It’s time once again for me to go ‘out on a limb’ and share some thoughts on critics. Since the release of The Progressive Rock Files in 1998, I’ve received hundred of emails and letters from prog fans thanking me for helping them satisfy their quest for progressive rock music. For an author it’s always gratifying to know that what you’ve written is appreciated.
At the same time I’ve received a few (a very select few, I might add) emails from individuals who’ve taken me to task for not being ‘honest’ in my approach to progressive rock music. By that I mean these few have taken umbrage with the fact that I was not critical in any way when identifying or talking about progressive rock music. Their interpretation of my approach was that because I refused to say something negative I saw prog as flawless. Actually as an ‘analytical-idealist’ I find it very easy to over-analyze and be critical. Being critical is easy, being constructive is hard.
Over the years I’ve written a number of times about my views on critics, but after having lunch with a prog friend our discussion led me to feel there’s room for clarification. Rock journalism really came into it’s own during the mid-to-late sixties with magazines such as Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone. It was during this period that the idea of writing meaningfully about rock music as a genre flowered. And this was a good thing. There are many writers out there who successfully manage to tell us what we need to know about a record and at the same time are able to constructively point out areas of improvement. You know who you are. But there are some who seem to be more interested in seeing their words in print than actually saying anything constructive. Most of these writers tend to be outside the prog mainstream community and therefore do a good job spoiling it for the uninitiated.
First off let me say, that I do believe we all need to become ’critical’ thinkers. I try to instill this in my daughter, who is now eleven, to think deeply about things she does, sees, hears etc. Most people today rarely think about what they do or say, fewer still tend to think about what they think about. Critical thinking in life is an extremely valuable asset. And unfortunately far too many people don’t think critically and are swept up in trends, fads, movements, whatever with little or no critical thought applied. I think we need to read “between the lines” and apply a critical analyses of our jobs, our role in life, our place in family, our place in the universe, is there a God, etc. That being said, I’m yet to be convinced of the value of applying this critical thinking to the arts.
When I write about a CD, I tend to call it a review as opposed to a critique. I try to provide the reader with an overview of what I hear on the record to help them determine its value to them. The other point is I usually will write only about what I like and feel confident about. That’s just me. So it’s natural, since I’m writing about CDs I like, to sometimes gush a little. Hey, I like it all right. “But” says my lunch friend, “What if the CD is vastly different from their previous one? Or the band has gone in a completely different direction? Or they’ve changed their vocalist and it doesn’t sound the same?” Then I think my job is to identify that. And there are plenty of ways of doing that without being critical.
There is the underlying premise, that a critic serves the consumer by identifying the supposed good from the bad, separating the ‘wheat from the chaff’. And I guess my observation to that point is that if we consumers applied more critical thinking to the reviews we read, that would be a good thing. These days it’s getting easier and easier to sample music either in stores or on the Internet. Rather than rely on critics to sample for us and make certain observations one way or the other, we can simply do it ourselves. There is a big difference between having critics ‘inform’ us and having critics make a ‘decision’ for us.
Now don’t get me wrong. One of my favorite sections in Progression and Expose are the reviews. Knowing more about releases is always a valuable tool before purchasing. And I would never suggest that a reviewer should in anyway holdback, or lie in order to ingratiate themselves with the artist. Nor am I pretending to be able to tell critics what they should say. Above all a review must be honest, if it is to be anything at all. But so many times reviews (especially reviews in mainstream publications outside the Progressive Rock genre) are loaded with the critic’s own brand of jaded hack-clichés that simply proclaim his own agenda. It’s while reading those kinds of reviews that my own ‘critical antennae’ goes up and is on the lookout...
· For the critics who ALWAYS have to pick on drum machines, when the vast majority of prog fans probably don’t notice or care one way or the other.
· For critics who blast the quality of production when in most cases up-and-coming artists did the best they could and need encouragement.
· For critics who feel they have a ‘special-skill’ for identifying filler when to the best of my knowledge artists rarely set out to just ‘fill’ a CD. What defines “filler” material anyway?
· For critics who complain about 2-CD releases saying the artist should have condensed the material into one “strong” CD implying of course that some of the material was weak. Again what defines “weak” in the case of a recorded body of work?
· For critics who suggest the band needs a new or different producer, which implies they know some secret production skills not being used by the band’s current producer.
· For critics who continually harbor disdain for certain genres and yet keep picking those records to review…give us a break and just stick to the stuff you like. You’re not really helping us.
Hey, maybe I’ve got it all wrong. But my challenge to critics has always been that I don’t know of any circumstance where critical-analyses has ever caused an artist to paint a better picture, a poet to write a better poem, a musician to write a better song, whatever. There is some validity to what our mothers told us… “If you can’t say something nice…don’t say anything at all.”
Perhaps I’ve missed the boat on this one and all of you really enjoy reviews that attempt to trash or belittle an artist’s work. But for me, until it can be demonstrated that critical-analyses serves a higher purpose than just ‘spleen-venting’ for disgruntled individuals suffering from an envy-complex (oops, did I say that out loud) I’ll just hold to the view that I want a critic to tell me what’s on the record, not what they wanted to see on the record, and tell me whether they liked it or didn’t like it. But stay away from telling me if it was good or bad, I’ll make that decision on my own thanks.
About the Author:
Jerry Lucky is the author of the book The Progressive Rock Files, now entering its 5th edition. Please feel free to send feedback to Jerry at www.jerrylucky.com.