Changing the tune of music criticism

by Nina Corcoran / Music Columnist • April 2, 2014

Last week, Canadian musician and composer Owen Pallett wrote an essay for Slate that applauded Katy Perry’s “genius” pop hit “Teenage Dream” for using the “ingenuity of the harmonic content.” In his piece, titled “Skin Tight Jeans and Syncopation” (the prior image a quote from Perry’s song), Pallett aimed to write music criticism that didn’t revolve around lifestyle reporting.

But wait — isn’t that already the heart of music criticism? In a perfect world, yes, but we’ve long since abandoned that.

A week before Pallet’s Perry piece was published, a recent Daily Beast article spread like wildfire across the internet. Ted Gioia’s “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting” confronted the new paradigm of artists being covered by their wardrobe, relationships, and lawsuits, asking for technical knowledge of the art form to return to its rightful place within text. 

Almost every music publication, in print or online, is guilty of this. Hell, even the title of Gioia’s piece had to be written in an attention-grabbing way to get casual readers to click it.

The problem, Gioia states, is that modern day media scoffs at music terminology the few times it attempts to show itself.

“When Harry Connick, Jr. recently used the word ‘pentatonic’ on American Idol, his fellow judge Jennifer Lopez turned it into a joke,” he writes. “Yet football announcers not only talk about ‘stunts’ or the ‘triple option’ but are expected to explain these technical aspects of the game to the unenlightened.”

Older critics like jazz historian Gunther Schuller, composer and TV star Leonard Bernstein, or New York Times critic Harold Schoenberg were known for explaining music to the public in a way that both educated and entertained. For some reason, modern critics seem fearful of doing so.

To be fair, their fear seems to stem from the public selling themselves short. We, as a whole, have developed an unwillingness to listen. Websites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy promise us they won’t waste our time while wasting our time.

These websites think we’re busy, but ultimately they’re implying we’re dumb. Who’s to say we can’t read a well-written article to get to the main message? The point becomes much less sharp when we strip away the explanatory buildup and supporting evidence. You can’t read a book’s best quotes and get its contextual meaning. You have to read the whole book. You need context.

Unlike other contemporary critics, Pallett didn’t discuss the lifestyle antics of Perry or her candy-laden closet. Also unlike other contemporary critics, he wrote an un-boring essay that used music theory. The two are, truly, of equal importance.

Some people are calling this “pretentious” in the comment section (a cave we know not to enter yet somehow always scroll through). Others are arguing over his academic terminology and misquoted lyrics. Nitpicky? Sure, but at least these comments show people are thinking beyond face value stuff.

What Owen Pallett did do was open up the playing field. If someone is going to try to discuss a piece of musical pop culture, I’m glad he’s the guy. Pallett won a Polaris Music Prize for his solo work, recorded and toured with Arcade Fire, and written string arrangements for The National, Taylor Swift, Linkin Park, and R.E.M. Music theory becomes second nature when he’s learning how to break down others’ work to fill in the gaps with violin.

His analysis tries to stay as understandable as possible. By relating sections of “Teenage Dream” to Fleetwood Mac, Coldplay, Blood Orange, and Black Sabbath, Pallett works as hard as he can to invite everyone onto a playing field where even the most casual music fan won’t feel out of place.

But there’s only so much he can do, and Pallett knows that. He went on to say, “This analysis was an easy one, because the song is straight fours and its ingenuities are easy to describe. If I were going to talk about “Get Lucky” I’d probably have to start posting score. That is a complicated song.”

And so he did.

Three days later, Owen Pallett returned to his keyboard to tackle Daft Punk’s 2013 hit “Get Lucky.” Cue the garbled music theory language about the minor mode of D Dorian and its similarity to A Aeolian notes that left many eyes glossed over (that is, before they started rolling). Writing an essay that includes traditional music criticism is difficult to do if you want to make it accessible to all levels of readership. Pallett made it possible to read, though. The problem lies within us, the readers.

The past few years of lazy reading, lazy purchasing, and lazy understanding have given the music consumption market what they always wished they had: the power to change The Man. We didn’t overturn the music world version of the government, but we did make journalism adjust to our needs. Headlines are tempting “Open Me!” pleas and the tone of content becomes more casual every week. 

It’s time we stiffen our backs and stick with the music criticism pieces, not because they’re tough or because they’re more rewarding. They help us learn, even about the most “basic” pop music. We should stick with them because they’re beginning to fade out — and depriving ourselves of that material is as ridiculous as the fact that it’s actually starting to happen.