Classical Critics Survey

3. How important--if at all--is it for you to be familiar with what's happening in pop music and in pop music criticism?

Well...of course one should keep abreast of all kinds of music, just to keep from being too narrowly focused on any contemporary enadeavour. Many younger composers and performers incorporate elements of popular musical styles in their latest work. It's useful for any critic to understand new sources. But I doubt that it's the most crucial thing for a critic to dwell on, especially since current pop music doesn't seem very interesting except in the abstract as a phenomenon. Contemporary poetry, contemporary painting are also extremely important. And having a humanistic understanding of the nature of art. The critics I enjoy reading are always the ones who know about more than just music.

The usual problem with pop criticism--at least in the venues I see it in, like the Village Voice--is that it's just as hermetic and specialist as any other kind of technical writing. It tends to assume that the reader already knows the context of the subject, so that the casual reader trying to make sense of it can't gain any entrée anywhere. As long as pop critics write for each other and pop musicians, their work remains somewhat irrelevant.

The problem with keeping up with pop music is that the industry cycles through trends too fast now for anything to remain relevant. Several years ago I became familiar with Nine Inch Nails' output so I'd know what my students were listening to. I was real hip for two years, and the next year not a single student in class had heard of Nine Inch Nails. As my students complain, the recording industry buys up groups that start to make a hit, forces discs out of them quickly, and drops them the instant they cease making an easy profit. Staying current with popular music could be a fruitful activity if it were an honest, public-interest-driven business, but keeping track of capricious record-company-executive decisions is a waste of time.

I confess I was almost completely unaware of pop music criticism until I met my husband in 1999. I also confess to a wondrous ignorance of pop music trends. In general, however, I think one should try to keep somewhat abreast of what's going on in the other arts--for someone who writes about opera, it's certainly important to follow spoken theater, dance, and the visual arts (I long wrote with almost equal frequency about music and the visual arts, and I still write occasionally on dance). One could argue that my ability to write well about certain new-music groups, like Bang on a Can, is impaired by my pop music ignorance.

Not very important. Mostly classical critics talk about classical things, like how well somebody played the first Brahms piano concerto. You don't need to know pop to do that. And if you brought a perspective informed by pop music to your review--if, for instance, the pianist had a noble kind of seriousness that reminded you of Peter Gabriel--you'd baffle or outrage your hardcore classical readers.

Still, there are advantages to knowing pop music. Some young composers are influenced by pop, and write music with pop elements. If you're not comfortable with pop, you won't understand what they write. And if you did make pop references in your criticism, your reviews might speak to people who don't know classical music. They'd know you lived in the same world they do.

Besides, pop critics are good at saying what music means--where it fits in our culture, and who it speaks to. Classical critics almost never do that. Instead, they tend to take the value of classical music for granted, which seems like a big mistake. How can classical music ever get a bigger audience, if we can't tell people why they should listen to it?

It's very interesting for a classical critic to know what's going on in pop music. It's very helpful, provides context, and broadens your perceptions. It is not essential.