Critics - Why no one cares

Pitchfork columnist Chris Dahlen just dropped an article on the lack of great pop-culture critics in modern society. While it eventually devolves into a meandering expository exercise, I think his first argument is interesting. Briefly put, he thinks that the lack of great critics can be attributed to the cultural switch from drugs to technology as the primary turning point in our daily lives. The switch is important as the two occupy very different places within the cultural landscape, with drugs being dark, dirty, mind-expanding, cool, etc. while technology has at best a neat-o, gee-whiz kind of quality.

Two-second thought: I think Dahlen may have a point - there's definitely something about the way that we write about technology that's a bit formulaic and that is substantially less visceral. The degree to which it can be considered "life-changing" is generally measured by the degree to which it increases a person's level of efficiency, whether it be at working or goofing off.

But I think that if I were to make my own uneducated guess, it would be that pop critics are on their way out not because their subject is now technology related, but because technology has completely reshaped the competitive landscape and the size and accessibility of the criticizable world. As of now, basically anyone in the world can be a critic with the advent of the Internet. Pitchfork itself is an example of a site that started from nothing, with no publishing "cred," that has managed to turn itself into the poster board for indie music. Moreover, it is surrounded by a community of bloggers, which are mainly reviewed musicians and former columnists, that can reasonably claim to have the same level of credibility as any of the people that actually write anything on PF. Given that blogging is now a free, readily available service, there are no barriers to entry keeping any would-be upstart writer from jumping in with his/her two cents. With so many people talking at theoretically equal volume, how could one person possibly come out with the biggest voice?

The same kind of description can be leveled at virtually every facet of pop culture - movies, television, celebrity gossip, video games. Each of these subjects can now be viewed with both macro- and microscopic intensity. I can look at the television industry as a whole, or I can read detailed descriptions of the blacklight picture that Locke saw on Lost in that one episode, accompanied by well-articulated if completely insane theories on what the picture might actually mean.

This information is also incredibly current. Whereas old-school critics might have had some sort of informational edge over the consumer, those days seem to be rapidly disappearing. There are enough critics constantly pushing out information as soon as they get it that there no longer seems to be a set of people that can comfortably claim to know more about their pop-culturish subject than any research-hungry consumer.

Lastly, the level at which I look at these issues is completely at my discretion. This creates a problem for traditionally trendsetting magazines like Rolling Stone, which historically have had a much easier time corraling unfragmented public opinion. As soon as everyone can go out on their own and figure out what is cool for themselves, then the number of tastes/opinions that Rolling Stone has to successfully address becomes infinitely larger/less manageable. At that point, Rolling Stone has two options: they can either:

a) Cater to the largest customer segments by covering that which is already popular
b) Try and strike out on their own and continue to be perceived as a trendsetter

The problem with a) is that it is essentially a concession of defeat. It turns the Rolling Stones of the world into trend-followers, rather than trend-setters. The problem with b) is that it's just ridiculously impossible, especially given the exponentially-growing numbers of competing voices.

So, it's not very surprising to me that there are no new great critics. Whereas critics could previously rely on inside information and the undivided attention of a public untainted by media-saturation, critics today no longer have any of those luxuries. While Rolling Stone and all of the other great taste-setters will still have a place in this world, I doubt it will ever be the way that it used to be.



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