KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

2014 columns, Music

The critic as parasite

by Chad Parkhill , May 7, 20142 Comments

Grimes

 

It’s an interesting time to be a music critic. So far 2014 has been marked by an assortment of micro-scandals about the way that music criticism is written, from both inside and outside the profession. Not long before Ted Gioia’s plea for music critics to learn and use the technical language of music theory was published, The Jezabels’ lead singer Hayley Mary launched a broadside against the profession (if indeed you can call it that), telling music critics to ‘fucking get a real job’.

More recently, the artists Lorde, Iggy Azalea and Grimes – who have all experienced the vicissitudes of sudden and spectacular success – attacked music publications and their writers tout court for their perceived inconsistency. ‘have a stance on an artist and stick to it. don’t act like you respect them then throw them under the bus’, Lorde wrote on her tumblr, in response to a damning review of Azalea’s album The New Classic in Complex, which had previously featured Azalea on its cover. The post was reblogged by Grimes, who added ‘hahaha yes — i agree with this’ and endorsed by Azalea on Twitter, who added ‘media LOVE to flop about, But when you’re completely spineless Im sure its hard to stick to even ur own opinion’.

I say ‘perceived inconsistency’ because, as Complex’s associate editor Insanul Ahmed makes clear in his response to Lorde, Azalea and Grimes’s comments (published within hours of Lorde’s original piece), a publication’s ‘inconsistency’ is entirely consistent with the principles of editorial neutrality and ethical journalism. I can certainly understand why so many music critics felt the need to respond to the three women’s comments: each of them, in attacking the perceived inconsistency of critics, displayed an ignorance of what critics do and the ways in which editors take pains to ensure that their publication’s commercial aims don’t conflict with its responsibility to speak critically about any given album.

For those of us who inhabit the world of music criticism, these artists’ comments display a shocking (yet understandable) naïveté about what it is we actually do. But does pointing out that naïveté necessarily entail that these complaints are illegitimate? Can we therefore rest assured that their complaints don’t indicate any problems with music criticism as a whole?

Refusing to recognise the legitimacy of Lorde, Azalea, and Grimes’ complaints – as many refused to recognise the legitimacy of Hayley Mary’s prior complaints – is a defensive move that allows we critics to avoid any kind of introspection about what it is that we do. It’s also hypocritical, insofar as we deny ourselves the kind of treatment that we have dished out. That we have resorted to it is understandable, since not many people like to question their most cherished beliefs about their role in the world (even if that role is one that very few people actually make a living from).

As Shaun Prescott notes, ‘music writers [have] eagerly tak[en] the opportunity to justify themselves. Here’s an opportunity to defend a practice which is currently not taken very seriously at all. No one stops to think whether their approach is actually shit’. Another way to put it: If musicians have misunderstood music criticism as an artform, well, that’s not their problem – it’s ours. It means that we haven’t made a very good case for our continued existence at all.

Part of the problem is that critics tend not to articulate the merits of their profession – the benefits of a culture of rigorous musical criticism are taken as self-evident, when to the casual bystander it can look like mean-spirited sledging. And this perception, in turn, is rooted in the concept that music criticism is, fundamentally, parasitical: or, as Joel Connolly puts it, ‘If criticism didn’t exist, music still would. Criticism is dependent on the artist and what they create, not the other way around.’ Even one of music criticism’s luminaries, Simon Price, defines the profession as fundamentally parasitical (if necessary).

Yet, as J. Hillis Miller notes in his influential essay ‘The Critic as Host’, the notion of the parasite is ripe for deconstruction – it comes from the Greek para sitos, ‘beside the grain’, and initially meant a person with whom you shared food: a guest. In this deconstructive reading, the critic – whose artform is supposedly parasitic upon other artforms – reveals the parasitism of the artwork: ‘If the poem is food and poison for the critics, it must in its turn have eaten. It must have been a cannibal consumer of earlier poems.’ But this role comes with its own ethical obligations: ‘Criticism is a human activity which depends for its validity on never being at ease within a fixed ‘method’. It must constantly put its own grounds in question.’ If we music critics would like for our work to be taken seriously, we might start by becoming better, more ethical parasites – and that, in turn, means taking criticism of our own work seriously.

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Australian, Killings, The Lifted BrowMeanjin, and The Quietus, amongst others.

ACO logo




9781863957434

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their June picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

lisa-gorton_the-life-of-houses

James Tierney

A Novel of Longer Exhalations: Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses

It’s sometimes said that each book teaches you how to read it. That each way of telling a story needs to not only beguile anew but needs to tutor the reader in the ways to best attend its pages. Read more »

9781743316337

Danielle Binks

Finding Books for Young Readers: The Reading Children’s Book Prize

James Patterson once said, ‘There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading and kids who are reading the wrong books.’ So how do we get the right books into the hands of budding bibliophiles? Well, the Readings Children’s Book Prize Shortlist is a great place to start. Read more »

clouds-of-sila-maria-1

Rebecca Shaw

The curse of the ‘gal pals’

As a well-known humourless, angry, hairy arm-pitted, feminist lesbian, I encounter daily issues that I can place on a scale from things that mildly irritate me all the way to things that completely offend me. Read more »

2691149967_01b38304f3_b

Rebecca Shaw

Fuck Yeah: Swearing like a lady

I had been trying to pinpoint exactly why the HBO television show Veep brings me such joy. Yes, it is a very funny, very well-written show with a great cast, but that didn’t quite go far enough in explaining the immense enjoyment it gives me. The eureuka moment finally struck when I stumbled over a compilation video of the best insults from the show. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

tom-cruise-jack-reacher-premiere-postponed

Chris Somerville

A lit match in a box of wet dynamite: Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher

I first watched Jack Reacher a few years ago, in a spate of insomnia. The plot is a confused mess, both needlessly intricate and incredibly simple. I’m not going to go into it, mainly because I don’t actually know why the people in this movie do anything. Read more »

Partisan

Joanna Di Mattia

To experience the world with blinkers on: Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan

Partisan beautifully evokes that complex space between childhood and adulthood, when we start to question the worldview we have inherited – when we begin to see the world through our own eyes. It is both a coming-of-age story, and an innocence-coming-undone story. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

OITNB2

Anwen Crawford

Still in Prison: The limitations of Orange is the New Black

No, I haven’t binge-watched the entire new season of Orange Is The New Black in one sleepless, bleary-eyed frenzy. This season, the show’s third, doesn’t lend itself to that kind of viewing. The pace is slower, the cliff-hangers missing. Read more »

kim-kardashian-selfish-cover-main

Brodie Lancaster

We Are All Kardashians

For the past five years, I have loved and been obsessed with the Kardashians. Specifically, the E! reality series that made them famous. I often feel the need to intellectualise why I like these series and the people on them – you know, because I’m not a moron, and these are shows about morons, for morons. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

CrawlMeBlood_20150607_261_LoRes copy

Jane Howard

Adhocracy: Lifting the curtain on the creative process

Every June long weekend I wrap myself up in several extra layers and make my way to the Waterside Worker’s Hall in Port Adelaide for Adhocracy, Vitalstatistix’s annual hothouse that brings together artists from around the country for a weekend of creative development. Read more »

Orlando #2 - THE RABBLE

Jane Howard

This Is a Story of Artistic Excellence

This is a story of the first four plays I saw at Malthouse Theatre. It’s a story that can only continue as long as support for independent artists continues; it’s a story that can only keep growing as long as support for independent artists grows. It’s a story of where artistic excellence comes from, and how we get to see it on our main stages. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »