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Cultural Sociology

If the People Like It, It Must Be Good: Criticism, Democracy and the Culture
of Consensus
Nancy Weiss Hanrahan
Cultural Sociology 2013 7: 73 originally published online 12 July 2012
DOI: 10.1177/1749975512453656
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CUS0010.1177/1749975512453656HanrahanCultural Sociology


If the People Like It, It Must Be

Good: Criticism, Democracy
and the Culture of Consensus

Cultural Sociology
7(1) 7385
The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
DOI: 10.1177/1749975512453656

Nancy Weiss Hanrahan

George Mason University, USA

What is the role, if any, of professional music criticism in the age of the internet, and what
are the potential consequences of its likely demise? How do we evaluate the claim that the
erosion of traditional forms of cultural authority, including professional criticism, is inherently
democratic? To address these questions, this paper compares professional music criticism
with the technologically-mediated forms of cultural judgment that have increasingly replaced it,
analyzing the shift from aesthetics to consensus as the basis for cultural judgment. Rather than
signaling the end of cultural authority, the recent transformations of the music world are marked
by the emergence of authority of a different kind.

aesthetic value, cultural criticism, cultural democracy, cultural authority, democracy, Internet,
music, music criticism, new media

While the last 20 years have been a period of significant change in the production of art
and culture, the transformation of music in this period has been nearly complete. The
ease with which it can be reduced to electronic bits and the relative comfort of listening
to music through computers, headphones or hand-held devices has made its integration
with new digital technologies appear seamless. Given the scope of these transformations,
critical discourses of any kind that can add to our understanding of these changes and
assess their impact should be in great demand. Yet, professional music criticism in the
US is in a steep decline. In budget-cutting moves, major newspapers are dropping their
arts coverage and music magazines have folded at an astonishing rate. Some popular
Corresponding author:
Nancy Weiss Hanrahan, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, George Mason University, Fairfax,
VA 22030, USA

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Cultural Sociology 7(1)

music criticism has migrated to the Internet, though most critics report that they cannot
earn any money from blogging. The undeniable fact is that expert opinion seems superfluous when an interested music lover or consumer can simply click on a website and
hear a sample of the music herself. Unlike in the case of news journalism, where the
effects of these transformations have been the subject of much debate and eloquent
defenses of the value of professional news work, there has been little conversation about
the continued importance, or the fate, of music and art criticism. Perhaps this is because
it seems clear that the news serves democratic ends, whereas criticism seems like a holdover from forms of cultural authority long abandoned. Indeed for many, the collapse of
music criticism is a sign of greater cultural democracy.
But claims such as this have to be measured against actual effects and analysis of the
forms of evaluation that have come to replace it, because cultural evaluation has certainly not gone away. From American Idol to What Not to Wear, from panels of
judges to audience vote tallies to online reviews of restaurants, hotels, films, books, and
every conceivable service, we live in an increasingly evaluative culture. The contradiction I want to explore in this paper is between this proliferation of sites and opportunities
for cultural judgment and the collapse of professional criticism. How are these two
forms of evaluation distinguished? What should we make of the shift from aesthetics to
consensus as the basis of cultural judgment, and what are the consequences for aesthetic
experience and the aesthetic development of music? Finally how, given this state of
affairs, should the claims of democratization be critically understood?

Professional Music Criticism as an Ideal Type

In order to address these questions, I will present an ideal type professional music criticism and compare it with the networked, quantified and consensual forms that cultural
judgment now increasingly takes. This ideal type is drawn in part from comments made
by critics of jazz, rock, Latin and world musics in two sets of interviews one recent and
one 25 years ago.1 These are popular musical art forms sometimes lumped together in the
term creative music, and I use that as a shorthand. Paul Lopes (2000) description of
the restricted subfield of popular art, popular art production that is not subordinated to
the demands of the culture industry, is also applicable. Creative music criticism has historically served many functions, from consumer guide and gatekeeper to providing legitimation for artists and context for listeners. It is driven by a combination of aesthetic
choices and journalistic requirements, including what Theodor Adorno referred to as the
demands for prompt topicality and wide publicity that often reduce it to bleating along
with public opinion (1976: 152). Surely, professional criticism does not always live up to
its potential as an alternative discourse of value. Yet critics are guided by professional ideals and aesthetic traditions that transcend these institutional constraints. The ideal type is
composed of three variables: aesthetic evaluative criteria, tension between objective and
subjective forms of expression, and professional responsibility to an imagined public.

1. Aesthetic Criteria
The task of criticism is to make judgments. But according to what criteria? Critics of
creative music work in a range of musical traditions and genres, so there is not a single
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set of aesthetic standards that can be applied to each case. And critics were ambivalent
about whether or not they have, or should have, a consistent personal aesthetic that
guides their evaluative decisions. One critic remarked that his question is does the music
deliver on its promise?, which suggests a more situated set of aesthetic criteria. In general, critics did not see themselves making pronouncements on the basis of prescriptive
criteria (what John Dewey called a judicial form of criticism or Kantian determinate
judgments) but rather as illuminating the work through analysis of its aesthetic elements, contextualizing it within existing musical or aesthetic traditions, conveying some
aspect of the experience of hearing the music and, through all these means, giving people
the resources to enhance their own aesthetic experience. At its best, criticism connects
affect with understanding, and reflects the fundamental principle that aesthetic experience is both.
Aesthetic analysis is a hallmark of criticism. Conventional aesthetic analysis would
discuss form in relation to matter and the parts in relation to the whole, as well as the
specific musical medium and its expressive possibilities. It is a form of immanent critique. Contemporary creative music critics engage in less explicitly formal analysis,
because the language of formal analysis is not generally understood and they write
largely for a general audience. A writer for The New York Times told me: If I said this
music was composed of open fifths, people would think I was talking about cognac.
Yet despite the difficulties of language, analysis is nevertheless an identifying feature of
the critics work. He continued: I want to make an argument based on the facts. Thats
where analysis comes in. A review should be 80% data and 20% response. My job is to
figure out how it works because how it works is why people like it. Chris Weingarten, a
freelance writer for, The Village Voice, Revolver magazine and the
website Idolator, talked at length about the importance of the because, as in, this music
is good because (Weingarten, 2009). Its the job of the critic to discuss not just the
affective experience of music, but how the music comes to have the effects that it does.
For example:
Hearing [Cecil] Taylor stretches ones mind. Despite his fearsome technique, these days he
typically starts one of his uninterrupted hour-long sets quietly, reflectively, laying out a few notes
as if they will be a theme to focus in on and explore. Just as their echo is dying, he starts to roll
out rippling figures and plunging bass posts, harmonically distant yet evocative chords, and
disturbing angular figures that seem completely unrelated to what hed begun before. These
continue to come tumbling out after each other in faster succession if not predictable sequence,
muddying the passage of time so as to seem simultaneous. They accumulate as waves of action,
and become oceanic as crosscurrents and contrapuntal crests, sometimes infrequently calming
so, in the lull, he can set forth another languorous, luminous and starkly haunting line. Is it what
he started with ageless minutes ago? Or just a similarly bejewelled strand of pitches, suspended
in the suddenly hushed (yet in our ears, still ringing) air? (Mandel, 2006)

In addition to this immanent analysis, critics evaluate work based on its aesthetic
significance, i.e. whether or not it contributes to the development of the art form. In that
respect, criticism (like music itself) negotiates past and future, the understanding of tradition and the capacity for surprise. One freelance critic who has written for the Boston
Globe and the Miami Herald, and was managing editor of Jazziz magazine, asks how
what the musician played fits in with his or her own trajectory and how that fits into
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Cultural Sociology 7(1)

what is happening with the genre at this point and did it advance it I dont believe in
the idea of progress of music, but is it moving the line, is it stretching the language?
Evaluating musics aesthetic significance requires a historical perspective and an understanding of tradition, for it is only in that context that distinction or difference can be
recognized. As Adorno commented, without expertise, without a habitual knowledge of
the familiar, the new that is taking shape can hardly be understood. (1976: 152). To
understand if something is advancing the art form or stretching the language, critics have
to know the language.
Critics also identify and bring to light emerging artists, making judgments not only
about what is new but also about what is art, whether or not that term is specifically
employed. Of course, this is one of the basic functions of any aesthetic discourse. What
is art is, again, not determined by a prescriptive set of aesthetic criteria, and there was
a lot of variation on this point. However, most critics articulated it as something that goes
beyond the expectations or conventions of a particular genre or style, or explores human
emotions through those genres in a new way, or does so particularly well.
John Dewey suggested that synthesis is the unifying moment of criticism that complements the disunifying one of analysis. He describes synthesis as the creative response of
the individual who judges, her or his insight into the work in question: What is meant is
that the critic shall seize upon some strain or strand that is actually there, and bring it
forth with such clearness that the reader has a new clue and guide in his own experience
(1934: 327). Contemporary critics echo this idea that the critic provides a guide to musical experience but cast it in a more egalitarian light. As one put it: I think the most
important part of the job is to give the audience the tools to appreciate more elements
of the music and to get more out of the performance or the record or the work of an artist.
Through her or his persuasive writing, the critic can also get people excited about the
music enough so that they want to go out and hear it for themselves.

2. Subjective/Objective Forms of Expression

Mr. Nascimento has been recognized as one of the worlds great voices almost from the
beginning of his career in the 1960s. With a liquid-amber baritone that rises to an otherworldly
falsetto, he can push along a rhythm, as he did in Caxanga, or glide serenely above the band,
as he did in Ponta da Areia [Sandy Point, a railroad station in Bahia, Brazil]. Hes not a jazz
singer, stylizing a song or adding showy improvisatory flourishes. As he (rightly) honors his
melodies, the tunes simply seem to pour through him like sunbeams through a high window.
(Pareles, 2011b)

If analysis is an objective mode (how it works), synthesis is a more subjective one

(both what it means to the writer, and whether or not there was a visceral connection
between the writer and the music). The tension between the subjective experience of
music and the obligation to objectivity was identified by many of the critics I interviewed
as an essential feature of professional criticism and one that distinguishes it from what
fans convey through their Facebook pages and Tweets. One critic noted:
You have to be inside and outside at the same time. Because on the one hand my feeling was
always that you have to give yourself in to feel the music or to feel whatever that performance

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is being offered but at the same time to keep your distance, and both have to be happening at
the same time.

This remark echoes Adornos point that

The subjective reactions of a critic are not opposed to objectivity of judgment. They are its
premise; without such reactions music is not experienced at all. It is up to the critics ethic to
raise his impression to the rank of objectivity, by constant confrontation with the phenomenon.
(1976: 148)

Fans, even well-informed ones, have no such obligation. The same critic continued:
on the one hand, you do have a perspective, you have a point of view, you have a voice, but
on the other hand youre translucent, you let things through, you let people see the art, which is
the object of the exercise. Its not you, its not your ego.

Another freelance writer, author of several books on jazz and a frequent contributor to
Downbeat, spoke of the difference between the critic and the musician with respect to
this issue. Musicians are
not getting all the CDs from all over the world, they dont have to judge them against each
other, they dont have to consider what somebodys inspiration is or their motivation is, from
another part of the world. They may be thinking about it in musicological terms, in stylistic
terms, for themselves, as references to themselves, but journalists are mostly trying to put
together some sort of coherent worldview of the world that they listen to, and to judge artifacts
on that basis. But I think the musician is reading that world on the basis of the music they make.

3. Professional Expertise and the Public

Analysis serves the function of objectivity, of grounding the subjective impressions of
the critic in the work itself. But as the previous quote suggests, the move toward objectivity also goes beyond explanation or any specific analytical techniques: it inheres in the
nature of the job. For one, the professional critic can be more objective because s/he did
not buy the CD or pay for the tickets. One commented: I dont pay for my tickets. I dont
have to like it. I know that it sounds like a smug remark, but its not a small point. You
know, if Im paying $120 for something, Im probably gonna like it. Of course, objectivity can be compromised by freebies and perqs from record companies and concert
promoters, and the Payola scandal for radio airtime is hardly ancient history. But the
point is still valid.
Perhaps more important, the professional critic writes for others, specifically for a
public. This can mean a wide range of things, but all of my interview subjects spoke of
their professional responsibility to their audience or to the reading public, a responsibility to be reliable, to be accurate, and to write well. Some also spoke of journalistic standards of verification, and protocols of interviewing and data collection. One talked at
length about the obligation to create a public space, saying: I dont want to write
Howards history of jazz. I want to participate in a social history of jazz that a lot of

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people participate in, and build a larger frame of reference and archive of information.
I want to make a place where people can convene.

Newly Dominant Forms of Cultural Evaluation

Where, ideally, the professional music critic makes judgments on the basis of aesthetic
criteria, has a professional obligation to raise her/his subjective impressions to the status
of objectivity, and assumes the responsibility of writing for an imagined public, the
newly dominant forms of cultural evaluation rely on social or consensual criteria, valorize
the subjective, and largely abandon a public role. In drawing these comparisons, I will
paint a fairly broad picture that brackets some otherwise important distinctions between
the various sites and forms of commentary about music online. Of these, the social media
sites are at the furthest end from the ideal type but they are also of expanded importance,
as this is where so many people find out about music. The work of independent bloggers
runs the gamut between in-depth criticism and self-promotion. Sites like PopMatters and
Pitchfork feature both news and reviews, with the former produced by paid staffers and
the latter by amateurs who are most often unpaid. Wax Poetic appears both online and in
print, and hews more closely to the older print model than most other sites. Some of the
more established print critics contribute to sites like MSN Music or the Barnes and Noble
Review. But while there is significant variation among these sites, as there was among
different print outlets, they bleed into one another in ways that print could not. Aggregators
like The Hype Machine follow trends on blogs and repost them. Musicians put out
formal press releases to Pitchfork and PopMatters, put the material on their Facebook
pages and Tweet it to their fans. The technological capability of linking between sites
makes the lines between them, and between professional and amateur, much harder to
draw, and lends itself toward a measure of discursive and stylistic conformity. In looking
at online trends and their comparison with the ideal type, the differences between these
sites are becoming those of degree rather than of kind.

1. Consensual Criteria
Where analysis concerns the musical elements and their effect, or the aesthetic significance of music (is it new, is it good, is it art?), social criteria have more to do with the
social experience of music are we having a good time, whats the scene like, whos
there and whos not? Of course, music criticism, particularly of popular forms, has
included these things but rarely to the degree we are seeing now, or to the exclusion of
analysis. And this occurs not just on the social media sites. The critics who write for sites
such as Pitchfork and PopMatters bemoan the fact that, in this regard, most of whats on
their sites isnt much different from Facebook, and it has been creeping into print journalism as well. In one sense, it really is no longer necessary to describe the music, as
people can click on a link and hear it. The result, as an editor for PopMatters told me, is
that much of the writing is cursory this is great, you really ought to hear this its like
reading a press release.
What displaces aesthetic evaluation is not merely social: its also consensual. It follows a tendency identified by Lee Siegel (2009) as the shift from popular culture to

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popularity culture. Where judgments of aesthetic value are based on distinction or

excellence, he argues that it is now more important to be noticed than it is to be good,
fame stands in for accomplishment, and it is the number of hits, not the quality of the
music that seems to matter. It is not that what is popular in this sense is always and necessarily bad. But where one of the functions of criticism used to be introducing people to
new music or discovering something fabulous and bringing it to light, critics now tend to
be behind the popularity curve. That heretofore almost mystical quality of buzz has
become an algorithmic function, something that can be verified, and if theyre going to
retain any claim to being hip not to mention relevant or credible critics have to be on
top of the latest trends. Again, that is not entirely new, but it has become a recursive
system. Given the amount of information and the speed at which it is delivered, even the
most established print critics are living, as one who writes for the New York Times put it,
under an avalanche. He receives between 20 and 40 CDs a day, and an equal number of
links to musicians websites. The editor for PopMatters told me he receives 80 to 100
emails a day and about 10 CDs. When I asked how they manage it, the response was that
it is almost random but anything that has buzz, that is already popular, rises to the top of
the pile.
This move toward a culture of consensus has not gone unnoticed. In his contribution
to the Village Voices 2009 Pazz and Jop Poll edition, Chuck Eddy suggested that indie
rocks nearly exclusive domination of the top 40 albums and singles yielded The Year of
Too Much Consensus. He speculated that among the possible reasons for this outcome,
unusual for the history of the poll given the large number of critics who participate, is
Used to be, when you filled out your P&J ballot, you hadnt seen very many other Top 10 lists.
Now, with websites pretending the year is over well before Thanksgiving and surviving prints
mags falling in step with their own premature year-end countdowns, its hard to avoid peering
over your neighbors shoulder. A story snowballs through the year, so by December, critics who
dont hear many releases and the ones whove heard too many to sort through enough Pazz
and Joppers to pass as a consensus have had the words Animal Collective pounded into their
heads so incessantly that boarding the bandwagon seems like a no-brainer. (Eddy, 2010)

The quantization made possible by the Internet, the ability to link to the music directly,
and the widespread phenomenon of voting for television contestants, not to mention the
demise of traditional forms of cultural authority, all contribute to this shift to popularity
and consensuality. But there is another structural phenomenon that helps explain these
trends: the cancellation of the long term that has been explored by Luc Boltanski and
Eve Chiapello, Richard Sennett, Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck, among many others, looking at the nature of networks, or network society. Their analyses go beyond the
by now familiar commentary on the temporal constraints of the Internet (the 24-hour
news cycle, the speed, the overwhelming presentness and the lack of considered reflection that goes along with it) to consider the consequences for the structure and meaning
of work, for capitalism, for personal relationships and social connection. In all of these
analyses, as networks stand in for more hierarchical forms of organization, individuation,
flexibility and mobility increase, but at the cost of much greater insecurity. For example,
as short-term, project-based employment replaces full-time salaried work, workers have

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Cultural Sociology 7(1)

to become more flexible and mobile, not to mention agreeable, so they are well-positioned to be hired for the next project. Businesses are able to respond more quickly to
changes in the market as workers assume more risk.
While the end of long-term commitment is beneficial to businesses, or for the bottom
line, its impact on culture is deeply problematic. Mark Fisher suggests that the cancellation of the long term breeds cultural stagnation and conservatism, not innovation and
diversity, because a certain amount of stability is necessary for cultural vibrancy (2009:
77). We need the long term to develop art, talent and a critical voice, to form a distant
horizon that promotes experimentation because, unlike the new business model, shortterm failure may lead to long-term artistic productivity or creativity. As Pierre Bourdieu
put it: How could one not see that the logic of profit, particularly short-term profit, is the
very negation of culture, which presupposes investment for no financial return or for
uncertain and often posthumous returns? (2001: 70).
These concerns about the relentless present are strongly reminiscent of Herbert
Marcuses (1964) analysis of the one-dimensional society, where history and remembrance, which could rupture the present and help to imagine a different future, have
become impossible, or perhaps just irrelevant to the demands of capitalist production and
consumption. The decline of music criticism is bound up in this temporal shift. Where
aesthetic criteria are grounded in past tradition but oriented toward the future, toward the
development of the art form, consensual ones are based in the present: what people like,
or what the conventions are, now. To the extent that aesthetic criticism is a historical
project as well as an aesthetic one, it has a capacity to enlarge the present; indeed, that is
its task. The displacement of the aesthetic as the basis of cultural evaluation and the dehistoricization of criticism therefore represent a loss the loss of an alternative discourse
that enhances aesthetic experience and supports the long-term development of music.

2. Subjectivity
The balance between objectivity and subjectivity that characterizes ideal type music
criticism is overwhelmed by a more subjective style of presentation in the online environment. Everyone has an opinion, and there are millions of them out there, on just
about every cultural product or phenomenon. The subjective experience of the writer,
from the consumer experience of online reviews to the actual in-the-moment experience of Twitter, is the grist of online commentary. But the consequences of making the
self the central focus of music, entertainment or criticism are not entirely clear. One
commentator put it this way, with respect to reality television:
Just about every television show now has a web site that invites the viewer-consumer to play an
active role in the show. You answer questions about plot or characters, read the characters
blogs and, of course, vote on something or other having to do with the show. The effect of
such new forms of access is a strange one. They abolish the space between you and the screen
and literalize the fiction you are watching. You become the center of the entertainment, that,
traditionally, helped viewers get out of themselves. Entertainment used to be escapist. Now,
its as though everyone whos ever escaped has been pursued, rounded up, and returned to his
or her own ego. (Siegel, 2009: 112)

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While the scope of this transformation is hard to gauge, there is no doubt that subjectivity (as well as privacy and personality) has taken on new meanings in the current cultural and media environment. Not merely a mode of personal expression, it is presented
in this scenario as a form of ego projection and gratification driven by the demands of
mass cultural production. Where criticism, like music itself, could take the listener on a
journey into something unknown, or make that unknown more knowable, this new style
of access reinforces what people already know and gives the networks and major cultural
producers a false sense of what people want. Because, of course, most of us do not know
what we want until we are confronted with it, and many of us like to be surprised.
Websites like Pandora and Grooveshark are the musical equivalent of the phenomenon to which Siegel referred. Much like online dating, one submits musical preferences,
and through a series of algorithmic functions the system generates what it expects the
listener will like. Yet the promise of expanding the range of possible musical choices
and experiences is filtered through the subjects already known taste and, as such, it is a
promise that cannot be fulfilled. We seem to be increasingly trapped in what computer
geeks like Jaron Lanier (2010) call circuits of the familiar as serendipity, chance, and
surprise are streamlined out of the system through the architecture of the new media
technology. One writer put it succinctly: you only get to know what you know. The
Times critic commented on how hard it is to find young reporters who are willing to take
general assignments because everyones jumped into their niche. Indeed, the stunning
contradiction between the tremendous diversity of music online and the growing insularity of listening experience was commented upon by every critic I talked with. It was
one of the few points upon which there was complete agreement. Chris Weingarten
summed it up thus:
So one of the unfortunate side effects . is people are getting more stratified and separated in
their listening habits. If you read Spin or Rolling Stone in 96, you get an article on Nine Inch
Nails, an article on Chemical Brothers, an article on Snoop Dog, and the Internet doesnt work
that way. If youre into rap, you go to rap twitters. If youre into metal, you go to metal
twitters. Bands build audiences for themselves, you just follow the bands you like. You dont
have to, you dont come across that stuff and thats a problem. Its harder to get exposed to
things that arent in your comfort zone. I can always learn about stuff thats important
to me, thats easy. I want to learn about stuff that isnt important to me. I want to be exposed
to things. (Weingarten, 2009)

The new music environment is often celebrated as one that is more democratic
because the old filters the critics, the A&R guys, the major record companies no
longer exert the kind of authority that they once did and musicians can have a more
direct relationship with their audiences. But while it is certainly true that the new media
environment enables both the production and distribution of music in unprecedented
ways, it would be a mistake to assume that it functions without filters or gatekeepers.
Market research shows that ever-expanding choice tends to overwhelm consumers, who
then come to rely on strategies or mechanisms designed to streamline that choice and to
manage the diversity of options. An app appropriately called Chorus is just one such
mechanism. As reported in The New York Times:

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As the number of applications available for download through Apples App Store continues to
swell, the need has grown for a more efficient way to filter through the 100,000+ options across
the multitude of categories. As a result, app discovery tools have become a flourishing segment
of the iPhone app market. Chorus allows you to see which apps your friends have downloaded
and rated highly. It then uses algorithms to make recommendations based on those preferences.
(Wortham, 2009)

Indeed, the need for such mechanisms only increases: as of July 2011, the number
of available apps had passed 425,000. Rather than an absence of cultural authority, its
traditional forms have been replaced by new, technologically-mediated ones that return
us increasingly to ourselves, or to our own personal chorus.
In sum, the new media technologies accelerate the postmodern tendency to put the
self at the center of authentic experience and to understand cultural authority as fundamentally illegitimate or at least unnecessary. But at the same time that this opens up the
conversation to anyone with a modem and therefore potentially to the broadest range of
opinion and music itself, people report a narrowing of their listening habits. In one sense,
this is not surprising, as real diversity depends on something besides the subjective
dimension. A genuine experience of diversity is the ability to take the position of the
other, or to confront, in the sense of being in the presence of, what is radically different.
That is something that criticism, with its demand for a balance between subjectivity and
objectivity, can enable. It represents an alternative to the cycles of ego gratification and
reproduction of the familiar that increasingly curtail the possibilities of real musical

3. Abandoning the Public

What about the potential of the Internet to constitute a forum for a more broad-based
public conversation about music or art? This would seem to be one place where the new
digital technologies could advance conceptions of democratic deliberation. I asked critics if the new media provide a forum for more public discussion, as it is much easier to
respond to a blog post than to write a letter to the editor. But despite the space for comments that appear on most (but not all) sites and the relative ease of posting, comments
are rare and sustained conversation almost nonexistent.2 Most of the critics noted that
they get occasional corrections from knowledgeable readers, but most of the posts are
hostile or juvenile, and use language not appropriate in polite company. A review of
many websites confirms these impressions. So even if critics feel they are responsible to
a public; the public does not seem to share that commitment, or does not see itself as a
public, at least with respect to music.
By now, the only thing remarkable about the displacement of the public by the consumer is the degree to which it is being hastened by the unprecedented expansion of the
means of public communication. As sites and opportunities for commentary about
music proliferate, they are mined for data that is quantified, aggregated and turned into
profit by corporations that buy and sell information and by the cultural producers who
are in a position to exploit it. In this media context, the critics professional responsibility
to speak to or to help constitute a public is overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of other

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forms of commentary about music online and by its much greater economic utility. This
gives new relevance to old distinctions between publics and masses and complicates
claims to broader cultural democracy that attend the demise of criticism.

Alexis de Tocqueville keenly observed that in democratic or egalitarian societies, without traditional status hierarchies and the cultural authority they maintain, popular opinion holds an even stronger sway over people as they seek that authority in each other. It
seems that this tendency is being exaggerated in the new media environment. In the
shift from aesthetics to consensus as the basis of cultural judgment, the familiar has
become the new good. Where music criticism helps to keep open the space for the
experimental or edgy or as yet unproven, consensual culture tends toward the middle,
toward the agreed upon and the known. The aesthetic consequences are being mirrored
in music itself, where retro styles and digestibility dominate popular music, as Jon
Pareles of The New York Times opined in his 2010 year-end column, Want a Hit? Keep
It Simple. My argument is not that if the people like it, it must be bad. But the ability
of critics to provide a counterpoint, to keep a space for alternative readings and interpretations of music and musical excellence open and lively however well or poorly
they have fulfilled that function in the past is being increasingly eroded. The consequences for aesthetic experience, the aesthetic development of music, and real musical
diversity are profound and cannot be simply rationalized as an unintended consequence
of technological advancement.
It cannot be denied that the erosion of cultural expertise made possible by the new
technologies is democratic in at least one sense, in that there is broader participation in
making and evaluating culture. If democracy were as easily quantified as CD sales or
the number of hits to a website, perhaps the argument could be left there. But it is not
just participation but also the terms of participation that must be considered. If greater
participation in culture through digital technologies and the network structures in
which they are embedded favors the market, discourages artistic innovation, or is
bought at the expense of critical reflection on art, on what grounds can that be considered democratic? If, on the other hand, democracy means the expansion of opportunities for deliberation, for publicness, or for genuine diversity, the current situation falls
short. Indeed, much contemporary democratic theory has been centrally concerned not
with consensus but with difference, including one of the strongest senses in which the
arts promote democracy the meaningful confrontation with particularity or difference.
As Bourdieu remarked: Oddly, the purest, most disinterested, most formal producers of culture thus find themselves, often unwittingly, at the forefront of the struggle for the defense of the highest values of humanity. By defending their singularity,
they are defending the most universal values of all (2003: 81).
I do not bemoan the breakdown of cultural authority (though it is a mistake to assume
that new forms of cultural authority are not already taking its place), or think that other
forms of commentary by fans, or by musicians, or even voting for ones favorite television star are inherently evil. But in the new media environment, they threaten to overwhelm alternative aesthetic discourses that can provide a counterweight to the circuits of

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Cultural Sociology 7(1)

the familiar that mediate cultural diversity, the cancellation of the long-term that impedes
aesthetic development, and the further erosion of the public sphere.
1. The first set of interviews was conducted in New York City in 1985. My subjects were all people with whom I had had extensive professional contact from my work as Program Director
of New Jazz at the Public, a concert series of jazz and world music at Joseph Papps Public
Theater. My concern at the time was to understand the criteria used in decisions about what
gets into print and how different publication formats structured the content of music criticism
(everything from word limits to notions of news value consistent with a publications position in the market). I therefore selected critics who wrote for different types of publications:
one who wrote for a daily major market newspaper, another who contributed to a weekly
newspaper that had a specific identification as a counter-cultural publication, a free-lancer
who wrote for a variety of music magazines, etc. I did not publish my findings from this preliminary research, but they provide a very illuminating basis of historical comparison for the
current project.
The recent set of interviews was done in 2009 and 2010. My questions here had more to
do with how the professional world of criticism has changed, given the impact of the Internet
and related technologies. I was able to re-interview two of the critics from my earlier sample,
and spoke with eight other members of the profession. In selecting interview subjects, I was
concerned with career trajectories, looking for a sample that would include some critics who
had started in print as well as some who had only worked online, some who had actual jobs as
opposed to others who were either freelance or wrote their own blogs, etc.
In neither instance were the interviews intended to be comprehensive or fully representative of the field, as they would for a more ethnographic study. They have, rather, provided a
unique set of insights into the changing discursive world of the Internet.
2. One notable exception is Expert Witness, a relatively new blog by Robert Christgau. Dubbed
the Dean of rock critics in the US, Christgau has been writing about music for over 40 years,
including the very popular Consumer Guide that first appeared in the Village Voice in 1969.
Although he is a regular contributor to many online sites, he reports his experience with Expert
Witness as unique for the kind of commentary that readers provide. A review of the site suggests that many of these readers are other music writers, or former writers, constituting an
unusual discursive community.

Adorno TW (1976) Introduction to the Sociology of Music, trans. Blomster W. New York: Seabury.
Bourdieu P (2003) Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2. New York and London:
The New Press.
Dewey J (1934) Art as Experience. New York: Penguin.
Eddy C (2010) The year of too much consensus. Village Voice, 2026 January, p. 47.
Fisher M (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Hants: Zero Books.
Lanier J (2010) You Are Not a Gadget. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Lopes P (2000) Pierre Bourdieus fields of cultural production: A case study of modern jazz. In:
Brown N and Szeman I (eds) Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman
and Littlefield, pp.165185.
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February. Available at: (consulted 10 August 2011).

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Marcuse H (1964) One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press.

Pareles J (2011a) Want a hit? Keep it simple: Digestibility makes a song more functional, at least
in the short run. The New York Times, 2 January, AR1.
Pareles J (2011b) Sometimes pop songs double as prayers. The New York Times, 26 June, C2.
Siegel L (2009) Against the Machine: How the Web is Reshaping Culture and Commerce and
Why It Matters. New York: Spiegel and Grau.
Weingarten C (2009) (@1000TimesYes) Music writer, and Village Voice at
The Video. Available at:
timesyes-music-writer-rollingstone-com-and-village-voice-at-the-140-Characters-Conferencein-New-York. June 16, 2009 (consulted 14 August 2009).
Wortham J (2009) Friendsourcing the quest for Iphone apps. The New York Times, 3 November.
Available at: (consulted 18 January 2010).
Nancy Weiss Hanrahan is Associate Professor of Sociology at George Mason University. She
writes on critical theory and aesthetic-cultural theory with a special emphasis on music. Her publications include Difference in Time: A Critical Theory of Culture (Praeger, 2000) and The
Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Culture (2005), co-edited with Mark Jacobs. Her current
research project examines the impact of the new digital technologies on music criticism and the
broader question of aesthetic value. It also draws on her professional experience as Program
Director for New Jazz at the Public during the 1980s in New York.