Being a journalist isn’t easy, being a critic is even harder.

Arts & Literature Essay
Written by Nathan Mattise

I remember hearing in class and internships that my path to a career in journalism would be gradual but typical. See, I wanted to be either a cultural or entertainment journalist. Only a select few get to start off on a specialized path like that out of college. The likelihood was I’d start out writing obituaries and cops at a small local paper, volunteering outside of my regular hours in order to get some entertainment stories. Eventually (and ideally) from there I’d move up to do similar hard news coverage at a bigger paper. Then, if the cards fell just right, I’d potentially get the chance to pursue the niche beat I really wanted to.

Well take it from a former journalism student who “rebecame” a current journalism student- today is not an easy time to become a professional. The path above would be a dream for young writers today. Newsroom grunt work is now hard to come by, which means it’s doubly hard to try and break into specialized journalism (albeit sports, celebrities, technology, etc.).

It”s true blogs can give the most basic opportunity for any writer to write about anything, but doing that for a career isn’t easy (especially when it usually means writing before or after you come and go from your real job). Hell, I’m taking class with folks who were in the field and have now come back to school for graduate work to find arts journalism gigs. So in light of the difficulties entering the field, my recent experiences in the classroom and my recent increased attempts to write about music, it’s time to examine the basic premises of what makes a good critic (or at least what I was taught and what I try to do).

So the first thing is to not overthink things and let your voice/writing come through. That said, I’m limiting this to three approaches:

1) Whatever you’re taking in, go into it wanting to enjoy yourself.

This was the one tidbit that stuck with me from an honors fine arts seminar I took as a sophomore in college. We had to attend symphonies, operas, dramatic plays (i.e. things a normal college sophomore would easily bypass). There would be plenty of hmm’s and haw’s at whatever assignment Prof. West gave us, but he would always come back to this one rule. People look to entertainment to have a good time and we were no different. We were attending these events to be entertained and our reviews at their most basic level should reflect why we did or didn’t enjoy ourselves.

Whether you’re entertained or not is different from whether or not you personally like the artist/show or if you perceive a special talent (or lack there of). I would never in a million years listen to Ani DiFranco for leisure, but when asked to review a recent show of hers in Syracuse I found her genuine energy and lovefest between her the audience fun. At the same time, despite hip music critics telling me Yo La Tengo does no wrong and their side project, the Condo Fucks, should be worthy of praise – I was annoyed at the album for a few reasons (repetitive sound, overdone sound effects). Even in an overall negative review however, taking this approach allows you to site some positives (the few noteworthy tracks, the effect being cool for a few songs, an instrumental song) and I think a lot of professional critics are so driven on being strongly opinionated they forget you can find treasure among trash.

2) If you’re going in with inherent bias, either be honest about it or try to find what’s interesting about your experience.

My assignment to cover Bo Bice put me in this position. I’ve never watched American Idol and I have a strong dislike for the Daughtry-Hinder-Creed-Nickelback genre. I didn’t trash his show though (especially since the crowd loved him). Instead the night gave me an opportunity to write an article that highlights the power of Idol everywhere (suburban Pa. provides a sellout crowd for someone who didn’t even win).

I just wrote an entire paper on what can happen when critics don’t disclose their biases (slideshow here). My take on Fall Out Boy kind of follows the same suit – they certainly aren’t my cup of tea but if you know that going in you can consider it when reading my opinions. To some extent, my FOB bias may even have that Condo Fucks effect where flushing out the negatives subconsciously makes me highlight whatever positives I can for the sake of balance.

3) Allow anyone to understand your subject and opinions but utilizing common knowledge.

It seems like common sense. Not every reader will have the same level of expertise as a critic with access and a wealth of knowledge. Therefore, if you want people to understand the ideas you’re trying to convey you need to use common language. It can be something as basic as saying the band increased tempo (or played faster) instead of accelerando for example. More frequently it will come from comparing bands (see Phantogram and how aspects of their music can be Andrew Bird, Daft Punk or The Shins). You need to be careful not to draw totally offbase comparisons (Paul Simon and Vampire Weekend anyone?) but, without being able to create that shared language, your chances of describing a sound for readers is minimal.

(Links today from SU, NathanMattise.com and MySpace Music.)

Anyone want to catch some shows this summer? E-mail me pronto. I’m hankering.
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