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

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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.

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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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