Devon Powers, an assistant professor in Drexel’s Department of Culture & Communication, examines pop-music criticism’s roots in her new book, Writing The Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism (March 28, University of Massachussetts Press). She argues that rock critics — namely those writing for the Voice in the 1960s and ’70s, like Robert Christgau and Richard Goldstein — provided valuable political and intellectual contributions while institutionalizing a new discipline. City Paper recently met with Powers to talk about why music criticism matters today, and what the future holds for critics — including this jaded writer.
City Paper: Why does music criticism matter now?
Devon Powers: Ah, the million-dollar question! It matters for the same reason music does: It gives meaning to people’s lives. Music’s an important part of our lives, and we like to express ourselves about those things that are important to us. We can’t all be musicians, but we can all have emotions and ideas about music. That’s why people do it, and why it still matters, even if the ways people are getting music, and thinking about music, are through new channels.
CP: There’s more recorded music and more channels now than ever before.
DP: What we see now are numerous models for attempting to manage this surplus. Not all of them will stick, and that’s OK. But one thing that’s stuck for hundreds of years is that people enjoy the opinions of others they respect regarding the decisions they make. The pathway to becoming these critical voices, however, has changed. This path’s destabilizing, and it’s scary, but it’s not necessarily bad. Look at Fashion Week, for example — there are all these bloggers sitting in the same row as Anna Wintour. She’s still there, but there are all these other new people, too. When these new technologies arrive, people freak out because they inevitably change things. Then come the proclamations about the end of the world. That’s what it looks like in the beginning, but there’s eventually stasis and coexistence.
CP: It seems like music criticism, understood as a job that pays the bills, is on the decline, but music criticism itself is actually increasing now that there are more platforms.
DP: I’m not too optimistic about the money side of it, but I’m optimistic about the intellectual side. Democratization leads to devaluing. There aren’t travel agents or video stores anymore, either; lots of careers pass away for various reasons. What’s curious about music journalism is that it’s very similar to other types of knowledge professions. It’s not because technology’s changing, but the question is: What does it mean to be someone who has ideas and shares them, and how do we value those ideas?
CP: The value of the critics you write about is that they comment, not merely on music, but on larger cultural and social issues of importance.
DP: Right. I think music’s an incredible medium from technological, emotional and intellectual standpoints. I really do believe music’s the harbinger for things to come. Music’s the place where you see technological changes, and where you hear political commentary before it erupts. Music’s the prism through which we see life, and the people who are drawn to write about music feel and see that, and they want to share it.
CP: It’s hard to keep that in mind nowadays, given the dwindling resources available to those who do this as a profession. It seems like critics spend more time fighting on Twitter than providing valuable commentary.
DP: It’s true: We don’t do a good job making arguments for why we matter, and why music matters. We’d definitely do a better job if we fought our common enemies rather than fight each other. But I think the fighting’s good, too. Anytime there’s a destabilizing moment, it’s like a crucible — it’s like baptism by fire. It will hopefully result in something stronger and much more interesting and much better in ways that we can’t even predict.