We talk a lot about the decline of reviewers at mainstream publications. We have a lot of thoughts on the matter. Luckily, we have lots of server space, thus room for one more.
What is truly missing in today’s review world is passion. Good, old-fashioned, “I loved this so much I had to tell you about it” passion. There is a whiff of the academic in the work of many reviewers. Great, if you’re trying to write your master’s thesis, not so great if you’re trying to inspire your readers.
Let us take this lead from the Los Angeles Times’ review of the final Sleater-Kinney show:
Sleater-Kinney, arguably the most respected rock band of the post-Nirvana era next to Radiohead, played its final concert Saturday at the Crystal Ballroom. The second of a two-night hometown farewell, the concert sold out in five minutes and attracted fans from as far as Los Angeles and New York. Don’t feel too bad, however, if you didn’t know it was coming. Born of the ardently independent feminist punk movement riot grrrl, Sleater-Kinney thrived for more than a decade on a track parallel to the mainstream. Its farewell to that semi-underground America was musically majestic enough to fill a sports arena, but its spirit suited this artfully decaying theater in America’s reigning bohemian town.
Makes you want to dive right in and read the rest, doesn’t it? Compare that lead to the lead from Pitchfork:
Sleater-Kinney settled their 11-year career on bittersweet chords: “One More Hour”, the iconic break-up song from Dig Me Out, whose lyrics encapsulate the moment just before a departure. “In one more hour, I will be gone…” sang Corin Tucker, wistfully. “In one more hour, I leave this room” Their departure was imminent and, it seemed, reluctant. As they played the final tones, the final song in the second encore of their last show, tears streaked each of the three women’s faces. They dropped their instruments, hugged each other, and walked off stage.
Same topic, different impact. I want to read the Pitchfork piece. I can barely work up the enthusiasm necessary to glance at the LA Times article.
The two publications speak to vastly different audiences. The Times must necessarily focus on a vast range of media while Pitchfork generally hits the music that falls on the outer edges of our world. Wired describes Pitchfork as “small”. Fair enough. Because it’s better to be small and influential than to be large and frequently dismissed (don’t get me wrong, the Times has some great writers, they simply don’t often get a chance to really shine). Pitchfork thrives because it does the one thing it needs to do…really well:
Though the music industry has seen drastic changes in recent years, what has remained constant is the fact that most listeners still find their music with the assistance of a filter: a reliable source that sifts through millions of tracks to help them choose what they do (and don’t) want to hear. The filters we traditionally depended on — music magazines, radio stations, music video channels, even the recommendations of a trusted record store clerk — have diminished in influence enough to give a player like Pitchfork room to operate.
In a world of niches — and everything is a niche, when you get right down to it — we need filters. We need trusted sources to learn about new and cool things. Traditional media has lost its way on this issue. Publications like the Los Angeles Times have very large bills to pay; they need to cast a wide net to pull in large numbers. Online venues like Pitchfork can operate on passion alone for a very long time. With success comes overhead. It will be interesting to see how Pitchfork balances the need to pay bills with the passion that has made them an underground success.
The good news is that there will always be another Pitchfork waiting in the wings. Someone with a lot of passion, a lot of energy, a different approach to a familiar topic. Publications like Pitchfork scare traditional media because they can move fast and dart through crowds like nobody’s business. By the time the Times discovered “Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah”, they were already over with their target audience.
Once upon a time, publications like the Los Angeles Times
were trusted sources because they were the only source. Once competition set in, mainstream media decided it was better to shut up rather than put up. Things will change, things always change — those big bills require creative thinking.
While I agree with the basic premise here, I’m just not sure if I agree with your specific example. And it might just be down to the fact that you picked a writer whom I happen to enjoy.
One of those great writers in the L.A. Times is Ann Powers who wrote the aforementioned Sleater-Kinney piece (check out her book Weird Like Me: My Bohemian America for a pretty great hey, me too! account of what it was like to be your twenties during the Reagan era) — and no doubt that she’s been told to make sure that casual readers of the Calendar section need to know who Sleater-Kinney is prior to her discussion of the concert itself.
Whether or not anybody who is reading the Calendar section is going to casually read an article about Sleater-Kinney is another story.
Pitchfork, of course, doesn’t give a rats ass if you know who Sleater-Kinney is, because if you don’t, you aren’t reading Pitchfork. That’s the very true advantage that they have over the L.A. Times — so they get to jump right into the heart of the manner.
So I think that you might be assuming that the backstory-heavy LA Times lead means that the entire article lacked passion. I disagree. Because here is the second paragraph:
Had Powers been able to lead with that — easily as passionate, visceral and evocative as anything in the Pitchfork piece — it wouldn’t even been a question as to whether you wanted to read further.
That she didn’t — or couldn’t — in her Sleater-Kinney article speaks more to the position of rock criticism in daily newspaper (and couldn’t someone look at the exact same article and go “cool, the Times is paying attention to Sleater-Kinney) as opposed to individual critics lacking passion.
Yes, but the fact of the matter is that the lead was dead on arrival. Every student of journalism knows that the lead should be the grabber. If you don’t say it all in that first paragraph, you haven’t done your job. If this was an editorial decision, it was a bad one — and exemplifies one of the flaws with mainstream newspapers like the LAT.
Reviewing should be visceral — and this dry, academic tone often extends to other reviews (for a dull Sunday, read the Times Book Review section).
I believe that the job of a reviewer is to build a trust relationship with his or her audience. You’ve achieved that already with Powers; I haven’t. I tend to note the bylines of reviewers who reach out and grab me from line one. And by extension, the reviewer is the LAT. Your final sentence is key here: if a reviewer can’t evoke passion for art either through weak writing or editorial decision-making, then the publication isn’t doing its job. Reviewing is, somewhat, a sales job. I wasn’t sold — worse, when I was looking for an example of a good review (because this piece started in a very different direction) in the LAT archives, I kept encountering stuff that was equally yawn-inspiring (a shame because the Times has good, strong, creative writers). It just so happened that this made for a good comparison.