What Awaits Good Criticism—An Object Lesson from SPIN Magazine

Bear with me: SPIN Magazine has a new top-100 list, headed “SPIN’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”.  If you feel like reading it, go ahead. You’re guaranteed to feel a few moments of mild vindication, and a few of intense provocation. They’ve done the same thing many times before, and it’s a recipe that SPIN, among other magazines, have down to an exact science, by now. The comment thread on their website makes for a good litmus test of their success, too; every commenter found something to rage against, even if they had to resort to reading other comments. The sort of people who like arguing about this sort of thing have, undoubtedly, brought the fight to Facebook, too. But under all the comment-baiting, this is a great example of the ‘music news churn’ in operation. And I worry that it illustrates a growing trend.

The obvious criticisms are, conveniently, justified—as the “100 Greatest” list its headline would seem to suggest, the article is baffling in both what it includes and what it leaves out. But the bigger-picture complaint is that there’s actually a good idea underneath this article: as the introduction briefly hints, it’s an attempt at a list of musicians (guitarists or otherwise) who might have made lasting contributions to the way we hear guitars, in the generation since the Velvet Underground, or thereabouts. Rather than holding up technically skilled guitarists, most of the authors are out to praise new directions. (Skrillex and Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay  both place, by virtue of their use of recorded guitar tracks.) There are certainly too many chefs in the kitchen, and the text of the article regularly disagrees with itself, both in tone and in content. But there are, undeniably, good criticism and insight on display. The big idea, unfortunately, just doesn’t jive with the editorial voice.

I don’t mean to weep for what might have been, in that particular article. But it’s a better-than-usual example of a wider problem. It would be naive to say this is a sign of the times in publishing, since magazines have been running exactly this kind of piece since long before there was an internet. And SPIN is certainly just one lemming in the herd. But I do worry that the imperative to bait traffic has begun to push the balance of content more and more towards this type of article. We sacrifice an awful lot of smart criticism to create the illusion of controversy, these days, and I don’t believe anybody wins, in that exchange.

I hear a lot of political journalists taken to task for putting sensationalism above reporting, these days. But I have to think there’s more at stake, when it happens to music. As Lester Bangs put it, art is more important than politics, in the long run.

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