Has dance music coverage lost its critical voice? Thomas Cox argues that criticism is a much-needed constructive force.

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Photo: Matt Cohen

Criticism plays an important role in many facets of life. From childhood, when we’re punished for bad behaviour or given bad grades, criticism is one of the main tools we use to encourage improved performance.

In most cases, the level of criticism actually increases as we get older, with school reports, academic exams to test our knowledge and then performance reviews once we’re in employment. Even on a much more serious social level, we look to the media to play a significant role in scrutinising and criticising the actions of politicians, corporations and figures of authority, holding them accountable to the public.

The same goes for most fields in the arts, where critics who have shown great knowledge and understanding of their medium are often held in high esteem, their work even being elevated to an artform itself in some cases. The best critics guide us to the best art and offer fair, reasoned criticisms of artists. As a society, we appear to have reached a consensus that criticism is a useful tool for achieving quality results, and a guide for people interested in any given field.

Then we have the current dance music scene. Never have I seen any group of people so averse to criticism. In fact, I am having a difficult time coming up with a single name of a person who could truly be considered a dance music critic. It is basically impossible to come up with any media entity in dance music that even fosters a truly critical tone.

Some of the best dance music coverage comes from corporations whose work is, while definitely of importance, barely elevated beyond good PR for anyone they discuss. These corporations tend to employ most of the very same writers who also work for the big magazines and websites that do most of the ‘reporting’ on dance music, which again in many cases consists of PR wrapped in slightly more elegant prose. The difference in style between pieces written for corporations and those for independent dance music media is negligible. Quite frequently, the biggest source of revenue for these magazines and websites comes in the form of advertisements and ticket sales for the very same artists, labels and promoters who they report on. Funny how that works.

Never have I seen any group of people so averse to criticism.

What’s confusing is that this is a common model for media businesses in every other walk of life, yet few have such a paucity of legitimate criticism. The rock and pop media work on very similar models, but seem far less resistant to criticism.

Even worse for the case of criticism in dance music is the content of the critical pieces that do actually get published. The whole idea of a critic being something of an expert in the field seems to be forgotten; in fact, it seems like critical articles tend to be written by some of the people least qualified to write them. In previous columns I have discussed why this tends to be the case, but the end result when published tends to look so stupid that it’s not even worth reading in the first place. Typically these pieces will cover some event that is so blatantly ridiculous that it hardly rates as controversial in any way, and yet end up so poorly argued that you almost want to disagree with them.

Groupthink has pervaded to the point where critical comments are used as a reason for people to be ridiculed and ostracised. Calling out morally questionable behaviour and artwork largely gets ignored – and that’s not even really as debatable as a value judgement. Straight-up value judgements are almost completely unheard of these days. Every piece of music is held as equally valid by writers and listeners who often have very little experience in dance music.

Whenever I argue that there should be value placed on experience and time spent in dance music, it’s taken as a personal affront by those who have little of it. The irony of course is that their insistence to the contrary is not only beyond arrogant, but ignores the reality of how dance music has developed. From DJs like Larry Levan and Ron Hardy (both of whom started in the 1970s) breaking tunes by young kids in the late 80s, to the seeds of juke music being sown by experienced house producers, knowledgeable veterans have played a valuable role in guiding the music at every step. Judging by some of the music that seems to be most popular these days, a little guidance would seem to be beyond necessary.

Groupthink has pervaded to the point where critical comments are used as a reason for people to be ridiculed and ostracised.

So what’s the value of criticism? What are we missing out on thanks to the lack of critical thinking in dance music? Every media outlet tries not to offend anyone, with the end result being that none of those outlets even has a style. When subpar records are not only tolerated, but spoken of glowingly in the media, it adds to the glut of bad music that reflects poorly on all the members of the dance music community, as well as adding to the barrier keeping out people with good taste.

When record store write-ups about records are nearly indistinguishable from a prominent dance music site’s review, which are also nearly indistinguishable from the press release written up by the label to sell the record, you can see that there is no bar set for quality at any point in the chain. The lack of self-criticism in the dance music media is also to blame. Major corporations and media groups employ ombudsmen whose job it is to act as a guiding force outside of the organisational hierarchy. They observe, listen to complaints and work to make things work better. With nothing but the bottom line guiding the dance music media, is it surprising that the results are as poor as they are?

The point of criticism is to challenge the status quo. I am always in favour of challenging any line of thought, any current artistic movement, or really any power structure. If an idea is truly strong and deserving, it will not only withstand the criticism, but come out even stronger, having demonstrated its superiority to the criticism. If the idea is a weak one, it will not withstand the criticism and it will crumble, allowing it to pass. The more bad ideas we leave in our wake, the better the dance community will be for it. So this leaves only one question…

Why exactly is the dance music power structure so afraid of criticism?

20th November, 2015

Comments

  • Dance music has become one giant safe space. There’s scarcely an original idea and anybody who calls it out is to be burnt at the stake like a heretic. This towering mediocrity will be it’s downfall.

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  • At least with music you can listen to the end product and use your critical judgement to decide if the music is good. I have been surprised recently by going out to what I thought were average parties (and that is being kind) and later reading a review of the party as if it was the second coming! You mean the art gallery where the music wasn’t loud enough, everyone talked on their cellphones/or took videos and there was no atmosphere was in fact warehouse party full of slammin beats and hedonism.!! It’s this positive feedback loop from the labels, to the booking agencies, to the DJs and finally to the promoters and media that will eventually kill the scene as we know it. Everything is awesome!!

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  • Completely agree with you James. I want to read more reviews of parties that just weren’t that good. Not because I’m a negativist but because I estimate at least half of the parties I go to are just o-kay, or even a little (sporadically) disappointing. It would be nice to see this reflected in the reporting.

    I once met a guy running a house blog at a party that was a little bit of a miss and offered to write up a review for him (having done reviews for them before) but he didn’t want it ‘because the party was only half full.’. Uhm. Yeah. That was sort of the point. To write up a party that was… well.. a bit average (Sandwell District was still great though).

    Basically, music journalism suffers from the *exact* same problems as sports journalism does. Ie, that in order to gain (and keep) access journalists have to stay buddy-buddy with artists. This usually leads to a general elision of any critical attitude whatsoever. However, most critics seem more than happy to give up any real journalistic intent in order for a place on the guest list. God forbid they’d actually have to pay to get in and all.

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  • Media outlets should do a “secret shopper” type thing. What’s it like going to a club as a regular punter, rather than a “Yeah i’m on the guestlist” thing.

    Plenty of times I’ve had the vibe ruined by over zealous security or simply downright rude bar staff. I get both of these guys are there to do a job, but there’s a right way and a wrong way.

    Never do you see a review talk about that shit.

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  • Over saturation combined with a reliance on social media streams for promotion means that labels/parties can ill afford a ‘bad review’, as they perceive it as effecting their brand (however small and geocentric said brand may be)

    On the flip side, the reviewer channels and blogs don’t want to run the risk of pissing off said labels/parties, as this could mean being removed from the mailing list for new releases or the guestlist for future events.

    Nobody really wants to annoy anyone if it means jeopardising their position. So everyone keeps being nice and slapping each other’s backs, albeit in a world where a 3/5 review basically means something was dogshite.

    Some of the larger publications can get away with having a harsher tone, though it’s been years (maybe even a decade) since I read something like Mixmag, so I’m not sure if someone like Yogi Haughton is still doing reviews for them.

    That just leaves the oddball producer-commenter crew, guys like Mistabishi, Zomby and Beroque Heroique, who don’t mind ruffling the feathers of something they appear to be sickened with, and are in turn either lauded or vilified by the larger community depending on your point of view.

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  • Totally agree that a lot of dance “journalism” these days reads like paid PR content 🙁

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  • Music journalism generally is rubbish. I agree that there is a problem with dance writing, but I wouldn’t look to rock for inspiration. Rock journalism has got to be one of the most boring and repetitive forms of discourse around.

    Bold value judgements aren’t the way to go. Music is subjective. It’s not meaningful for one person to say ‘the new Vakula album is his best yet’. That kind of statement means nothing to me unless it comes from a friend whose taste I am familiar with and can understand in relation to my own.

    Most rock journalism perpetuates the myth of objectivity because it gives their work the illusion of authority. In contrast, a magazine like Wire avoids value judgements and goes for interesting observations, descriptions and comparisons. The dance media should take a leaf from their book.

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  • Those Slow To Speak guys don’t hold back with their thoughts……

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  • @President Advisor:
    Some good points, but I have a slight gripe with

    “In contrast, a magazine like Wire avoids value judgements and goes for interesting observations, descriptions and comparisons.”

    I don’t know that this is the answer. Sometimes when I read these kinds of “interesting observations” it feels as though I’m reading some pretentious undergrad’s English lit essay. A big part of it, especially to do with descriptions of tracks, stems from writers not having actual technical knowledge of the music, which they proceed to supplant with obnoxious, OTT prose.

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  • Philip Sherburne is someone I’d always hold up as a proper dance music critic, not because I agree with most of what he says, or even because he’s particularly willing to call out the shite, as Tom seems to suggest all music critics should be.

    Criticism to me is an art, not an objective guide to what’s good and bad. I care about how someone puts across their argument, not what that argument is. I have my own views on music, film, TV. I don’t need someone else to tell me what to think.

    The best critics: Roger Ebert, Mark Kermode, Philip Sherburne, etc. are so eloquent, funny and insightful that the act of criticism becomes an art in and of itself. I wish there was more of this sort of criticism in dance music, rather than identikit humourless prose.

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  • I hear this from people here and there. When I quiz them, I usually discover they’re not reading very widely. We dance writers don’t get paid by powerful interests. Actually, we often don’t get paid at all. I write full-time and my overheads exceed my income. Besides, what do you mean by “constructive criticism”? Are we talking musically, questioning such things as tropes? Or are we talking about such issues as cultural criticism – such as marginalisation and cultural appropriation (eg the rise of electronica and EDM). I’ve written extensively on both for 20 years. 😉 Maybe because I am a female I don’t count?

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  • PS reading the comments and Facebook posts, are you mainly discussing US media?

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  • @toby Tbf both kermode and ebert are famous for ruthlessly taking apart some films.

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  • maybe because you suck? What does this “female” bullshit has to Do with the article? Victimizing?

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  • Interesting piece. Few thoughts…

    – dance music has never really had much criticism. Back in the early 90s mix mag only reviewed stuff it liked and ignored what it didn’t. Further back in the 70s and the 80s citisism was for serious music which disco and house were not deemed to be. So the issue isn’t exactky new.
    – but more importantly does this matter? What’s the value of criticism? You mentioned to ensure quality. But dance musics quality has always most importantly been decided on the dance floor. It works or it doesn’t. Criticism isn’t really required to help determine this. Second criticism provides an assurance of quality before buying a record. In the pre Internet era this worked well for rock music where reviews were essentially buying guides but most dance was bought in stores where you could listen before you bought so it was less necessary. Now there’s an argument all music criticism has lost this function as we can listen to any piece of music for free and anywhere before we invest in it, The filter criticism provided isn’t required.
    – I can see there may be a need at a macro scene level but that can be found if one looks.

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  • Shame the writer of this piece was also too afraid to call anyone out themselves or even give any examples to back up the claims made, not to say that this isn’t an issue… Now I’m just criticising the writer, but hey, you get what you asked for.

    One reason for lack of criticism could well be the benefits of being ‘connected’ in the scene i.e. Guestlists, promos etc and a major case of pre-meditated FOMO from them stopping.

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