What I learned from A. O. Scott about the craft and value of criticism



Last February, The New York Times spoke with its own chief film critic A. O. Scott about his then-newly released book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. Although he’s a film critic, his insights into the craft and value of criticism apply to music too.

Scott addressed two issues I’d constantly struggled with: how much a critic should focus on describing and how objective a critic should be.

A recurrent theme between Scott, Chandler Levack, and Jesse Brown is that the ultimate purpose of criticism is not to tear down or build up a work; it is to develop an understanding of a work in oneself and in others.

Scott has helped me tactfully insert my subjective experience into my live reviews. I used to avoid first person no matter how awkward my sentences would end up, but he’s right: the only thing you can be sure of is your own experience. But, he stresses, you shouldn’t leave a review at “I saw this show. I thought certain things about it. I felt a certain way. I was bored, moved, frustrated, confused.” As a critic, you must turn your experience into something that might be useful or interesting to somebody else. Explore why you felt certain ways or thought certain things and what that experience was like. Compare your experience to those of others around you (as far as you can perceive, anyway). What did everyone else seem to feel? What did they comment to each other? Did their views or moods align with yours? Why or why not? What might the performance have done for them but not for you? Start with what you know. Your argument will follow from there.

Reaching these levels of understanding also provides the basis from which you can write negatively but constructively, or at least with tact. Ask of a performance or work: “What is this for? What is this doing? Who is the artist talking to? Who does the artist imagine their audience is, and how does the artist appeal to that imagined audience? How can I imagine myself in those audience’s positions? What would that experience be like? How is the music failing to speak to me?” If the piece doesn’t speak to you, it’s fine for you to say as long as you clarify your viewing context and try to understand how the piece might work for other people.

Description may be even more fundamental to criticism than understanding. Description will bring you as close to accurate judgment as possible. But, as has already been explained, reviewing is more than just giving a book report or telling what happened. Avoid these pitfalls by returning to your own experience. Your argument will follow from description.

At one point or another, most critics probably ask themselves, “Who am I to judge?” To Scott, the answer is simple: you’re just another person in the world. There are people out there, even just on Twitter, who know far more about a specific subject than critics do. But the critic’s job is to organize and extend the conversations that are going to happen anyway and are happening all the time. Plus, the fun of critiquing to Scott is that no one needs a license; there’s no bar or examination.

It’s reassuring to hear Scott express the same points that I believe about the value of taking in culture that you are not a fan of or don’t know anything about. By reading reviews outside of your specialty, not only do you broaden your knowledge; you pick up unique descriptions and inventive metaphors too. Forcing yourself (or being forced) to experience works or performances outside of your tastes or specialty forces you to think critically about those art forms. So read critics who write about topics you’re unfamiliar with or dislike, and see how those writers discuss their respective forms. And of course, there’s always the potential to be surprised – or confirm your distastes.

As a critic, you want to be useful and provide some consumer advice. But, as Scott points out obviously, readers could just be looking for something to kill time with, so you need to be entertaining too. Develop a relationship with them so they come back to your work. The critic should be a companion to them but one who’s just a few steps ahead in terms of analysis and ideas.


What I learned from Chandler Levack and Jesse Brown about press releases, interviewing, and empathy


At the end of last March, CANADALAND was a month away from debuting the Imposter, the media criticism website’s first arts & culture show. But before CANADALAND could even air that first episode, host Chandler Levack accepted another opportunity, delaying the Imposter until July 13, when the show will debut with new host Aliya Pabani.

Levack’s tenure did last long enough for CANADALAND founder Jesse Brown to devote an entire episode of its main show to interviewing her about her background as a music journalist and her goals for the Imposter though. Several points of their conversation strongly resonated with me.

First was Chandler’s biography. A friend of mine suggested that I listen to the interview because Chandler was inspired to become a music journalist when she saw her favourite band the White Stripes on the cover of SPIN Magazine. The White Stripes have been my favourite band too for the past 15 years. She and I are only a few years apart in age, so I can only assume she saw the same image. Appearing in Chucks and lazily tucked, tight, torn tees, this image (and the rest of the photo set) truly depicted the band at the height of their “coolness.” This issue was the first time I ever saw the White Stripes on a magazine cover, and personally, it remains one of the most iconic images of the band. (Or maybe Chandler saw this cover, making everything I just said irrelevant.)

Unlike Chandler, I knew other people had heard of the White Stripes. My cousin’s boyfriend at the time, who smartened me up on classic rock, grunge, ’90s alternative in general, and all of the early 2000s garage rock revival bands, used to burn me copies of all of his Stripes albums.

And I was never as enamoured with Almost Famous as Chandler was. But I did really like the film. It’s the sole reason why I avoid using the word “incendiary” at ALL costs – and why I try to avoid being too wordy in general. I always think back to Patrick Fugit awkwardly repeating the word, like no one heard him, trying to sound intelligent. I never want to be that guy.

More significantly, I never idolized SPIN‘s writers the way Chandler did. Until her conversation with Jesse, the idea of idolizing music journalists never even crossed my mind. I didn’t think Chuck Klosterman or any of SPIN‘s other contributors were funny or cool, and I certainly had no interest in being a pop culture writer the way she did.

Next – and most significantly – were the non-biographical, ideological details of Chandler and Jesse’s conversation.

One of my most eye-opening takeaways from the conversation was the idea that even music writers can be considered too old or over-qualified. Disconcertingly, Chandler felt she was considered as such when she was only 23; I hadn’t even been published when I was 23. But she and Jesse acknowledge that attitudes regarding age are often stricter against women than men. And at least I can control what qualifications I present in my resume and cover letter.

The “dude expert” Chandler and Jesse describe – the guy who nourishes his superiority complex or ego by imparting musical wisdom on, for example, his uninformed girlfriend (or any audience) – is partially why I’ve never cared to be an expert. I have no interest in possessing encyclopedic knowledge to appear like a connoisseur; I just enjoy talking about the things I like and creating an understanding of what I feel and why I feel it.

Chandler and Jesse’s discussions about interview techniques and the art of interviewing gave me the most to think about: elements and approaches to try incorporating, altering, or scrapping entirely.

I make a point of avoiding asking generic questions, but unlike Jesse, I often am interested in artists’ inspirations or the meanings behind this song or that album title, etc. And sometimes, generic questions can’t be avoided, like when profiling new bands. And new bands are often the ones I’m most excited to speak with. Jesse also dislikes questions about artists’ creative processes, but identifying as a non-creative person, I’m endlessly fascinated by how people create.

Chandler and Jesse’s thoughts on press releases were also interesting, especially because I used to receive 50+ releases a day. Don’t regurgitate the five main facts – or, if possible, anything – presented in a press release, they advise. Out of stubbornness, I rarely write anything that masquerades as more than a reworded press release, such as an event preview. Chandler and Jesse are right: pretty much everyone knows the who, what, when, where, and why of artists that press releases describe, especially of well established artists.

Chandler and Jesse take their position one step further: don’t ask questions based on “interesting” facts mentioned in press releases because the answers will likely repeat portions of the release. True, but one can avoid the obvious paths set by “interesting” facts by being creative. After all, writing – be it fiction, soft journalism, or even some hard journalism – is about finding unique perspectives.

Finally, I’ve never considered myself a great storyteller. I don’t care for dramatizing or romanticizing events. (I constantly work on developing throughlines in my pieces now though.) But Chandler put the value of storytelling in perspective for me. As an antidote artists being exhausted by repetitive questions, especially near the end of touring, she asks her subjects to tell personal stories. (This approach returns to the idea I mentioned earlier about writing not for the purpose of critiquing or demonstrating expertise but of creating understanding and, ultimately, empathy.) She also asks her subjects about topics completely unrelated (or less explicitly related) to themselves, whatever they’re promoting, or any of their other current projects; what her subjects have to say about those unrelated topics can be just as interesting or revealing. And it can be refreshing for artists to not always talk about themselves but about the things that excite and inspire them.

Many of Chandler and Jesse’s insights seem like common sense, and I probably subconsciously practice many of their do’s and don’t’s already. But sometimes, hearing other people – especially more experienced professionals – articulate an idea that you already have not only increases your awareness of it but equips you with a language with which to speak about it.

Without even having hosted a single episode of the Imposter, Chandler Levack has set the bar high for Aliya Pabani.