Resonant thoughts: Kalefa Sanneh’s “Major Labels” (2021)

“When I was working as a pop music critic, I tried not to think too much about quality—at least not directly. My belief, then as now, was that there was no useful difference between loving a song and considering it good, or between not liking one and considering it bad. (If it is possible for a song to be good without inspiring any affection in a listener, then what use is goodness?) But I knew, as all critics know, that successful criticism usually relies on finding a balance between personal taste and conventional wisdom. Stray too far from the judgments of the relevant musical communities—audiences, experts, fellow critics—and readers will think you’re a crank, out of touch with the world they live in. Hew too closely to those judgments and readers will think you’re a hack, saying the same things everyone else is saying. Either one makes you seem boring, and as a professional critic, your chief obligation, superseding any musical directive, is not to bore the readers.”

“One way that critics smuggle unexamined preconceptions into their writing is by using seemingly descriptive terms that function as covert judgments. When a song is described as ‘soulful,’ that is invariably a compliment. Is it possible for a song to be soulful but lousy, or soulless but excellent? If not, then ‘soulful’ is not a description at all—it is just a synonym for ‘good.’”

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