There is plenty to hate about music blogs: the snobbish attention to the obscure, the pissing matches, the breakneck pace of the tastemaking, and the overall shortage of deep analysis. But I read ’em, of course, because I don’t want to be left out. I like arguments about music. I like downloading unreleased tracks for free. I’m a music geek—and geeks seek validation by other geeks.
I’m just jealous that they didn’t have this shit when I was 23.
When I was fresh out of college in 1994 with an English degree and few decent clips, my only outlets were a couple of zines and the local daily—a mid-size Pennsylvania paper that I still write for. Back then I reviewed death metal and Alan Parsons, hip-hop and Disney soundtracks, indie rock and country “hat” acts. I’ve plowed through stacks of bad-to-mediocre CDs, and I’ve tried to keep up with the Billboard 200. Even though I’ve specialized more and more lately (particularly with hip-hop), I see the critic’s duty as one of self-sacrifice: Every record deserves at least one thoughtful listen, even if it’s the most commercially calculated piece of crap on the planet. Somebody has to set the world straight.
So, yeah, I’m a codger of sorts. I have a soft spot for intelligent reviews of uncool stuff. But as the blogosphere becomes the predominant place for people to read smart and vital coverage of music, there is proportionally less coverage of the uncool. I think the Web could use a few more musical omnivores. How many bloggers were willing to delve into Rod Stewart’s discs of cover songs? How many trendy sites treated Hinder’s hard rock as anything but a joke? When was the last time crooner Michael Bublé’s name popped up on an elite music blog, followed by careful exegesis? Would soul man Gerald Levert have gathered any attention from hipsters if he hadn’t passed away this year?
Don’t get me wrong—I fully embrace what the blogosphere does provide. It’s essentially a broad, asymmetric rebellion against the SoundScan regime and the stodgy business plans of the major record labels. Blogs offer what good fanzines used to offer: stylistic detours, obsessive detail, contrarian viewpoints, and a secondary economy that allows overlooked musicians to flourish, at least on a small scale. There isn’t much money in it, and it’s mostly done for love—or at least for the validation of other geeks. Alternative weekly newspapers like this one have long filled that role, too.
The problem is that—when compared to the worlds of zines or alt-weeklies—the blogosphere often feels like an arms race. Sites battle one another, writers battle commenters, commenters flame one another, and back up the chain again. An album like Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, the No. 1 disc on the Washington City Paper’s critics poll, spurred so much good online commentary that I decided to scrap my review of it for the CP. Within a week of the disc’s release, it seemed as though every angle was covered. And that was just because of the debate on one site, Oliver Wang’s popular Soul Sides. (Never mind the fact that it was impossible to get a jump on the blogs. Clipse and its record label were so protective of the disc that advance listens were almost nonexistent until it inevitably leaked online two weeks before its release; those leaks had been thoroughly digested long before less savvy fans could hear the album.)
In the meantime, large chunks of the album charts have gone unnoticed by the most influential music blogs, an ever-growing group that includes, in no particular order: Stereogum, Fluxblog, Cokemachineglow, Pitchfork, Said the Gramophone, Music for Robots, BrooklynVegan, Gorilla vs. Bear, and the e-mail publication Flavorpill. Yeah, sure, they’ll sometimes write in-depth about the hottest popsters—the Timberlakes, the Stefanis, the Furtados, the Beyoncés—because those artists make concerted efforts to appeal to sophisticated listeners. But a scan of the current Billboard 200 shows numerous acts who would only get passing mentions by the elites: Chris Daughtry, Sarah McLachlan, Josh Groban, Killswitch Engage, James Blunt, +44, and Rascall Flatts, just to name a few. When a popular, ostensibly unremarkable band does manage to irritate the famous blogs, it’s often on the receiving end of the nuclear option. The new album by Jet—often dismissed as a simplistic, untalented garage-rock act—received a Shark Sandwich-style review from Pitchfork: No text, just a video of a monkey pissing on itself. Funny, sure, but empty, too.
So why aren’t those best-selling performers getting much coverage? Brian Raftery of Idolator, a music site owned by Gawker Media (which also owns several popular gossip sites) that has broader tastes than many of its competitors, writes in an e-mail that age is a big factor.
“While I hate to make generalizations about the music blogosphere, it is, for the most part, run by people who are still in their teens and twenties,” Raftery writes. “There are older music bloggers, of course—I’m 31, which is verging on brontosaurial in this world—but it is a young medium, with young writers. And the fact is, when you’re in college or high school, you are immediately supposed to reject anything that’s old, *and* anything that’s popular. So a Rod Stewart covers record has close to zero odds of being taken seriously—much less getting covered—in the music blogs.”
Of course, there are still thousands and thousands of words about uncool artists written online every day: Amazon, MySpace, and iTunes are filled with commentary by fans; NPR, Slate, Salon, and daily newspapers still do extensive coverage of music; Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and Blender have significant Web presences; and a few all-things-considered music sites appear to be thriving, including Popmatters and USA Today’s Pop Candy blog. (And when all else fails, there’s always All Music Guide.)
But is anybody forcing the average indie-obsessed young’un to stretch, to suffer through the process of writing about an uncool record, because he or she might have something fresh to say about a stale artist? It doesn’t appear so. The easiest knock against bloggers is that they lack editors. But the core issue isn’t that they need someone to tighten their prose. It’s that there’s no secondary voice saying, “You’re ignoring a wide swath of the culture, one that could teach you a lot about the music you already care about.” So while the blogs fight it out, looking to surprise one another with the depths of their coolness, I’ll be waiting for even bigger surprises: some intelligent, insightful writing about sucky, best-selling records. Maybe I’ll even try doing some more of it myself.