A few years I wrote a post extolling the virtues of strong, mutually respectful relationships between music journalists and publicists. Here’s the flip side.
A publicist yesterday emailed to see whether I was interested in reviewing an upcoming album by one of that publicist’s clients. I said I’d be happy to check out the album, with the caveat that I’m skeptical about the artist, based on previous releases. The publicist’s response: “If you aren’t a fan, then don’t worry about it. … Would rather not have someone write about the album if they are not interested in being supportive. :)”
Well, sure. No publicist wants reviewers writing unfavorably about their clients. But this particular reply indicates a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of a critic. (I’m not going to identify the publicist, or the artist, because the person represents a lot of musicians, and I may well want to write about some of them down the road.) It’s not my job as a music critic to be a fan, or to be supportive — in fact, it’s antithetical to my job, which is to evaluate, to contextualize and to explain. I make an effort to do those things with an open mind: “I try never to dismiss something out of hand — especially before I even listen to it,” I wrote in a return email.
There is (or should be) a difference between a critical review and cheerleading. That’s not to say that fans can’t do an evenhanded job — they do it all the time. In fact, I write plenty about bands I’d say I’m a fan of, though my goal is to be fair, and not knee-jerk “supportive.” The subtext of that is troubling, to the point of insulting. It’s as if the publicist is saying that by not being an avowed fan, I have no business writing about an album, which is, of course, total bullshit. If critics only wrote about bands (or authors, or directors, or painters) they’re fans of, cultural coverage would be even duller than it already is.
In 20 years of writing reviews, I’ve found that bands I love sometimes make bad albums, and bands I hate sometimes make good albums. That means my ability to be “supportive,” as defined by one particular publicist, is contextual. I understand that publicists have a job to do: musicians (among others) hire publicists to portray them in the best light and help them communicate with the news media and the general public outside the confines of their art. Good publicists are responsive and helpful, which can be invaluable to a writer. But critics should write on behalf of people who listen to music, and not the people who make it.