Who’s ruining the media these days? Those awful cable news companies? Michelle Malkin and her new twitter project? Daniel Tosh?

None of the above, says former plagiarist and wikipedia self-promoter Johann Hari. It’s Spin magazine for making the decision to do the majority of its music reviewing via Tweet. And it’s that rabble of people who don’t get paid to write, who are too numerous and too noisy to birth useful consumer advice, and too busy with their paid jobs to sit around watching movies or listening to music all day:

Spin magazine has just joined the latest in a long line of critic-killers, replacing its album reviews with 140-character tweets. All the iconic American magazines and newspapers are, one-by-one, following this trail, with perhaps the most startling being Hollywood bible Variety, which fired its full-time critics last year. American media trends usually end up in the UK: for example, the excellent Timesbooks section has shrivelled to a few pages. If this process is completed, all that will be left to navigate us all through a roiling ocean of culture will be unpaid amateurs and advertising.

I have never had any time for the people who sneer at blogging, or lament the days when newspaper editors were cultural gatekeepers deciding what mattered. There was no magical process that yesteryear critics went through before they started appearing in print. The unpaid critics of today have all the potential to be as great as the paid critics of yesterday.

But there’s a crucial flaw in Ebert’s case. If you are writing your criticism in the evenings, after a long day working at another job, your thought and your writing will almost certainly not be as rich as if you had been able to read and learn and think all day. If Tynan or Kael or Sontag had been working in K-Mart or Barclays all day, they would not have had the same insight. Every article Ebert himself writes is living proof of this, informed by a lifetime of exploring film that would have been impossible if he also had to support himself in KFC. As the writer Jennifer Szalai warns: “Those who wonder what happened to criticism should wonder what happened to the economics of it.” (link)

His argument is so childish and self-serving that it barely merits a rebuttal, but there are a few things worth noting.

Hari says criticism performs the dual functions of consumer guidance and artistic interpretation. To do the latter properly, one needs adequate page space to stretch one’s critical and authorial wings.

Two thoughts on this:

  1. Blogs and websites have no space constraints, though they are usually fed by the unpaid amateurs Hari seems to resent so much.
  2. I have never, ever read an interesting music review in Spin. Most music, especially within their pagescan’t hold up to extended critical treatment. Remember a few summers ago when the cover of every mainstream rock magazine featured another skinny-legged garage revivalist act like The Hives, The Vines, or The Horrors? The vast majority of the ‘critical’ writing in these publications is payola-tinged hype.

If the cluttered world of criticism is slightly less cluttered after Spin’s move to Twitter, shouldn’t that be something for Hari to welcome? A well-connected flagship rock magazine has institutional incentives to hype certain trends and artists, which often runs counter to the critical imperative to appraise and interpret a work honestly. At the very least, their status can keep them from asking key questions about why we even hear about certain artists in the first place.

For example, take the up-and-coming–or at this point, up-and-came–folk group The Head and The Heart. Prior to a Seattle show opening for Vampire Weekend, the press described an A&R “feeding frenzy” over the band. Why were labels so keen on signing them? Because of their music, of course. The Head and the Heart taps the same vein of nostalgic Americana that Mumford and Sons rode to the top of the charts for several weeks the summer before. There’s nothing wrong with labels giving people what they want to hear, but it’s the critic’s job to be skeptical of that whole process. Spin wasn’t (“you can practically smell the campfire.”), and they rarely are. (Full disclosure: my band opened for The Head and The Heart in Fredericksburg, Virginia once.)

We’re in agreement that it’s important to look at the economics of criticism, but he clearly feels defensive about where current trends might lead. The only good writing at Rolling Stone these days has nothing to do with music. Perhaps readers who still identified with its former countercultural status began to doubt the magazine’s ability to meet Hari’s first criterion of consumer guidance when it put Zach Efron and Justin Beiber on the cover. Which is to say, the consumer guidance function is pretty useless as a general principle with an audience fragmented into a kaleidoscope of different tastes. It reduces to a simple, “to thine own self be true.”

To close, I’d like to draw attention to two reviews from Tiny Mix Tapes where myself and most everyone else there fall into that odious category of unpaid amateur. The first is a review of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way written by an English professor at Indiana University, structured after T.S. Eliot’s letter on Marie Lloyd. The second is an acrostic review of The Shins’ new album by the section editor. One is brief, the other is quite long, but each takes the right approach.