Thursday, March 14, 2013

Duncan Bannatyne and a lesson in practical criticism

I know, I know, I KNOW, I’ve been more than a little slack with the blog updates in recent weeks. I could blame a combination of laptop problems and too much proper work stuff going on but it was more about a weird sensation of extreme tiredness that arose whenever I felt the urge to write a sentence; I did consider pontificating on the Nate Thayer writing-for-free hoo-ha (which subsequently morphed into the Nate Thayer plagiarism hoo-ha) or possibly having a bit of a grumble about the fact that “literally” now means “not literally” but I just found myself staring dumbly at a blank space, unable to think up even an opening clause. They don’t have these problems on Tumblr I guess.

One of the pleasant distractions that I might have used as an excuse for my state of not-blogging came a few days ago when I received a very charming email from a journalism student asking me for my views on the state of music hackery. One of the intemperate, it-was-better-in-the-old-days things I ranted was as follows:
The significance of professional rock critics as tastemakers began to decline in the early 2000s for two reasons. First, the arrival of Napster and other file-sharing sites meant that pretty much any piece of music could be summoned on demand, for free. You didn't need to be told by a journalist that the new White Stripes single was a bit pedestrian – you could find out yourself without getting out of bed. The majority of music consumers only really care about what a piece of music sounds like, whether they like it or not (an aesthetic that really began to kick in with the launch of Q magazine in the mid-1980s) and don't feel the need for any further discussion. Once rock journalists' purpose in providing this information became redundant, these consumers had no further use for them.

There is however a significant minority of consumers who do enjoy the discussion and argument surrounding the music; although they're relatively small in number, they're more committed as fans and they proportionately listen to more music than the majority group. These were also the core consumers of the weekly music press but at around the same time the music industry itself came under attack from download culture, online entities such as Pitchfork and Drowned In Sound began competing for the attention of those who were interested in a critical discourse about music (this is the second big change). However, this wasn't simply a matter of online journalists replacing print journalists; the very process of criticism became more democratic, even anarchic, with the significance of the original review taking second place to the conversation that developed around it. One could argue that everyone who contributes to such discussions is a music journalist of a kind. To sum up, the significance of *individual* music journalists has decreased massively since the days of Charles Shaar Murray, Lester Bangs, Paul Morley, Julie Burchill, Greil Marcus etc; but music journalism as a *collective* entity (think of it as a hive mind, a Borg of opinion) is still powerful.

I don't see this as a problem in itself, as I've always thought the purpose of criticism is to provoke thought and discussion and argument rather than to declaim some sort of infallible opinion from on high. That said, not all opinions are equally useful to the process and I sometimes feel that discussion is dominated by the loudest voices rather than those who are best informed or have the most acute critical antennae.
And then, prompted by a specific question about whether Spotify, Pandora etc have made music journalism redundant:
This works for people who just want to listen to music and not really think about it (aural wallpaper) but for others who are interested in the broader cultural context that's not enough; they need a hinterland of discussion, analysis, interviews, reviews etc. While we're here, some would argue that there's a subtle difference between music reviews (which tell you what the music's like) and music criticism (which offers perspectives on music you've already listened to). The first may become redundant but not the latter.
And no sooner had I sent off that last missive, I came across an article on PopJustice entitled So what’s the latest with Duncan Bannatyne’s boyband? I initially misread the last bit as “Duncan Bannatyne’s boyfriend” which threw me, but not for the reason you may think. I have only a sketchy awareness of who Duncan Bannatyne may be and for a moment I had him confused with the camp 80s comedian Duncan Norvelle who, despite his purportedly amusing stage persona is in reality a heterosexual father-of-several. So the notion that truth and art had finally become entwined was a little surprising.

Anyway, once I’d got my Duncans sorted, I read the PopJustice article, which essentially asserted that Duncan Bannatyne’s boyband (ReConnected) isn’t very good, but some people said no, actually, they are good and then the PopJustice person put up a YouTube clip and said there, listen to that, that pretty much defines not-very-goodness, doesn’t it? The funny thing is, it was the fans (who one might assume to have a less sure grasp on the broader socio-cultural context in which ReConnected’s music is situated) who argued from the perspective of critics (“Twats... There is nothing wrong them... You need to back off and let them live their dream.”) while it was the soi-disant music journalists who settled into the banal rut of that-thing-that-replaced reviewing: effectively, “Here’s the music, make up your own bloody minds.” The world’s turned upside down, hasn’t it? Or at least wobbled on its axis a wee bit.

And just because you’ve been so patient, here’s a nice picture of Duncan Norvelle (not Bannatyne) discussing the infinite complexities of human sexuality with the new Pope.

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