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When is a critic not a critic?Posted Monday, December 14, 2009, at 7:12 PM
Here's my essential problem: I am supposed to be a music, but I'm rarely critical of music. You'd think I didn't read the job description before I took the job.
Anyone who reads my reviews often knows what I'm talking about. In nearly a year as a "critic," I've panned only one album. That was P.J. Harvey and John Parrish's A Woman a Man Walked By. I only gave it this drubbing because I found most of it to be genuinely unlistenable noise.
Even lukewarm reviews are rare. I gave the Decemberists a C- for their latest album, but this is mostly because I thought they tried to do too much and ended up falling well short of their last release.
For the most part, though, I find good things to say about the albums I review. I almost always say something like, "This is an album to be checked out." That's easy for me to say, the thing was sent to me by a record company or publicist for free.
However, if someone takes every one of my reviews to heart, (I pray this misguided soul doesn't exist.) the poor sap would have spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 on albums I recommended in the last year.
In my defense, though, there are some very good reasons I tend to like so much of the stuff I hear.
1) I more or less control what albums are sent to me. Because I'm not writing for Rolling Stone, I don't exactly have publicists beating down my door. Instead, I mostly see what's coming out and request the things I want to hear. There are a few exceptions to this, but not many.
As such, I don't tend to request stuff from artists I detest. If ever I review an album by Rascal Flatts, you can rest assured a) it was sent to me unsolicited; b) I have nothing else to review that week; and c) it will not get a grade higher than D. (And if part c) turns out to be incorrect, then disregard anything I say about music ever again. Ever.)
2) I am a musical optimist. This fact is undeniable. Why else would I still own a guitar I received for a gift 10 years ago, yet have never learned to play? I'll get around to it. I have to learn to play guitar. (I just don't know when.)
My optimism also fuels the fact that I own every studio album by Pearl Jam in spite of the fact that they haven't been my favorite band since about 2001 or the Biggest Band in the World since about 1995. My brain knows they'll never get around to making another album nearly as good as Vs. (or any of their first five albums, for that matter), but my heart keeps hoping. Due to this, I keep shelling out $15 for a new Pearl Jam album every two to four years.
Which brings me to my final defense.
3) I am essentially a huge fan. I have previously described myself as having a music addiction. I love listening to music. I love talking about music. I love thinking about music. I love the simple acquisition of new music.
As such, the chance to listen to and subsequently write about a new album is, in and of itself, a joyful experience. Provided the album isn't just completely awful, I'm going to write nice things about it simply because the experience was enjoyable.
That's what being a fan is. It's not simply about the music for a fan; it's about the experience of the music. I generally lack the ability to separate the two.
As a contrast to me, look at the writings of guys like Lester Bangs or Robert Christgau. Read some of their stuff and you'd think the guys hated music.
The truth is, though, a guy like Christgau doesn't hate pop music, he's just very discriminating about it. I may not agree with him terribly often, but I have to respect him for his ability to weed through the crap and find the real contenders. As I've said, I lack this ability.
In the end, I'm not sure what to do about all this. I'm thinking of changing my title on the Marquee page from "Music Critic" to "Music Lover" or "Professional Fan" or "Hopeless Optimist." They would certainly be much more accurate depictions of what I do and where I'm coming from.
If you are a faithful reader of my music reviews, may I first say, "Thank you." May I secondly tell you not to take too much stock in the grades I give albums. Rather listen to what I say and how I say it. If it sounds like something you like, then by all means, seek out that record.
And if you are that one poor soul who has purchased every album I've given a B or better, congratulations on your disposable income and my apologies for your misspent cash.
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Jared Jernagan is a 2003 graduate of Wabash College and has been in journalism since 2005.