Why Can't We Take Criticism?


It seems that published criticism in Australia has a value and a vigour roughly equivalent to that of flat-pack furniture. Apparently, it’s all falling down.

In recent news: The merit of our public thinkers has diminished. And, no. It is neither Don Watson nor Robert Manne who are alerting us to this trend.

It is, in fact, a bloke who tends to keep his modifiers dangling.

Everett True, whose real name is Jerry, is a writer whose words are chiefly read by those who alphabetize their vinyl. This is to say, if terms like "krautrock", "Eno" or "subpop singles club" are part of your lexicon, you will recognize this nom de grunge. You’ve read that book by Nick Hornby or seen the winsome film? Well. He’s just like the bloke in High Fidelity played by John Cusack, except elevated to the sort of rock-snob status that guarantees dinner at Kim and Thurston’s house and an Access All Areas plastic tag.

For reasons wrapped in more mystifying black than your average emo teen, True currently resides in Australia. The man who made his (fictional) name in the NME and the Melody Maker is living in, of all places, Brisbane. A very tolerable town, to be certain, but not the kind of nabe where a man formerly known as "The Legend", and also famous for introducing Kurt to Courtney, might get a chance to hone his rock matchmaking skills .

Nevertheless has also, courtesy of this online dispatch, introduced analysis to the Australian music press.

I give him ten points for his sheer guts. Anyone who can sift through street press without poking themselves fatally in the chest with an Einstuerzende Neubauten CD has my deepest respect.

Yes, I know – the "critical" music press is itself an easy target for critique. It’s all crap written by smitten teens for less than five cents a word. And since True’s heyday – an era in which, it should be noted, the man himself was utterly eclipsed by then truly decent writers Julie Burchill and Nick Kent – even the serious and better paid criticism of popular music has become little more than reprocessed PR.

It is not so much that music criticism is a necessarily fruitless act, or a deed every bit as useful as "dancing about architecture", to recall Laurie Anderson’s famous maxim. The qualia of music aside, at one time its critique was a worthwhile endeavor.

Like all decent art criticism, investigations into popular music had a purpose. I’m all for the unpacking and decoding of artifacts. Particularly popular ones. In scritinising Rhianna’s latest confection, we might learn a little about the conditions that produced it. This is useful anthropology.

Of course, Burchill has long since become a fruit-bat Zionist, diet spokesmodel and resigned as a columnist. The NME merely commodifies music and no longer employs literate persons with degrees in English literature from decent schools. Fans no longer expect thorny marginal gloss interpreting their favourite tunes. And besides all of this, music has more or less gone to the shitter.

Even if you consider the parlous state of music criticism written anywhere in English, the fan has to concede that True has got a point: It’s even worse here in Australia. Critics tend to say that EVERYTHING IS GREAT.

This is what aroused my interest regarding True’s post. He hinted at our recent tendency to flatter freaking everything.

It is not merely the toady work of besotted Australian ten-year-olds writing about Flo-Rida that is crap. Most of what you find in the mainstream press written about all art-forms is crap too.

Our three half-decent broadsheets and one decent magazine still afford occasional space to some erudite folks. But even the "highbrow" sections in these publications are shrinking. Criticism in every costume has become little more than an exercise – to use True’s parlance – in indiscriminate praise.

Everyone is breathless. From the Saturday "arts" supplements to crap music press to the travel porn of Getaway. Everything is grand.

In explaining their tireless cheering, True’s music press teens tell him it’s the advertisers that demand uncritical criticism. And this is what the producer of a blancmange mainstream media will tell you too. We have to be chirpy. The advertisers expect it. Chirpy, apparently, provides financial results.

Except, of course, that it couldn’t possibly. This is Australia, for Chrissake. Fear, disdain and knee-jerk suspicion of everything are the colonial foundations of our character. Which focus group took a jackhammer to this broadly acknowledged truth? Who said that passionate criticism didn’t fly in a country that imagines nearly everyone is a wanker?

Criticism should flourish here. We have the perfect conditions, viz. decent universities and a pathological mistrust of authority. We should be producing critics and public intellectuals like Greer, James and Hughes.

Oh. Hang on. They are Australian, aren’t they? Well, aren’t they all just GREAT.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.