Uneducated Criticism


Here’s another longer-read piece about a subject that just started bouncing around my head last night. The idea started when I was writing an album review and found myself being somewhat critical of the band, saying that I felt an element was missing and that the band hadn’t quite found it yet. This brought the question to my mind of do I actually have a right to be critical of a musician?

So hear me out on this. For starters, I have zero technical knowledge about music. I know there are these things called “instruments” that get plugged into these big, magic boxes and then wonderful noises come out from said boxes. I have a vague idea of what the magic is, thanks to living with two electrical engineers, but for the most part I just stand there slack-jawed, like a caveman finding a shiny mineral for the first time. How those instruments are played? No damn idea, it’s a skill I never learned and never really have a desire to learn.

All that being said, I’ve listened to music for long enough where I can pick out certain things during songs, I can listen a little bit deeper than I used to and most of the time I can verbalize what I’m hearing, even if it has no technical grounding. Now I have no illusions that all critics are musicians, I know the industry of criticism is mainly founded by listeners, not creators, with the depth of personal knowledge varying from person to person.

I think there are two sides to this argument of “who has the right to criticize”, which I will try to elaborate on. The first argument, to me, seems the most obvious. Only a creator, or someone who has the knowledge and understanding of a creator, has the right to criticize a creation. This makes sense, only a person with an intimate understanding of what goes into a creation can present a valid argument on where it falls short and where it excels.

Let’s compare this to an industry beyond music, one where the distinction is much clearer. Any technical industry or trade, from mechanics to plumbers to steel manufacturing and circuit-board assembly, there is a clearly defined “book” of knowledge and criticism only ever comes from someone with equal or greater knowledge than you. For example; you wouldn’t go up to your mechanic and tell him that he measured the valve clearance on your engine wrong, because chances are you don’t know what the fuck that is.

Without a solid foundation in the technical issues behind the work or creation, you can’t begin to comprehend how, or even what to criticize. Most people don’t understand why their TV set stops working but can be quick to criticize the repair person, even though they don’t have the faintest idea what goes on behind that inky black screen. While music and art in general present their own interpretations of this analysis, I think this approach is very applicable. How could you possibly being to analyze a work of music when you don’t understand the intricacies and skills that lie behind the sound coming from your speakers?

The second approach to this issue is the complete reversal of the first. I would say that it is completely fair to argue that since music and art are objects meant to be consumed by a general, uneducated public, that the public then has an inherent right to criticize these works. This of course starts the whole argument of “who is art created for”, which may have a place in more abstract forms of performance or visual art but for the sake of my argument won’t be considered.

It is safe to assume that a recording musician is creating music for the general populace. They are creating music for their fans and distributing it as such. The majority of published music is not created with the intention of only being for exclusive ears. Music is created to be heard by any and all who want to hear it, regardless of their knowledge, training or understanding of the subject matter.

This presents a perfect counter to my comparison to the technical industries above. Music is not as clear cut as casting steel molds or repairing an engine. There is no “right” answer and the work that is created is open to a massive amount of personal interpretation that is not found in those other industries I mentioned. You can’t interpret a valve clearance any other way, it is a clear numerical answer, if you fuck it up you can’t recover that.

Music has no such numerical answer. Songs can be heard by a thousand different people and enjoyed and analyzed a thousand different ways. You can argue that music is much, much more than the sum of its analytical notes and melodies and that what a person hears in their head, is much more important than the strict notes that appear on paper. In this respect, everyone and anyone who hears music can be a critic of it. They are the intended audience and can make criticisms not based on technical know-how but on personal intuition and feeling, which for this argument is all that really matters.

So which is it? Should criticisms be founded on a technical understanding or on a personal intuition? Well I just don’t know. For me personally, the technical argument holds a lot of water. While the music may be open to my personal interpretation, I cannot possible begin to verbalize a complaint against something I don’t understand. However I think the opposing side presents just as strong an argument, since the music I’m talking about is created for and to be consumed by fans and the general population.

Anyone who has read my writing for long enough would have noticed I essentially never criticize a band. Partially because I never write about music I don’t enjoy but also because I never considered my “musical opinion” to be very valid. Even after looking at both sides of this quandary I don’t see this habit changing. I’m perfectly happy being a dirt-dumb listener and verbalizing my enjoyment of a particular artist or song through things I can understand, like textures, grooves and melodies. However I don’t see myself ever being able to be a full-fledged “critic”, without developing that technical knowledge to work from.

What do y’all think? Should everyone have a critical voice or should it instead be reserved for those people with the know-how?

And of course; Some music.


4 Responses to “Uneducated Criticism”

  1. You raise several valid points here. The shortest answer I can give is, as the creator of any type of creative output, it’s extremely difficult to be critical of your own work, just as it’s difficult to gauge what the audience’s reaction may be. So unless you’re someone who says “I create my art for myself and I don’t care what other people think” (which is always a lie anyhow), it’s a vital part of the creative process to get some sort of feedback from outsiders.

    Then again, as a critic, you need to consider YOUR audience. Are you writing with the intention of informing the artist how you feel about his/her/their art? Or are you writing for a third party (“the general public” perhaps) to share what you feel is good or bad about it?

    Thirdly, from the readers’ perspective, it doesn’t really matter what you know. Everything is subject to different people’s opinions, so really what is needed is some sort of benchmark to compare those opinions. A writer might have an astounding amount of technical knowledge on the subject of music, and yet be of the opinion that autotuned vocals are the most beautiful sound ever. Once I’ve learned this — I’ve established a benchmark for that writer. So in the future, if he/she is describing something unfamiliar to me as ‘beautiful’, I will interpret that as ‘probably will make me want to shove a pencil deep inside each ear canal’. Who you (the writer) are, and what you know, are usually less important when establishing your credibility (to me, the reader) than a little bit of context for the opinions you share.

  2. Thanks for that reply, all of those points make a lot of sense. I never really considered a critic as part of the creative ecosystem but it does make sense. I’m horrible at judging the quality of my own work and constantly use other people to evaluate it.

    For your second point, wouldn’t those two essentially be the same thing? Even if you are tailoring your words to the general public, it can still be filtered back to reflect on the artist even if you weren’t intending it to. I would say that sharing what you feel is good or bad about something will always reflect back to the creator.

    I totally agree with your last point, a writers bias has a huge impact on your opinion of them. Writing for art is the opposite of writing for the news. In the news you don’t want any bias, just clear facts but in writing for music the authors bias has a far bigger impact because then it can reflect your own views and help you decide if you will like what they’ve written about.

    • Let me rephrase that, then. You’re correct: regardless of whom your intended audience is, your critical analysis can reach (and have an effect on) the original creator as well as other people.

      But I meant that it makes a difference to you (the writer) whom you are writing FOR, particularly regarding your own expertise or your “right” to criticize.

      I’ll return to your analogy of a tv repair person. As a tv owner/watcher/non-expert, you couldn’t write a detailed criticism of the technical aspects of the repair job, telling the repair person exactly what he/she did correctly or incorrectly. On that case, your lack of knowledge actually does make you unqualified to criticize. But if — for example — you paid a repair person to come fix your tv, and you had either an exceptionally good or poor experience, you are qualified to review that service for other people to read. Although you may not know the technical details, others who may also need tv repair service (but who also might lack that detailed expertise) could benefit from reading your assessment of your repair experience.

      Now, that review might also come to the attention of the repair person, and it might be helpful to see that you had a good (or poor) experience. But that person is not really your intended audience. You’re sharing your experience with other people who might want to use (or avoid using) that repair person. Likewise, you’re describing music you enjoy (or perhaps, don’t particularly enjoy) for people who might want to hear (or not hear) that band/album/song — even if they also are not knowledgeable about the technical intricacies of the music, it could be helpful to have you share your experience with them.

  3. Ok, I totally understand that. That’s a great analogy actually. You have to be aware of your scope and intended audience. You’re reviewing the service, not the act kind of.

    Solid points man. I knew the argument wasn’t as clear cut as I wrote it and your response have given me plenty of fresh angles to look at the scenario from so thanks for that.

    Although once you have defined your scope of criticism and who you are writing for, then it would be possible for you step outside your critical bounds by making either an outrageous of unfounded claim. Basically just getting too big for your boots, but it would be fairly obvious to anyone with adequate knowledge that the claim was bogus.

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