At some point when I wasn’t looking, music journalism died. It was bitten by a zombie, it seems, and now the corpse stalks the internet, applying its old techniques to its new fixation: “BRAAAAAAANDING.”
How else to explain the bewildering response to Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience? Steven Hyden at Grantland.comran a haphazard list of complaints about Timberlake’s career arc, nearly uncontaminated by actual engagement with the music. There are gripes about how we all used to be ashamed to admit we liked JT and now “there’s nothing at stake.” About how “astute” it is to allege that the album “sets out to establish Timberlake as a ‘luxury brand.’” About how “he looks the part, but there’s something not quite correct about it,” as though anyone gives a good goddamn about what “part” the guy putting sounds in our earholes looks like or what his marketing ambitions supposedly are. What little actual music criticism there is in Steven Hyden’s laughable Greill Marcus impression consists of dismissive, unexplored insinuations about being disappointed.
A sample: “It is the opposite of what a big-time pop record is supposed to sound like.” (What does that mean? Who decides that? Huh?) “It’s certainly preferable to “That Girl,” the self-conscious “Southern” tune in which Timberlake revives the “JT and the Tennessee Kids” shtick he’s been using in his pre-release promotional appearances.” (None of that has anything to do with the song. You could’ve explained why the infectious, sweet, make-you-fall-in-love ballad fell flat for you as music, but you’re talking about marketing.) “He’s not going to record with Skrillex or invite A$AP Rocky to rap on a track; he doesn’t exist in the same context as those guys.” (Who. Gives. A fuck. What kind of evaluative criteria is that? He’s not chasing what’s buzzy and hip, so the music isn’t good? OK.) The apotheosis: “On The 20/20 Experience, Timbaland and Timberlake still sound like the most prodigious hitmakers of the mid-’00s.” (This is meant to sound like a bad thing.)
Good music writing is hard. Reactions to art are inherently subjective. Finding something more interesting to say about a record than merely describing how it sounds, while remaining rooted in the actual music, is a tricky balance. If all a music critic can do is dress up her own taste in its best Sunday adjectives and hope for affirmation, well, she should write about something else. But if the other stuff a critic brings to the material strays too far from that material, you end up with that Grantland piece.
The New York Times‘ Jon Caramanica manages the balance a bit better, but only a bit. He pans the record in the same thinly argued, marketing-myopia-afflicted way. He criticizes Timberlake for not being “more risky and more distinctive,” after grounding his critique in a few hundred words of handwaving about Timberlake’s career and whether or not there’s a place for ‘old-fashioned pop stars’ in today’s industry. “It’s not meant to change minds,” he concludes, before actually setting in to discuss the songs. (Of course it isn’t. It’s meant to put enjoyable, engaging sounds into minds. It’s music, not a campaign speech.) Even when engaging the sounds, Caramanica’s still framing his takes on the music with a bizarre, winking psychoanalysis: “It is Mr. Timberlake radiating seriousness, lest you think his music making is frivolous.” Yes, that’s it. It’s a mind game, “a paean to brand maintenance,” not, y’know, fucking music that can be discussed with a combination of subjective reaction and objective contextualization and comparison. Those image-obsessed critic-as-therapist lines ruin the nice set of contextual observations they bracket, about the influences reflected in 20/20‘s songs. (Caramanica’s best stuff is on how Timberlake’s vocal presentation has changed since the naked ululations of the N’Sync hit “Gone.” But you have to wade through the above garbage to get to the good.)
Critics writing in this brand-obsessed way seem to think we should be more interested in the presentation than the meal. And if the presentation doesn’t fit a never-explained criterion – not daring enough, say – then they believe they’re excused from the responsibility of justifying their subjective impressions of the food. This stuff reads as sloppy self-aggrandizing from writers who, in lunging for Big Ideas, have let their reach exceed their grasp.
It’s possible we’re all being successfully trolled here, in the classic sense of insincere people saying anything they can think of to provoke sincere and extreme reaction. But I don’t think so. The fixation upon celebrity over product among so many professional music writers strikes me as a natural overreaction to the democratization of music writing. When any jackass with an internet connection and a decent vocabulary can churn out impressionistic amateur poetry masquerading as an album review, it’s natural for the pros to reassert their professionalism by reaching for Big Ideas. Problem is, “what does this say about Timberlake’s brand” isn’t a Big Idea. It’s among the tiniest ideas I can think of, in fact, and elevating it only reinforces the industry’s incentives to be lazy, to prioritize salesmanship and packaging over the hard and risky work of producing good music and trusting the market. And when the only accompanying substantive discussion of the music is couched in unspoken distrust of Timberlake reaching backwards in time for the sounds on 20/20, it just sounds like reactionary bullshit.
It’s good to slay the self-indulgent wankery of thesaurus-driven what-this-sounded-like-to-me music “criticism.” That way lie boring adjective-offs between writers and a body critical that’s even more subjective than music writing inherently is. But it’s no less self-indulgent and wanksome to sneer at Timberlake for spiking his usual recipe with a bunch of classic soul ideas while obsessing about his salesmanship, his acting career, his psychology. We get it, professional critics. You’re annoyed everybody thinks they can do what you do. Try doing what you do better, rather than falling for the lie that marketing is as interesting as music.