Critical Support 06/21/2022

Adlan Jackson talks criticism with former New York Times music desk critic Ben Ratliff and one of its current critics, Giovanni Russonello.

by | June 21, 2022



It seems like there’s nowhere to write about a concert anymore; live music criticism is nearly dead. In an effort to figure out what the hell happened, I called up Ben Ratliff, a former New York Times music critic. During our conversation, Ratliff told me that writing about live music was the first form of music criticism, and that concert reviews were a selling point for newspapers even before there were records. However, the digitization of news media appears to have hollowed out that stature in the intervening years: by the 2010s, the clicks simply weren’t there. Even the Times all but did away with live concert reviews in the previous decade. 

Today, another, related form of review is flourishing. I’ve been reading, and writing myself, a decent amount of “party reporting,” stories about events, mostly parties, that writers attended. A high-profile and great example of the new review is Brock Coylar’s newsletter, Are U Coming? for The Cut. I also write my own newsletter, Critical Party Studies. Though it’s not billed as criticism, writing like this reminds me of the value in offering an opinionated, first-person account of a city’s cultural life, and the textures we lose without it. 

With Ratliff and Giovanni Russonello, another friend and current critic at the Times, I discussed potential incarnations for live music criticism. What can the old school learn from the new school about authority, the critic’s role, and how to move? Is the concert review really obsolete? And what’s the use of writing about nightlife anyway? 

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.



BEN RATLIFF: Growing up, my family had a subscription to Rolling Stone. In the back of the magazine, they had concert reviews, and I noticed that some of them had this charge, as if the critic were saying, “I witnessed this thing, and I need to convey the truth and the reality of it. It was just me, and sometimes 500 other people, and so it’s even more important that I do this right and I express this in an exciting way.” 

It was some of the most exciting writing in the magazine. I remember reading a concert review of The Specials that talked about how great their energy was, and how they were working extra hard because the sound system sucked. That review helped me understand the job of the live music reporter as a storyteller, but also as an evaluator. You’re trying to locate the essence of the experience.

ADLAN JACKSON: I’ve been reading a decent amount of what’s being called “party reporting.” I really enjoy it, and I think it’s similar to concert reviewing in that you’re going somewhere and you’re asking, “What’s going on here, what is this emerging from?” These writers, by instinct, infuse it with their critical perspective, because you can’t get out of it without answering questions like, “Was it good? Were you having fun?”

GIO RUSSONELLO: What you’re talking about is interesting in relation to what Ben describes as the search for irreducible force, or the piece that makes an experience special. I like how he mentioned things within and outside of the band’s control as being part of that evaluation. 

When it comes to something like party reporting, you are talking less about evaluating the vision of one artist and more about a shared experience in a crowd, and the critic’s attempt to interpret that experience. It may be related to the fact that we now think about writing as a process of owning your perspective and accepting your position as the writer. It doesn’t seem to me like there’s no space for criticism at parties and events with their structure, but that structure does maybe demand a decentered way of looking as a critic.

JACKSON: I think the bridge between party reporting and the concert review can be this idea that I’m telling the reader about the infrastructure under which this experience is occurring. Whether it’s the bad sound, or who’s putting on the event, or why this event is taking place, the critic’s role becomes to deliver a critique of this many-layered enterprise.

RATLIFF: Adlan, why do you think people want to read a party report if they knew that the party wasn’t going to happen again, or if they knew that they missed it?

JACKSON: Other than the utility of going to the next party, I think people want to know what’s going on in their community, the texture of the moment. 

RATLIFF: So you read the report, even if you weren’t there, and it’s a way that you can feel part of the moment, maybe even a way of supporting it or following it? 

JACKSON: Or being angry at it.

RATLIFF: Being in touch with it in some way, yeah. 

RUSSONELLO: Ben, you said “in touch.” Adlan, you said “texture.” Being physically in touch with any kind of experience is increasingly a revolutionary idea. And I think that’s the addendum to your description of looking for the structures. You’re looking for the first-person, the immediately-felt experience. 



RATLIFF: When you’re at an event as a critic to write about what’s happening in the room, do you sometimes feel ridiculous that this entire experience shared by many people is being filtered through little old you?

RUSSONELLO: Then you have to think of the joy of reading somebody who bravely and hubristically went through that process, right?

JACKSON: Gio, we’ve talked before about music criticism and the “voice of God” tone and the assumed authority rock critics operated with for a long time. I think now we music critics want to be more reasonable about our position, like, I’m a listener, and so is everyone else. 

RUSSONELLO: I think we’re seeing a backlash against rendering pat judgments on people’s morality or their virtue. Maybe we want somebody to argue from their positionality, from their very hyper-specific viewpoint, why something is so meaningful.

If we are indeed vaulting beyond judging whether something is keeping up with society’s moral expectations, maybe it is in fact the live review or the live encounter that resists binary judgment as a discursive form.

RATLIFF: My friend Harmony Holiday wrote this piece as a kind of poeticized history of Black music performance in clubs, and particularly Black listenership. By the end of the essay, she comes around to this idea that it’s an antiquated notion that there are these people on the stage performing for us, as we sit in our seats, with our arms folded, saying “impress me.” Harmony says it would be much better if more performances were organized along the lines of Carnival or Mardi Gras, where everyone’s a participant.

It made me think about the protocol of being the assigned critic, sitting in the good seat, staring straight ahead, watching this thing take place on the stage. That always felt a little bit contrived to me. And I do dream of a kind of music criticism where everybody is on the move together. We can still practice our craft and there will still be a use for us, I have no doubt about that. But should we turn our gaze in other directions

RUSSONELLO: There is a history of music criticism that  pieces together what we’re describing. Ellen Willis, The New Yorker’s first pop music critic, spent as much time telling you what was happening on stage and explaining who built the venue as she did talking about why these freaky kids here think they’re getting off on Stevie Wonder.

And, Adlan, when you talk about sensing the structures and being attuned to what the means of concert production that created this experience were, there’s a lot of dismantling that we need to do around the way that we put on musical concerts nowadays. I don’t think criticism is that dirty of a word. I think it wants to be expanded, like you said, Ben, to be less of a gaze and more of the feeling of being in the crowd.

I don’t know where I got it in my head at one point that to be a music critic was to be the listener’s ambassador. I also have felt equally compelled to define the role of the critic as the ambassador on the part of the musician and the music community to the listeners, such that it’s not the performer delivering something, it’s the performer having an experience on stage. Again, this is why live criticism is so much more important, maybe, in this moment, in terms of reducing our binary thinking than any other kind of writing about music. Live criticism allows for more of the “musicking” to get into the writing. 

JACKSON: You both are giving me this image of the critic as this kind of lithe being, formless, or able to change shape, able to hang. Not just a guy sitting in a chair in a concert hall. 

RUSSONELLO: Reviewing is performing. Think of the reviewer as somebody who might model a kind of listening, or at least deliver an almost glamorous way of experiencing music. Like, “what would it be like if we did go to concerts again?” and creating that notion in the reader. 

RATLIFF: So we are modeling pleasure. 

RUSSONELLO: Absolutely. Or at least we’re experiencing pleasure and putting it on the page.

Ratliff: But also discernment? Is discernment part of the glamor? 

JACKSON: Discernment is like the treasure map to pleasure. It’s like healthy FOMO. There are things that we should want, you know? The only weapon we have against $12 beers and corporate nightlife, is being able to say, “I don’t fuck with this. This is cool. This is not cool.” Discernment is the only weapon we have.

RATLIFF: We are reminded that culture exists and it can exist in a state that is not particularly mediated, not particularly commodified. And if you choose to write about it, you are doing it in a way that is not just consumer advice. And perhaps you’re using your discernment to refine your receptors, and in your writing, you’re trying to refine the receptors of your readers. And you’re trying to make shit better right now. 

RUSSONELLO: That discernment also gives people something to measure their experiences up against. [Writing about events] serves such an essential function for people whose way of socializing has become so much about paying for whatever small experience they get and not asking any questions, not keeping any record, not holding any accountability to themselves or the people they paid, but just floating through.



JACKSON: With regards to what caused the concert review’s dominance to diminish, I want to parse whether streaming played a role. The roles of the critic who reviews the record and the critic who reviews the concert are often played by the same person, but they’re slightly different roles. The concert reviewer has to answer whether or not the reader should buy this ticket, which, especially now, is very different from what you’re doing when you stream a record. Buying a physical record was a little bit closer, but now the shift to streaming has impacted the usefulness of a traditional record review: people have less use for an authoritative voice when music is totally accessible.

I’ve been wondering whether there’s a similar kind of impact on the purpose of concert reviews. The diminishment of the amount of live criticism we have has coincided with this huge shift that we’re always talking about when it comes to recorded music. I think it’s important that the decision to buy the concert ticket is now often the first transaction between the fan and the artist. Streaming has dislocated the concert in the timeline of a fan’s relationship to an artist — the first time they dedicate themselves to an artist is when they purchase something online.

My hunch is that the expectations are lower because it’s like, I’m almost paying off a debt. I’m not necessarily purchasing a good performance from this person. I’m paying off my accumulated debt to them for having streamed their music without paying for their work.

RUSSONELLO: The timeline piece is interesting. You’re right. Fandom development in music is totally scrambled now. It’s front-loaded a lot with information and recorded sound of a pretty flattened, difficult-to-parse nature.

JACKSON: I wonder where that leaves — under all of these shifted, scrambled relationships — the critic who shows up to the concert asking, “What kind of time am I having here?” Ideally, I’m hoping to see something spectacular. But then, we talked before about the layers of the experience that are beyond an artist’s control. For example, how do you account for the austerity that musicians are operating under in recent times? Another effect of streaming is that it made touring a primary source of income for artists. How does a critic account for the fact that touring must necessarily be a lot more intense in order to generate more revenue, to make up for lost income in the pandemic? There have to be more dates, musicians are more tired. What does that mean for me?

RATLIFF: How would you answer that? 

JACKSON: I try to write what I’m thinking about. I’ve seen a number of concerts in the last year where something happens, like the singer’s voice is gone. I wouldn’t necessarily be like, “What would this be like if her voice wasn’t gone?” I’d say, “Okay, what actually happened in the room as a result of her voice being gone?” And the audience seems to really want to actively express a generosity towards the performer, to express, “We’re not mad, we’re just happy you’re here.”

I have mixed feelings. I accept the material reasons for where we are, but the performance of grace from the audience to the performer and the sense of paying off a debt have made concerts less exciting. It seems like there’s less pressure to create something in the room, and it feels increasingly mechanical to me.

RUSSONELLO: I think the role of the critic here is to move dynamically with the times. Adlan, in the lead up to this conversation, you mentioned that concerts are becoming more expensive, which has a withering effect on the feeling of being at them, and consequently on the usefulness of applying a critical perspective. But restaurant critics are still doing their thing, even though that shit is crazy expensive. 

The patented, paid-for Live Nation concert venue experience may no longer be where the critic’s blood is flowing the quickest or where they’re actually seeing people getting off to the music, or even being able to register a judgment about whether the musician brought it tonight. It’s true that some of these venues are so inert. The musician gets up on stage, and they think that it’s their job to tell you what each song is about before performing it, remind you to buy the album four times throughout the night, play for 40 minutes, and then leave. None of that gets me excited, you know? But there are other ways of performance that I think are being generated partly by the shittiness of the concert apparatus these days. Great concerts have always been informal like that. We’ve all had formative moments with live performance in informal settings in some way. 

RATLIFF: I mean, the best performances that I’ve seen are not expedient. You know, it’s not an easy transaction. There’s something being given away on both sides. It’s a lot of people going beyond the limit of what they can afford.

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