Being a Critic

Posted on August 27, 2023

 being a critic

If you frequent internet music circles, you’ve probably heard of a music critic named Anthony Fantano. As far as modern music critics go (or modern critics in general) he’s one of the few that many would recognize by name (if not his name, then at least the name of his YouTube channel The Needle Drop).

I actually enjoy his second channel more, Fantano, where he interviews artists, many of whom he’s reviewed. And yet, there’s something about this that puzzles me. Is it weird to be chummy with people you might be critical of? Some of the drummers I’ve written about have found my articles, which is thrilling and nerve–wracking. What if they don’t like what I have to say? 

While I enjoy reviewing drum books, I don’t review much else. For one, it’s a drumming blog, so I feel like I should try to stick to the drums specifically; an album review might feel somewhat out of place. Moreover, as an up–and–coming recording artist, am I really in a place to judge others? The thing is… sometimes, I just can’t help myself. 

A couple of months ago, I nearly became a full–on music critic when I started to write a post about Snarky Puppy’s latest album Empire Central. I transcribed a drum solo from the LP about a year ago, but I’ve only spoken vaguely regarding how I have mixed feelings about the album as a whole. I wrote a good chunk of a post complaining about the record, only to shelve my article.

I don’t care for Empire Central, and I’ve barely listened to it since the start of this year. After the album won a Grammy, I felt my inner iconoclast bubbling up. I actually have a lot to say: it’s a boring, repetitive record; it’s way too long; it relishes in vibes — a vague, nondescript hipness; and it gets shockingly little mileage out of having all the musicians play live together in one room. To that end, having three drum set players on the album is a complete waste. But ultimately, I decided not to share anything.

Album reviews have perhaps become the most irrelevant of all entertainment and artistic reviews. Most people don’t directly pay for records anymore — the only thing listening to an album might cost you is your time (very much so in the case of the needlessly long 90–minute Empire Central). Am I really doing anything productive by criticizing it?

My unpublished review would have some more from a place of frustration than scorn, and maybe even grief. Snarky Puppy used to be one of my favorite contemporary bands, but I’ve completely lost interest in the group. An underwhelming LP (combined with an ill–conceived concert from last summer) has guaranteed that I won’t be seeing the band live anytime soon.

Maybe it comes from expectations. I held Snarky Puppy in high regard. When your expectations aren’t met, you’ve got to get your energy out somehow. It’s like screaming into the night. Or, ranting and raving on a small blog. 

It’s not just Snarky Puppy. Several of my favorite contemporary bands have released albums in the last couple of years that have disappointed me. The decade started so good with Plini’s Impulse Voices, which I’ve concluded is the best thing I’ve heard in my life. After that, it’s all been downhill: My Morning Jacket, The War on Drugs, Death Cab For Cutie, The National… they’ve all released albums that are middling at best. I’m worried I’m getting grumpy in my old age. 

My critical compunctions vanish when I’m presented with something that crosses the boundaries of taste. My review of Whiplash is a good example — I sincerely believe that film is offensively bad, and so I have no reservations about ripping into it. (Although considering the general opinion of that movie, it might be best for my sake that not many people have read my review of it!)

I can’t help but think of Anton Ego’s speech towards the end of the film Ratatouille. His spiel isn’t as profound as I thought it was when I first heard it 16 years ago, but the writers are dead on when they say that critics “Thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” As such, I tend to get a little wishy–washy when I turn into a critic. 

I still break out in a cold sweat whenever I think about the possibility that Tommy Igoe has read the first draft of my “Jazz Crimes” post. I never said anything critical — in fact, the transcription itself could be seen as a form of flattery. But by rounding up complaints about Tommy from around the internet, I got way off–topic and it felt disrespectful nonetheless. 

I’m really not sure why I felt the need to do that. Maybe I felt like it would make the post more truthful, more honest, more interesting. I can’t say any of that is true. The whole thing felt weird and inappropriate, compounded by the very real chance he read it. That’s one hell of a first impression…

I often have this tendency of starting some of my articles with a broad focus, before narrowing down to the actual topic at hand. This is usually called the “funnel method”, and it seems to be a leftover from my days in high school English. Lately, I don’t even bother trying to do this — it’s bad SEO to begin a transcription article with several paragraphs that have nothing to do with the song at hand.

Such is the plight of Internet opinions in this day and age; everybody wants to make a video essay. Adam Neely recently published a video about touring which featured a tangent discussing President Eisenhower passing the Federal Highway Act of 1956. I guess it was a roundabout way to talk about how America relies on cars (as do concert tours), but it honestly felt a bit random and shoehorned.

One part of Ego’s speech that loses me is when he says, “There are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations.”

I mean… I guess that’s true if you’re a writer for Pitchfork. But it seems like for the general populace (you know, the ones who don’t take themselves too seriously), everybody enjoys rooting for an underdog, especially a young one.

Personally, I feel the greatest unease when I come across as a contrarian. There are many beloved drummers, young and old, whom I just don’t care for. Instead of explicitly complaining about them, my plan is to simply ignore them.* As the childhood saying goes, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But like I said, when things that melt my brain continue to get praise, I feel an urge to do something. As another childhood saying goes, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Still, most people don’t ask for feedback. If some kid goes viral playing drums on the internet, it’s probably not their fault. They just want to play the drums. You’d have to be quite a morose person to get upset… right?

If my career ever takes off, and I mean really takes off, I wonder if I’ll have to dial back some of my pontifications. Being critical of an ostensible colleague is a whole other can of worms. 

I did complain about Buddy Rich a while back in an article that needs cleaning up. I didn’t feel that bad, partly because the guy has been dead for nearly 30 years, and also because his legacy is well–established. Again, I just felt an urge to write, because something clearly didn’t compute. Really though, what spurred me on was all the complaints I saw on the Memorial Concert videos. 

Sometimes I want to scream into the darkness to see if anyone screams back. I think I’d be surprised; I saw a video back in June critiquing Dave Weckl’s drumming. The impetus for this one came from some trumped–up copyright claims on behalf of Dave. While I do like Dave’s playing, I did find the video interesting, and I kind of appreciate it in an odd way.

Maybe it was the honesty (and even the bravery) of the uploader. That’s where the risk comes in: when you speak up and say, “I don’t get it.” I guess someone could turn around and ask, “Well, who asked you?”, but at least there’s a discussion, which feels increasingly rare in the drum world. 

Buddy Rich is hardly the last drummer I’ve wanted to criticize. I did a baby version of such an article with Phil Rudd when I talked about groove. It’s easier to disparage abstract concepts than a specific person, even if they are one and the same. 

So… I dunno. It’s all just very tough. It’s probably easiest if you just don’t care. It’s too bad that I do. You can’t just hide behind “Nothing personal.” This is art after all.

* Don’t read too much into this — I have yet to talk about plenty of drummers that I love.

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