but a hierarchy nonetheless.
The irony is that naturally, an academic conference about rock music is itself a product of the situation. It's a common issue of debate: has rock become just another outlet for snobbery and elitism, the very forces which it was created to destroy?
Quirk's paper, entitled "How To Write About Music You Hate," was all about rejecting these power-politics of rock. "I hate the idea that there are right things and wrong things to think about a work of art," he said. Quirk earnestly advocates "the end of musical shame."
I want to add into the mix a Washington Post article from this weekend about Pitchfork. It paints the site as a possible heir to the elite rock snob thing, and the various pros, cons, and misconceptions about it.
Given that Quirk is the Music Editor at Rhapsody, I want to basically pose his comments about music criticism against the RS, Pitchfork brand of criticism. On the one hand, you have a consumer-based, digital-based, internet-based openness, and on the other, you have that exclusionary desire to reward certain kinds of taste and to demonize others. The obvious difference here is that RS and Pitchfork aren't concerned with selling music, at least not explicitly. They are not viewed as a store in the traditional manner, the way that Rhapsody is. It makes sense that Quirk is interested in promoting all music that Rhapsody sells, so therefore he doesn't want to "belittle" potential customers. Meanwhile, RS and Pitchfork have attitude; they are fundamentally interested in shaking things up and they have a responsibility to taste.
The hypocrisy of a magazine like Rolling Stone is hard to deny, especially after Roberts' presentation. But the alternative, the possible future of editorial content as discussed in Quirk's, is no less frightening. I want to read bad reviews. I want to write them, too! I know that Quirk has similar ideas about music because it's how he began his lecture: "98% of music is crap, but the remaining 2% is so good that you want to shout it to the world like gospel" (paraphrased). There is something akin to religious zeal in many a music writer. This should be encouraged by editors. It's a fight against bland, uninspired dribble from a writer who is just trying to make enough money to pay rent.
Theoretically, couldn't it be possible to have an editorial department that champions informative opinions, subjectively describes music, produces consistently good writing, keeps readers reading, and keeps buyers buying? Isn't it? What if – and I know it sounds silly – Rolling Stone became a music store? What if Pitchfork did? These things are not so far off.