Rock Music Critics Don’t Criticize Music

Rock music criticism is bullshit.

The fact is that most rock critics are failed musicians who majored in English in college and have a chip on their shoulders that they didn’t make it in music or fiction writing. The evidence for this is the clear avoidance of actual music criticism in rock album reviews.

If assholes like Robert Christgau – the so-called Dean of rock critics – don’t hardly ever stoop to reference actual musical qualities of songs to justify why they’re awesome or why they suck, then the entire profession is suspect. The blokes just don’t have the aural skills or knowledge to analyze music and explain why its good or bad.

It may come as a shock to lay persons, but great music is always a combination of art and laboriously applied craft. Great composers or songwriters never got great on inspiration alone – they understood theory, even if tacitly, and knew how to apply it to craft an inspiring musical snippet into a great work. The task of a true critic should first be to explain why music moves us. Re-stating in flowery language what the fans already know – that “this music is moving” – adds nothing to our understanding.

So show ’em how its done, smartass!

That, I shall.

This is installment #1 of Sommer’s Deep Music Criticism – where I give concrete musical reasons of why a song is great. Up this week – Van Halen’s “You and Your Blues”:

The production values of this entire new album by Van Halen are great. Alex’s “tonky” snare drum, David’s full-bodied squeels, Eddie’s classic bottom-heavy “brown” guitar sound. Its a bit loud (i.e. over-compressed) but overall just great. All this helps convey a great song, but can’t sugar-coat a bad one. This song is great.

Structurally it throws several simple yet satisfying twists at us:

1. Different but related keys in Verse (e-flat minor), Bridge (d-flat major) & Chorus (b-flat minor)

2. Contrasting mood between verses (closed high-hat, sparser use of bass, one-channel rhythm guitar) and bridge-chorus (four-on-floor hard rock, full bass, stereo guitars)

3. Contrasting – and compelling – melodies in each section. Verse is straight-up blues scale stuff, with occasional but effective use of diatonic (i.e. non-blues scale) flourishes. Bridge is a lovely and rocking full-use of the diatonic scale, and compliments the more functional harmonic progression than the riff-based verse. The chorus contrasts with the sections before, as well as within itself by pitting David’s indignant yelping against Eddie’s whining, wordless, falling background vocal line. I only wish that the classic background vocal duet of Eddie+Michael Anthony were still intact here.

You and Your Blues is a masterful composition of contrasts. Its structure is no less inventive than a symphony in sonata form. The band takes careful liberties with a traditional song structure that brings to mind Beethoven’s similarly slight but diabolical twists of that staid old symphonic form.

More coming soon.