Media

Is Music Journalism Dead?

There was a time when people sincerely believed that music had the potential to effect change. What happened?
If ever there was a time when writing about music felt utterly pointless, that time is now. I sit at home nitpicking bands, trying to pinpoint the derivations of a sample or riff from the pantheon of music history, and the world burns. Natural resources careen toward depletion. Torture increasingly surfaces as an instrument of policy. Shortsighted tyrants, spineless power-mongers and heartless thugs vie egomaniacally, dangerously, for power. I turn up my MP3 player and tune out the world. At a time when I should be taking to the streets, I am listening to The Streets.

We music journalists are notoriously candid about the inanity of our chosen career path. After all, the field seems to aggrandize troubling personal characteristics such as bullish solipsism, inflated, bratty taste, and an unhealthy clinging to the youthful behaviors of all-night shows, binge drinking, and following around rock-stars like hounds. The way the rock-crit clique mimics one big boy's network – not unlike trivia-obsessed gamers or joystick dorks – doesn't help matters as far as wresting us out of our self-imposed perpetual adolescence. And because music is entertainment, even when it or its journalism does delve into politics, it seems possible only to skim the surface, dealing with issues of gender, race, class, politics and economics as afterthoughts or tangents to the sound.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that taste, aesthetics, and politics are often disparate lexicons, since lyrics, melody, and rhythm combine to alter the meaning of both the words and the music. Case in point: I dig on some Guns 'N' Roses even though Axl Rose was/is a bigot; Ani DiFranco's pro-woman queer pride doesn't change the fact that her music is annoying, and indeed her beliefs might even enhance her music's annoyingness. I like the message of Gang of Four's "Capital (It Fails Us Now)" but I happen to like the bass lines better. A lot better.

Yet, music journalism historically has also always been a place for writers to air their politics or figure out ways to discuss music with a political bent. Its charge since its birth in the '60s has been to infuse pop culture with an air of seriousness; to find the added meaning floating among the notes and beats. When the world changed in the '60s and '70s – via feminism, civil rights, gay pride, war, recession – music journalism was there, chronicling the trends and tides as they emerged on the airwaves and the charts. As popular culture increasingly is our culture, it continues to harbor the best, brightest and most entertaining of our creative consciousnesses. And yes, because it comments on everything we are – social, economic, religious, personal – it is also political.

Still, that doesn't make the line between any individual artist and any world event easy to draw, or even appropriate; nor does it make the escape that's also offered by music (and its criticism) any less valid. If journalism can turn pop music into a space where the reader/fan can be freed of all thoughts about the world in all its fucked-up-ed-ness, isn't that worthwhile, too? Or, shouldn't music journalism go where the politics of music is going? These days, artists from the Streets to Prince to Wilco have in one way or another been publicly embroiled in the sticky underside of the music industry's battles with technology and, ultimately, cultural politics. This has given eager reporters plenty of fodder to work with; not to mention one hell of a soap opera to narrate. But perhaps not enough of us have considered how and if these issues of music industry politics play into a larger political scheme.

Here, I think, lies the true crux of the matter. The real debate is not between engagement and escapism: music journalism as political and relevant or apolitical and superfluous. To me, the real question seems to be a matter of when music and music journalists lost their revolutionary dream. For there was a point, not that long ago, when people sincerely believed that music had the potential to effect change in the political realm.

In the '60s, it wasn't an issue of distinguishing between music and the real world, because rock, from the heavy hitters like Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" to the hard grooves like Hendrix's "Foxy Lady", was the real world. There have been glimmers of this belief in the relevance of music to society ever since, from '70s "women's music" and punk to '80s hip hop to '90s rave, each a unique movement to move the world through sound. But the politics of music today has yet to be made relevant to the world beyond itself. If music journalism seems vain and extraneous now, it is because music itself feels that way.

Maybe this shift has to do in part with a popular disavowal of the youthful idealism and countercultural mysticism that naively believed that the Man couldn't bust our music. If music is just music, a business like the rest and we've been wrong all along, then I guess I might as well go back to my music collection, my nitpicking, and my feverish debating. It's not to say that my work necessarily has to save the world. But why does it seem so often to forget that the world even exists? Perhaps the biggest fallacy is the disconnect between real-world politics and the politics of music. It's the end of the world as we know it and I don't feel fine. It may be easier to listen and hum along, but maybe I should be rewriting the lyrics.
Devon Powers is PopMatters concert and interviews editor.
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