Pablo Picasso is said to have once quipped, “When art critics get together they talk about form and structure and meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.”
As it goes in art, so it goes in music. While critics of today try to ascertain where an artist’s work will place them in the pantheon, the musicians themselves would rather talk “turpentine.” And rightly so, because the creators are probably the last people who should analyze their own work.
The problem with critics, of all arts, is that there has never been a singular bar they can measure work against. The critical stance that one would view Radiohead through is not the same as Carly Rae Jepsen, although both are award-winning artists who’ve created music that has reached and enthralled mass audiences. The majority of music critics would agree that Radiohead is an important band and that “Call Me Maybe” is a classic pop song — that both are good, in their respective areas.
And so, with no uniform measure to compare apples like Radiohead to oranges like Carly Rae Jepsen most critics rely on crafting a story around an artist to give their music context. This new “critical” angle is often created by working with a narrative drafted by a band, their management and their publicity team, forming a melting pot of competing interests. So today, the ideas of criticism and narrative and publicity are very intertwined. But this was not always the case.
Foals, Jessie Ware and Airborne Toxic Event were posed the same question by Radio.com about the state of art criticism, through the lens of a particular scenario. These three acts, with very different backgrounds with a variety of musical ethos, have been press darlings and press derelicts. All three gave answers that started out the same, but ended up in entirely different places.
The artists were asked to look back to the era of Impressionist artists. Through the lens of history it is one of the most beloved and most lucrative periods in the history of art. But in their own time, the Impressionists, including the father of Impressionism Édouard Manet, were panned by their critics as talentless hacks. In fact, their very name was a diss — critics and contemporaries of the first wave of Impressionist painters used the term to indicate that they weren’t good enough at painting to create a lifelike picture, which was the preferred and lauded model at the time.
The Impressionist artists had a different relationship to critics than do artists of any style in modern times. In their time, a person simply exhibited their art, leaving it to tell the story. It was the job of the critic to interpret it and attach cultural value. There were no celebrity interviews with the artists, no exposés in which post-Impressionist Gauguin would have
been asked to explain how he contracted new and bolder STDs while he hung with man-eating cannibals and painted his island life series (which had to be a million times more interesting than the pears and French countryside in which he’d largely specialized).
We presented the three groups of musicians with a conceit: should art stand on it’s own or would they prefer to create, craft and participate in the stories told about their art?
Foals, whose third album Holy Fire was released in February, have received uniformly good reviews from the majority of music outlets. They are also known, especially in the British press, to give sometimes outrageous soundbites, especially when prompted. They told Radio.com, unprompted, that they sent an intern to gather bones from a butcher shop that they then attempted to use as percussion instruments. The experiment was unsuccessful, but the story becomes part of the lore about the artists. It helps to paint a picture of them as innovative and slightly dark.
These personality quirks as storytelling devices make them a hot commodity among journalists, which can mean long and repetitive press junket days for the band. And so, first, keyboardist Edwin Congreve addressed the hassle that self-promotion can be.
“I’d say that art, our art as music, is also a commodity,” Congreve said. “We’re enabled to make it via the commercial entity of our record label and so on. So it’s a very big world. There are requirements made of us, to make the whole thing work. I think it’s mature of us to accept our position in that world. I think if Yannis were to make some kind of like…if he could make a piece of music that was representative, like a work of art on a wall, then maybe he could walk away and be like, ‘There it is.’ But music works in a very different way.”
Foals singer Yannis Philippakis weighed in as well, first deriding the process of press junkets as a thing can “demystify” the music. But he also pointed out the positive side of doing press: a degree of control.
“I think that just because we’re the musicians doesn’t mean that we’re the people who are the most qualified to discuss our music because our perspective is totally warped on it,” Philippakis said. “We do probably a fairly shoddy job of endorsing our own music. On the other side of it…it’s an ability to counter what critics say.”
The price that comes with control over the news cycle is paid by the public. Critical music writing from the likes of Lester Bangs once flourished, but now is replaced with wacky and SEO friendly headlines over sometimes vapid content (we’re all guilty). Instead of depth and consideration, we learn to value funny photos and a brief write-up. For a band like Foals, who have made a considerable music evolution over their three-album career and are born of an art rock scene, it would be most interesting to evaluate them based entirely on their merits. Do we need Philippakis to tell us that the single “Inhaler” is meant to evoke a sense of claustrophobia when the song makes that plain?
Coming from an entirely different point of view is self-described “electronic British soul” singer Jessie Ware. Unlike Foals and Airborne Toxic Event, Ware is a single person show. While she works with producers to make her music, the end result is entirely her. There is no compromise with a group of people about presentation: in the press, she can be an unadulterated version of just Jessie Ware.
Ware has developed a reputation for giving amusing interviews and it would seem that the process of speaking to the press or critics is an important promotional tool for her.
“For me, I feel like the interviews and me being myself has really helped me with my career because I think it means that I’m approachable and that maybe hopefully people can relate to me,” Ware said. “And I think me having a backstory of being a backing singer [for Jack Peñate] and a dance vocalist [with SBTRKT], it helps people contextualize it and have content in a story, which I think people, especially journalists, are always looking for because it helps them.”
In art criticism some of the best and strongest work is done when the critic provides a response to the art. For music especially, the context of the response (i.e., “I put on Jessie Ware’s Devotion as make-out music.”) can give the reader the clearest indication of what they will hear. Ware understand this and takes it one step further, marrying the ideas of criticism and information dissemination. And, one step more, as a method for artistic actualization.
“Regarding the music, my music isn’t the most kind of obscure kind of music,” Ware said. “It’s pretty straightforward. It’s supposed to be a romantic music that you can either groove or kiss or whatever to. So, I’m happy with people having the kind of access to my story and actually appreciative that they do. I think it’s really helped me be able to explain how I want my music to be received and explain me, as an artist, as well — which I’m just kind of discovering myself.”
Airborne Toxic Event offered a vastly different perspective and tackled the problem of pervasive criticism, positing that technology may be erasing the need for music criticism entirely.
“There used to be this sense that [music critics] were your beacon, your loudspeaker to the world,” singer Mikel Jollett. “It just doesn’t happen anymore because if I want to know if I like Alabama Shakes, I go to YouTube and I listen to one minute of Alabama Shakes. Why would I read an article about what they sound like?”
That said, Jollett still believes firmly in music storytelling. He advocated ditching the criticism and instead turning an investigative eye on the audience. That would undoubtedly be interesting and useful information for the artist (and the marketing team behind them) but is very different from critical writing.
“Now I still think there’s a huge place for storytelling and for writing about the ideas,” Jollett said. “I love the idea of somebody going to a show and being like, ‘Why is everybody here?’ That’s the question I think is the important one in music. ‘Why are these people compelled to be here?'”
Bass player Noah Harmon brought up an valuable point: art criticism is rarely archived or seriously studied, for the public or in an academic arena. His point was said in the spirit of being against the need for criticism, but the greater idea he sheds light on is that even the very best of art criticism is rarely celebrated. That alone begs the question: What did we ever need music critics for?
“Historically speaking…it’s like everybody remembers Billie Holiday but nobody remembers the first awesome review she got,” Harmon said. “That’s just gone, it’s irrelevant at this point. So in 80 years, the floor is wide open. But the music survives.”
The final question is: would the art survive independent of any criticism? From Billie Holiday to Airborne Toxic Event, artists’ work is shaped by the feedback that comes with thoughtful criticism. While not all criticism is good or even right (a popular example being all the years that Rolling Stone panned Led Zeppelin’s albums in their reviews section), good criticism can be more than a promotional tool. It can be an influencer of better art. That’s a cause fans, artists, publicists and critics can all stand behind.
Courtney is the pop producer for Radio.com and the author of Record Collecting for Girls: Unleashing Your Inner Music Nerd, One Album At A Time.