Every critic faces the same question at some point: “What’s the value of my opinion?” The natural impulse may be defensive but will typically follow with a self-reflective inquiry: “How is my opinion any better than anyone else’s?” Though it may stem from a moment of self-doubt, it is often someone else who will raise the question. This happened to Pitchfork two weeks ago, after they gave rapper Childish Gambino’s latest album, Camp, a score of 1.6 out 10. The blog, despite being a pillar for online music criticism, has often received criticism for its numeric review system in the past. The harsh description of Gambino concluded that he was “preposterously self-obsessed, but not the least bit self-aware.”
The review did not sit well in the music community. Winston of the DC blog, Couch Sessions, told us the review was “disrespectful.” The staff of Pigeons and Planes wrote a response, calling Pitchfork a “dick.” Then rapper, Wale, who that same week released his album, Ambition (Pitchfork gave it a 6.7), chimed in:
And then Ryan Schrieber, founder of Pitchfork, who is typically calm and publicly unaffected by critical banter, got involved:
While it was true that Gambino had referred to Pitchfork on “All The Shine,” Ryan’s comment disregarded Wale’s real jab and overarching reflection: Who is Pitchfork to judge hip hop? Wale wasn’t criticizing Pitchfork’s influence, which, even though the blog has seen a recent decline in readership, is still strong, as it is one of the most well-read blogs on the internet. Nor was this a crack that Pitchfork has a bias towards indie rock and lo-fi. This was different. Wale’s point was that Pitchfork doesn’t know hip hop culture because they’ve never experienced it and, therefore, have no right to judge it.
That’s unsettling for bloggers. Who “knows” hip hop music? Is hip hop music different than other types of music? If not, who can critique other genres? Since these questions were pertinent to all bloggers, we asked for their input. In an email to us, Some Velvet Blog helped distinguish what it means to “know” music:
“When Wale is saying one can’t critique hip-hop because ‘you don’t understand hip hop’ what exactly does he mean? Does he mean that if you aren’t black, you won’t understand the experience? Do you have to be ‘from’ a place to understand it? Do I need to be from the South to understand Lynyrd Skynyrd? Do I need to have been born in the 50’s to get “doo-wop?” Should I have studied at Berklee to understand Ornette Coleman or Miles? Conversely, does being Black mean you won’t understand the 70’s LA singer-songwriter scene? I’m not so sure. Critics have skills, insight, and experience enough to be able to speak a broad language and to reflect on culture and art and music – from their perspective but also within the social and cultural and political containers these things exist.
Some Velvet Blog stated that knowing music can be understood in terms of experiences or knowledge. Music is both a knowledge base of musical structures, writing compositions, and skill sets as it is a story of historical experiences and reflections on culture. There’s a saying about the blues: “You can study the blues, sing the blues, but you can’t play the blues, until you have the blues.” To appreciate the blues, you need to experience the blues. This interpretation is likely more what Wale had in mind.
Years ago, I sat in on a lecture by a member of the Zulu Nation, a hip hop awareness group closely tied with the Nation of Islam. Led by hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, the group carved cultural rules and guidelines to abide by while advocating against violence. After the lecture, I approached the speaker and told him how I was studying hip hop. He incredulously said, “You think you know hip hop? What do you know?” I replied describing the four elements of hip hop: DJS, B-boys, emcees, and graffiti artists. He was surprised that I even knew that much, but then replied “You forgot the fifth one. The fifth one is the embodiment of all four those elements–that’s hip hop.” Understanding hip hop then, according to Afrika Bambaataa, is an embodiment of its cultural elements.
But this makes me wonder: Is hip hop the only genre with a culture and lifestyle? I would say no. Should one be able to critique music that they don’t culturally understand?
Some people will shy away from critiquing music they don’t know. Oh So Fresh Music stated he didn’t write reviews unless he personally knew the genre, but when I asked what it meant to know the genre, he had no answer. And maybe there isn’t an answer because as Digital Pharaoh suggests, music should speak for itself.
On the other hand as Some Velvet Blog suggested there is a knowledge of the technical components of music. Arguably you need to know how to make the music to critique. As We Listen For You suggested, you shouldn’t need to know how to play an instrument to enjoy it or for that matter, dislike its sound. Any opinion, even indifferent, is a critique.
Music, in many ways, is meant to transcend the barriers of culture, class, race, and religion. It’s intended as a channel that connects people from different backgrounds to help sympathize and understand the emotions associated with the music that they may not otherwise personally know. A blogger’s opinion is no different. They can conjecture about what they think the artist meant in creating the piece, but they can also propose their own analyses, opinions, and feelings about the music. They introduce readers to music through a shared experience of description and understanding. Readers return to blogs because they can relate to that author. Like music, the value of a blogger’s opinion is equal to its audience’s reception. With this understanding, it’s not about whether or not you know the music, it’s about whether your readers care for your opinion.