LET'S GET SOMETHING STRAIGHT RIGHT FROM THE START. A LOT OF PEOPLE THINK THAT ALL POP CRITICS are frustrated musicians, living vicariously through the careers of others. It's a nice theory, but it's wrong. Fact is, people who become pop stars do so because they want the fame, adoration and wealth that stardom brings.
Whereas people who become pop critics do so because it's a good way to get free records.
Trust me on this. I've been a pop critic for 14 years now, writing for The Sun as well as a host of music magazines, Rolling Stone, Musician and Request among them. I've talked blues with Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. I've chatted with Madonna in her dressing room and Edward Van Halen in his living room, been in a rowboat with Sting, and on a tour bus with the Cure. But mostly, I've listened to records -- over 17,000 in the last decade alone.
It's quite a pace, let me tell you. Barely a day goes by that doesn't bring at least a couple of albums in the mail. Last week's haul was some 78 CDs and cassettes (nobody sends out vinyl anymore), which is about average for this time of year. And more are expected Monday.
This alone is enough to leave most music fans wondering, "Where do we sign up?" There's more, though. There are concerts. There are interviews. Best of all, there's the thrill of seeing your opinions in print.
All told, it seems like a pop fan's dream job. And, I suppose, in a lot of ways it is.
But there's a catch.
In fact, there are several, but let's start with the most obvious: the writing. Nice as it would be simply to sit back and enjoy the music set before me, as a critic I'm expected to write reviews. That's not just a matter of thumbs up/thumbs down, either. Critics should offer more than mere cheers and jeers; we should have something educational, enlightening or even entertaining to say.
We also must say it at a pace that far outstrips the average fan's listening practices. Unlike the typical consumer, who purchases an average of a dozen or fewer recordings a year, I review more than 400 albums annually. (Furthermore, for every one LP I write up, there are another three I listen to and file for future reference.)
Then there's the matter of choice. You know all those concerts you wouldn't go to if somebody paid you? Well, somebody does pay me -- so I go. It's my job. Whether it's the Judds or Judas Priest, Madonna or Barry Manilow, if an editor deems it worth covering, I'm there, taking notes.
Finally, there's the fairness factor, perhaps the prickliest point of contention between critics and fans. Naturally, a reviewer should always be fair, but that's easier said than done. After all, if a singer you don't like gives a good performance of songs you despise, do you pan the show, or praise it? (Praise it, but with reservations.) What if the audience loves a performance you loathe -- do you mention their applause? (By all means, even if you're being sarcastic.) And should you really sneak out for popcorn during the drum solo? (Only if you're really hungry.)
All of which makes the pop music critic's job a little more complicated than simply deciding whether the new Whitney Houston album is worth owning. Not that I'm complaining; it still strikes me as being a dream job. But perhaps I should explain a bit about living this particular dream.
MUSIC IS PERHAPS THE MOST difficult of the arts to write about. Unlike movies and novels, there is no plot to recount, no narrative to follow. It's more abstract than any painting, yet completely familiar to almost any reader. And virtually everyone has an opinion on it.
So where do you start? Some pop critics describe the music in terms of the artist's personality; others stick to analyzing fads and trends. Quite a few take the English major approach and quote from the lyric sheet; this, I suspect, is often because they don't know how to describe the music itself, and therefore avoid it. But to my mind, the music should always be the starting point. Elliott Galkin, the late dean of the Peabody music criticism program, used to say that a music critic must be both a writer and a musician, and he was absolutely right. It takes a musician's knowledge to hear how music works, how it conveys its emotional content and dramatic power. But it requires a writer's skill to capture that in print.
Though I may not be a particularly accomplished musician, I do meet both sides of Galkin's equation. I read music, and play a number of instruments -- guitar, double bass, piano, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, tuba. I've played in bands, written arrangements, even cut a single. And though I'm always happy to have an instrument at hand, I seldom regret having traded playing music for writing about it.