Interview with Simon Reynolds
We spoke on the phone with the music critic to know a little bit more about his thoughts about the role of the music critic and the specific sound of the music of the 21st century. Read or listen to the full interview below.
Simon Reynolds is an all-star music critic that’s been writing since the 80s. He has collaborated with publications such as The Wire, The Guardian or Pitchfork and is the host of this year’s masterclass about music journalism at MIL.
[I: I don’t believe in the idea that music journalism is dying, but rather that is reinventing itself in the midst of change. Nowadays, in a time where artists can own their own story and share their own story without any gatekeepers, where do you think it’s the place of music journalism and the music critic in this scenario?]
S: Well, you know, one of the assumptions around that idea is that musicians actually know what they’re doing and what they’ve achieved [laughs]. And in fact, artists, and it can be musicians, filmmakers or writers, what is their strength is an ability to be driven by either instinct or intuition or some kind of unconsciousness. They also conduits or prisons through which larger forces, political forces, cultural unconscious, manifests itself.
There are a lot of artists nowadays who seems to be really hyper-conscious about what they’re doing and they can tell you all the influences of their latest artists, they can map it out, especially in electronic music, there’s a lot of, I call it conceptronica, where people have almost like a rationale or schpiel discourse, it’s almost like something you can get in an art museum catalog or an exhibition catalog. There’s a lot of artists who do that very well, it’s almost like you feel there’s no room for the music critic. But a lot of things that happen in pop music really need some kind of external analysis, so I think the role of the critic is still to sort of make connections and notice the larger patterns that are going on in culture. They don’t necessarily take what the artists are saying, they’re trying to do things value. They might be saying they’re doing one thing, but they’re actually doing something else.
The role of critics is multiple. In some sense, critics are just good listeners who can articulate pleasure and sensation and feelings very well, but they also can be people who can make connections across a larger cultural field: to politics, to social things, to, you know, the big picture.
And another way where artists and critics can be across purposes is that all artists like to think what they’re doing is very individual and exceptional, and they don’t like being linked with other things going on, such as a genre, a scene or a movement. And in fact, more often than not, they are a part of something larger and they’re not as exceptional as they think they are, so part of the job of the music critic is to literally put them in their place. Actually, there was this larger formation going on in the culture that you are maybe an exceptional manifestation of, but if you look in the music history, nearly everything, even something as important as David Bowie or The Beatles, was part of a wave of cultural formation.
But I think there’s still a role for critics. I think that the problem is that, given that artists can talk to their fans and explain what they’re doing – or what they think they’re doing- the question is: who’s gonna pay for critics to do what they do. There might be a need for criticism, but who’s gonna pay for it?
[I: I made this question not because I think there’s anything productive in discussing the death of music journalism, but because the creation of identity is obviously related to the context. Music criticism and music journalism will always have a role in that so I believe it’s important to be reminded that one thing doesn’t exclude the other.]
Well, there seems to be more music criticism than ever. And anyone of us can access more of it than ever, mostly because of the internet. There are few publications, like The Wire, where most of the content is available in the paper form, so you have to buy it to read it, but most music publications put their stuff on the web. So, you can now read hastily more than when I was growing up. Even in the 90s, you were limited to the magazines you could find and could afford to buy, but now you can read 20 different opinions or more on a new significant album.
There’s more analysis and historical analysis, there are more books about music written… And there’s also a lot of opportunities for people to write, but I think there are less opportunities for making it their career, or at least a prosperous career, I think.
I: As a music critic you’ve been through a lot of changes in popular music. I saw an interview where you talk about a surprise factor and that you are still expecting to be surprised. So, how does this surprise factor comes to you nowadays and is there anything as a sound, or sounds, of the music of the 21st century, in your opinion?
The thing that seems to emerge as the area that’s from the 21st century and, like, exciting, is that people are doing strange things with the human voice.
And you know, that went on in the 90s with a lot of rave music, which sample voice and do strange things with them, and there’s an avant-garde tradition in music conquer of doing strange things with their voice and, you know, Kate Bush is doing it, but it seems to become bigger. A lot of it is in very mainstream pop music, but also on the margins of experimental music. It’s like across the board, where you have all that stuff using auto-tune in pop music with singers like Billie Eilish or ØZI, you know, very richly processed voices and kind of harmonized cool effects of the voice, where there are multiple voices. It’s very processed and sculpted and not a naturalistic presentation of singing at all.
Then, you have all the stuff in rap: I’m particularly interested in Future, Migos, Travis Scott and all these artists who are doing cool things with the voice. You also have a lot of interesting female artists, like Katy Gately and Holly Herndon, just all kinds of either technological things done with the voice or strange vocal technique, where people are really pushing the voice.
So, there isn’t a genre. I think that the thing about the 21st is that there isn’t really been a big new genre – there’s a lot of smalls ones, interesting and new – but nothing as big as hip-hop or rave culture, those things have just carried on. Techno rave culture is still going on, rap is still going, R&B is still going on.
There’s like a cross-genre or a trans-genre phenomenon of doing manipulation of the voice and processing, a sort of intense vocal artifice. It has made listening to radio more interesting for me.
There’s another transgenre thing and that has more to do with the content. There’s a lot of interesting artists who are queer and trans and they’ve come through. Some of them are doing electronic music like Sophie and Arca, people like that. Some of them are more like indie music or emo music, but the content is about gender-dysphoria, you know, it’s about speaking of fluid sexuality and subjectivity in a very interesting way. And that’s not unknown in the music before, there’ve been gay and androgynous elements within music before, but that seems to have really come forward in a really strong and intense way and it’s not confined to one genre: some of it’s really experimental electronica, some of it is more traditional music, almost like punk or indie or shoegaze music, but the emotional and lyrical content feels news and challenging.
[I: Lastly, if you could do a little description of your masterclass, so that our professionals know what will happen at MIL.]
S: Because I don’t really know what the market is for music journalism in Portugal, that’s not something I could speak of in terms of career advisor, like, how to make it the business or, in another sense, what’s good writing in Portuguese, it’s something I cannot explain.
But I can talk more generally about the art of doing an interview, writing a feature and a review. There are probably more general structures or methodical ideas, not rules, but ideas that would apply regardless of the language or the context. Philosophically, I could talk about why to do it, how to do it, what value a critic has and how that has changed historically.
So, I will probably have a historical perspective about what the function of music criticism has been and perhaps about what’s kind of missing today in terms of the music writing being done – what isn’t being done and used to be done and maybe could be refocused on.
Then, if you look historically at the history of music writing, the idea of what should be focused on, or what is the actually thing you are writing about has evolved, so I will look at that. Certainly early on, it was very very focused on the lyrics and perhaps anyone wrote about music…
I will sort of discuss what are we talking about and what is the text as it were: is the text actually the text, mean the lyrics, or is it something in the music itself or is it the discourse around the music? Is it how people behave in the social context? They’re all means you can take into account when writing about music and you get different results depending on what you’re focused on.