The blunt headline of a piece of commentary from Ted Gioia on the Daily Beast, posted earlier this week, declared:

“Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting.”

Cue the Twitter madness, in rabid form, both for and against Gioia's argument. Then there's the Pitchfork response from Mike Powell, insisting Gioia is wrong.

I'll start with what Gioia gets right.

“Most disputes about music in the current day are actually disagreements about lifestyle masquerading as critical judgments,” he wrote. This jumped out at me because I've found it so frustratingly true, as I'm sure many others do, too.

It seems that many people can't tell the difference between subjective and objective evaluations of music. If they don't enjoy it, it must not be good. A music critic's job is to know the difference, to evaluate partly based on technical criteria. Gioia is right in saying that this is a problem.

The rest of it is packed with frustrating generalizations coming from the wrong observations. He calls out American Idol, on which Jennifer Lopez mocked Harry Connick Jr. for mentioning a pentatonic scale.

That's a reality show, not criticism piece.


He also compares music criticism to football commentary, pointing out that commentators can use technical terms and explain them, while music critics fail to do so. Here, I like the way Powell refutes it best: “It's true that music has ‘rules.' But unlike football you can break them and nobody will throw down a little flag and tell you to go home.”

Football is a sport. Music is an art. Learning counterpoint in college, I had to follow rules. But if those compositional rules were followed forever, we'd never progress. If I tried to avoid parallel fifths in writing music for the rest of my life, I'd be in a cage.

Yes, a proficient musical knowledge should be involved in criticism, but does that really help the average reader who doesn't know the first thing about alternate chord voicings? Music should be evaluated based on the technical criteria, but also on the creativity, the feeling, the X factors.

It also needs to be evaluated in context. Sometimes the “gossip” is the context. Kanye West and his music cannot be removed from the very public circumstances of his life. The same goes for a less talked about band like Speedy Ortiz. The frontwoman's master's degree in poetry means something.

I'll be honest, it's not helping that Gioia used the word “nowadays” and called himself a “music scribe” in the same sentence, and it's hard to shake the curmudgeonly vibe of his piece. He complains that “leading music periodicals” focus more on gossip, but doesn't specify beyond some vague Billboard stories.

I don't know who he's reading. I'm reading Nitsuh Abebe or Lindsay Zoladz, to name just two. And I highly recommend reading both arguments, but especially Powell's closing statement.