Formidable Joys: Critics, And Criticism

Why do we write about music in 2016?

Music is never an easy thing to define. As the old, clapped out Zappa quote has it: writing about music is like dancing about town and regional planning (or something, you get the jist). At times, music writing can prompt, provoke, annoy, and delight – at others, it simply bumbles along, rinsing out some Google juice and fulfilling a few Meta tags.

Perhaps there's been a little more of the latter of late, but it's not something that's particularly irked me – after all, the landscape in general still supplies some sublime verbal vistas, some moments of wonderful clarity and carefully timed observation in amongst the mundane. But then The Joy Formidable decided to mock a review of their new album 'Hitch', one published on Artrocker by a 16 year old female writer. Her crime? Failing to recognise a flute when she heard one. And, in my mind, it seemed to stir this entire argument up all over again.

Throwing the review out to their Facebook followers, The Joy Formidable seemed to invite ridicule on the aspiring writer. It's not a particularly great review, for one; it lacks confidence, it's the sound of someone testing out their voice, rather than controlling it. The Joy Formidable probably didn't know her age, or her gender – surely the world of music criticism could do with a few more young, ambitious, female voices, for starters? – but the simple act of doing this seemed to ignite so much more.

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First up: a confession. I've played alto saxophone for 20 years, but I can still get muddled up between instruments. Is that an alto or a tenor, is it a soprano saxophone or a clarinet? It could well be synthesised sound, anything from a sample played on a keyboard to an antique Moog. You don't need to know what's making the sound to realise if you're enjoying it.

Ultimately, it's something that an editor (or sub-editor) could, perhaps should, have picked out. 'Hitch' is a thoroughly decent album, the return of a band whose independence of mind is something to be cherished. Sure, it's a little predictable at times, but it's worth investigating, certainly worth hearing, and perhaps – if you've the time and passion – talking about.

There's been a lot of discussion about the decline of the music press, of tumbling sales figures and falling profits leading to a brain drain. This writer probably wasn't paid for her work – in fact, she might go some time without ever getting a reward. We're now in the position whereby a name writer – someone writing for a batch of sought after titles, and even broadsheets – can go months, or even years, without ever being paid one thin penny for their work. And it is work: hours of effort, of patient listening, of thinking, reading, and re-drafting, all leading towards one conclusion. All that, and the best they can hope for is a few extra Twitter followers, and maybe avoiding a kicking in the comments section.

Which is what Izzie has received. The Joy Formidable are by no means responsible for the comments left under their post – in fact, they're no doubt horrified by the some of the remarks that have been made – but it reveals a telling nature of the way in which web users can turn on one another. Reviews are regularly pulled apart online, sometimes in a vicious manner. Sure, critics must in turn expect criticism, but in this case the negativity being hurled in the direction of the writer far out-paces the very mild critiques made in her own review.

The Joy Formidable's statement has received more than 600 likes, has been shared 48 times and received more than 70 comments. One user tells a 16 year old girl to “suck it” while another says “Fuck these trash reviews” – a 'trash review' that also praises “the brilliance of the first few tracks”.

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Critics are, ultimately, music fans – they sneakily pop in headphones while at work, make playlists for long journeys, pepper conversations with references to new discoveries, and make recommendations for friends. Music crops into their imaginations at odd times of the day and night, sparking wild thoughts and observations that might otherwise pass into the ether. So they write them down, and pass them on. Each remark, each review, leads into trickling tributaries of critical thought that tumble down into wider reservoirs of communal discussion.

Why was this made? What does it advance? How are we to understand it? These are never easy questions to answer, and – in my experience – the people who actually made the music should be placed last in line to supply a solution. Once it's out of their hands then the album is gone – refracted through the eyes of a thousand onlookers, sparking new, undreamed of meanings in the process.

It's never a straight-forward thing to define, but it's something that we must at least try to do. Reviews are simply an extension of the critical discussion that will always follow music, and albums are neat points of conjunction for these ideas to swarm around. And ultimately, the language of criticism will only ever reflect the music it engages with. Sure, lots of modern music writing lacks definition, shies away from individual thought, and struggles to be heard above the noise of the internet – but then, if we're honest, so does a frightening percentage of the music.

Music journalism is an honourable trade, one ultimately blessed with enormous faults, and precious few rewards. So why do we do it? Because we have to, because we are compelled. Bless you for trying, Izzie.

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UPDATE: The Joy Formidable released a second statement on this topic – find it HERE.

'Hitch' is out now.

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