J. Freedom du Lac: Pop Music Critics' Balloons Burst a Long Time Ago

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pop Music

If pop music critics held any real sway over the listening public, then Celine Dion wouldn't have sold more than 200 million albums worldwide; Amadou & Mariam, Ashton Shepherd and Animal Collective would be international stars; and fans would be filling stadiums for Sufjan Stevens and Jamey Johnson instead of Bon Jovi and Kenny Chesney.

Yes, a critic can turn readers on to artists and recordings they might not have heard otherwise: I still get the occasional e-mail thanking me for having shined a light on Bettye LaVette's spectacularly good 2005 album, "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise," which I raved about in print and online for months.

A pop critic can -- and should be -- interesting and insightful. But influential? Apparently not.

This is not exactly a new realization; in the mid-'90s, well before the Internet democratized the critical process and social networking amplified all that word-of-mouth buzz, I attended a music confab in Portland, Ore., which included a panel discussion on the power (or lack thereof) wielded by music journalists. The money quote: "If we mattered, then Boston wouldn't have sold 15 million copies of 'Boston.' "

The figure is actually 17 million. Only 11 albums in the history of the American music business have sold more. All hail the kings of the middle of the road, a populous, critic-proof place.

-- J. Freedom du Lac

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