Leah Letter

Music criticism, take a look at yourself

You’re a lot like you always have been: bad.
Getty/Taylor Hill
Leah Letter

Music criticism, take a look at yourself

You’re a lot like you always have been: bad.

As much as I would love to live in a world of beautiful silence, I work in an open-plan office and live across the street from a coworking space for idling trucks, so sometimes I must listen to music. I believe Osama bin Laden put it best when he said, “Music is the flute of the devil,” but had bin Laden read Pitchfork, he would know that the devil also has a laptop, and on it, he writes about music.

If I’m ever feeling too content with life and need to know I still have the ability to become enraged, I’ll read some music writing. The last time I read a bunch of music writing and got really mad was when Joanna Newsom released her album Divers in 2015. The coverage of Newsom then and up until that point, while complimentary of her genius, was also largely condescending and even rather mean — how dare a woman make art!, writers seemed to say. Many of these articles, interestingly, were by men. My theory, which remains bulletproof to this day, is that men can’t write about women without being blowhard assholes, really creepy, or both.

When men write about male art, however, any semblance of the critical edge that is so sharp in chipping at the work of a woman tends to dull. Despite my misguided hope that this phenomenon might have abated in two years since I last read music writing, it has not. And upon the release of two much-hyped works by male musicians, I see that it is in fact more prominent than ever — and in new, uninspired ways.

Muck It Up

My theory, which remains bulletproof to this day, is that men can’t write about women without being blowhard assholes, really creepy, or both.

Let’s look first at Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors, a mainstream music writer’s wet dream. He’s quirky, handsome in a dirty way, went to Yale, collaborates with Kanye, and writes music that makes him seem deep and unreachable in a superficial way. Some of his music is really good; his most recent album, titled Dirty Projectors, is not. The record focuses on his breakup with former bandmate Amber Coffman, who brought light and texture to previous albums, and it’s written in the way only a completely oblivious man who thinks he’s a feminist but actually hates women can write. “Your heart is saying clothing line / My body said Naomi Klein, No Logo,” goes one lyric — yes, it’s a truism that women are consumed with vapid materialism while men dedicate themselves to the progressive cause in our patriarchal society. In a song in which he explores his post-breakup mood, Longstreth sings: “I wanna sleep with no dreams / I want to be dead.” I’ve had enough of this kind of contrite male melodrama in “art” to last me 10 centuries. Another song is sodden with hipster cliches: “I’m living at the Ace / You’re sleeping late in our apartment / It’s just been 808s for the eight days since our restart went heartbreak.” In writing an album about his breakup, Longstreth shows us that even a musician with an unusual and creative approach to his work can be constrained by the most mundane life event. Writing about actual, genuine emotions is hard, and this fells him.

It seems fair to question Longstreth’s emotional expression here because of how some media outlets treat him: as a strange, aloof genius whose art transcends his interpersonal dealings. Most of the writing about him has been rather ridiculous in this press cycle. Here’s a passage from a New York Times Magazine profile from last month by Jonah Weiner:

“A freight train rumbled past the studio on tracks abutting the building. Fiddling with the placement of two microphones, Longstreth seemed not to notice. Before long, I detected another, gentler source of noise pollution. A cricket had moved into the ceiling, and its intermittent chirping provided a hypnotic overhead beat. Longstreth moved to a worn old couch and, fooling around on an electric guitar, briefly improvised against it.”

This scene is great profile fodder in that it is completely fucking absurd. Would it have been better conveyed if Weiner acknowledged its inanity instead of writing it like a magical experience? A strong perhaps. To Weiner’s credit, he asks Longstreth repeatedly about his relationship with Coffman, and Longstreth tells him he wants to “leave it to the music,” which is a rich thing to say after you’ve written a highly personal piece of work and are doing a publicity tour for it. Mike Powell, in a January profile of Longstreth in Pitchfork, is not as hard on the musician. The subhed of his article sets the tone for what is to come: “Following a breakup, a guy goes west, sifting through life for his art.” But the really incredible thing about Powell’s article is that it also contains a scene with Longstreth and a cricket. (Mind you, this piece was published before Weiner’s.) The moment begins with Longstreth talking in vague, stoned terms about his art:

“‘But I go back and forth about whether this is all of life, or whether you’re missing something important in living, and whether or not as a humanist you’re abnegating a certain responsibility if this’ — this art — ‘is just where you are.’

All this is interesting, but it doesn’t seem to matter to the cricket chirping steadily away in the rafters. I finally stop to ask: Do you hear it too?

‘Oh yeah,’ Longstreth says, explaining that the cricket has lived here for as long as he has, and shows up on some of the album’s vocal takes if you really get in there. ‘It’s annoying,’ he says. ‘You have to figure out how to quiet it down.’ But nature is nature, and the beauty of nature is that you can’t give orders to a cricket.”

What does it all mean? Men listening to crickets together, talking about crickets, and talking about art. Crickets are great. They don’t have feelings. They don’t care about clothes! Crickets can hang. Crickets won’t break your heart. Longstreth might not have noticed his crumbling relationship, but he will not ignore a cricket, and neither will the men profiling him.

Crickets are great. They don’t have feelings. They don’t care about clothes! Crickets can hang. Crickets won’t break your heart.

Now, this is not to criticize “all” men who write about music. Some (one) of my best friends is a male music writer. But what do these forgiving profiles reveal about Longstreth? Nothing new, really, he’s the same old insufferable weirdo. But they tell us a lot about establishment music journalism: Men can make middling, maudlin art and be celebrated, and women artists face harsher scrutiny while doing the same thing, and usually better. Recall when New York Times critic Jon Caramanica said that Solange Knowles should not “bite the hand that feeds her” when she declined to go on his podcast. (The Times did not publish a full-length review of Knowles’s latest album, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart, but it did do a profile of her stylist.) We can also revisit this description of Newsom’s voice on her own breakup record, Have One on Me, by our friend Mike Powell: “Her voice — formerly, a brave little coo with intermittent breaks that sounded like air being let out from a balloon through pinched fingers — has rounded off and mellowed.” Compare this to how he described Longstreth’s tenor in Pitchfork: “Even Longstreth’s voice — once so urgent and wild, the sound of a dog with someone’s foot on its tail — has cooled out. The cape still shows, but this is his Clark Kent.” Stark!

Enough about Longstreth. Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields also released a new album recently. Merritt is known as a self-aware asshole, perpetually grumpy and affected, but also cool and not (really) a famewhore sellout. He does expansive projects, the newest of which is a personal work called 50 Song Memoir, and is a memoir of 50 songs. My review: It’s pretty good!

The coverage of Merritt’s project is intriguing in that it portends that deeply personal art is some kind of new and remarkable occurrence — that a man is clever and novel for feeling and expressing an emotion. The reviews marvel over this premise. Pitchfork: “His writing suggests that our deepest wisdom can be located in our most personal thoughts.” The Atlantic: “The outline of Merritt’s life as presented here doesn’t have a hero’s arc. Rather it’s an EKG stagger between far-flung places and emotional states.” Slate: “[The album] has superior momentum in part thanks to its narrative pull: It’s driven by a Janus-headed mystery, of how Merritt’s peculiar sensibility evolved in the first place (the opener is called ‘Wonder Where I’m From’), and then whether his erratic route might somehow add up to any kind of contentment.”

Merritt is a uniquely talented musician. And even though his new album is good, it’s not exactly breaking ground in terms of narrative or biographical art. Here hangs a fragile balance. Articles about art benefit from being cognizant of the art around them and also the art that has preceded them. When art is not criticized in a vacuum, the results can be disastrous. But in journalism, perspective is everything. How does the journalist see the world, and how do they place art in it? If you’re paying attention, an article will reveal those biases. It will sometimes tell us more about the writer than what the writer is writing about.

This is all to say: Music journalism is still really bad, and most of it is preening bullshit. Alex Balk put it best on The Awl in a post about Merritt’s new album: “I’m not a big ‘let’s get all descriptive as fuck in the review’ type guy, because Jesus Christ, just tell me if it’s worth checking out and I’ll figure out the rest on my own.”

Get Leah Letter in your inbox.

Want something different?