Rats desert a thriving ship

The space for criticism to exist grows smaller and the archways that sustained its presence crumble away, laments Sarah Ditum

On Pop

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

I‘ve always resented the movie Ratatouille for implying that critics are basically vermin. The movie’s A plot is about a rat called Remy’s quest to become a chef, but its B plot is about a vicious restaurant reviewer called Anton Ego whose notices have the power to destroy his subjects.

At the film’s climax, Remy’s food sends Ego into a Proustian transport which leads him — oh hallelujah — to give up the criticism business and get on the creators’ side as an investor. In a rat restaurant. It’s a cartoon, OK?

The point is that the critic, like the rat (or the non-cordon-bleu-trained rat anyway), is a scavenger. Rats thrive on the run-off from human civilisation, eating our rubbish, living in our sewers; criticism thrives on the run-off from art.

For pop music, that meant that if you wanted to know which records were coming out, or who’s playing near you, or what your favourite singer’s favourite colour is, you had to buy a magazine. And if bands and labels wanted to reach the public, they had to offer access to journalists and pay for ads, which subsidised the cover price.

A less offensive comparison than rats is to say that professional criticism is what the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called a “spandrel”, after the decorative panels in church architecture. These panels are often beautiful and frequently significant, but no one sets out to make a spandrel for its own sake: you decide to make an archway, and in consequence you need a spandrel to fill the in-between space.

I’d rather not insult the critical profession, because they’re already occupied with some major injury

Spandrels, explained Gould, “arise as necessary by-products of another decision in design, and not as adaptations for direct utility in themselves.” His go-to example was the male nipple, which while a fine ornament to a well-turned pec, only exists because it’s part of the embryonic blueprint for the actually useful female nipple. Hang on, is calling critics nipples really less offensive than calling them rats?

I’d rather not insult the critical profession, because they’re already occupied with some major injury. In July the monthly music magazine Q published its last issue. It had suffered falling sales since the noughties, and the shock of Covid was more than it could take. Heavy metal specialist Kerrang! has suspended publication, and so has dance-focused title Mixmag. Music weekly the NME packed up its print run in 2018, after a few years as a freesheet, and is now just a website.

The music press isn’t alone in this diminishment. Criticism as a whole is on the slide — the space for it to exist grows smaller, the archways that sustained its presence are crumbling away.

Stars and fans no longer need the press as a mediator, because they have Instagram and Twitter instead. When the biggest names do deign to give their time to journalism, it’s very much on their terms: Beyoncé “in her own words” for Vogue, Taylor Swift getting softball questions from the Guardian.

If a band I like has a new release, I’ll get a push notification from  Spotify; if they’re gigging near me, an automated email will let me know. The kind of dedicated study I used to put into keeping up with the music press is no longer required. It’s not exactly better this way, but it’s certainly convenient enough that I’d be unlikely to return to old habits, even if the magazines were still standing.

This is an ambivalent state of affairs for me, because I’m a critic as well as a fan, and a nostalgist to boot. As a teenager, the music press was where I found not only bands I love, but cinema, literature, ideas — and the kind of person I could imagine growing up to be.

Not everyone feels that way, though. As humans hate rats for being our grubby shadow-selves (and also, I will concede, for Weil’s disease), artists and fans hate critics.

This animosity used to be limited to whiny songs like the Stereophonics’ miserable complaint “Mr Writer”, or letters to the editor from angry schoolgirls. Now, if an artist thinks they’ve been unfairly reviewed, they can lead their fans to war against insufficiently deferential titles and journalists.

Rapper Lizzo, dismayed by a 6.5 out of ten from the website Pitchfork, kicked out at the writer; Taylor Swift fans were similarly nonplussed when the same website gave her latest album an 8.0, and instigated a thoroughgoing social media harassment campaign.

All of which might be understandable, albeit still unpleasant, if reviews still mattered. But — insult to injury — they really don’t dictate sales any more, certainly not for artists at the top tier of the industry. The rats are on the run, the spandrels are brought low.

And so what? Criticism, we’re learning, was never an essential, always an add-on. But the thing about critics is, they’re the only people to take music as seriously as the people making it. They can be bitchy and snobby and sometimes just wrong, but without them, who’ll really be listening?

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