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

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