John Harris can be incredibly irritating sometimes. What exactly does he want to be? Political commentator with a diluted socialist angle? A cultural connoisseur? Or just a good old fashioned music hack?
He may have some good points in his lukewarm review of the new Magnetic Fields album for The Guardian (although his obvious contempt for Stephin Merritt's ironic approach to songwriting merely suggests that he lacks a sense of humour). Whilst I am an admirer of the group, my considered thoughts on that release will have to wait until I've heard the entire album. What has irked me more is the final paragraph: '...what might follow this? Merritt's next wheeze could find him mixing up any number of his previous releases - Sonny and Cher meets Randy Newman, perhaps, or maybe a fusion of Sinatra and Philip Glass. That would surely get him a load of five star internet reviews and drooling acclaim in the blogosphere.' Why does The Guardian, a paper with its very lifeblood currently dependant on its excellent website, still insist on printing this nonsense? Why can they not appreciate that a number of the people who read arts sections in newspapers are themselves bloggers? Why are all bloggers consistently tarred with the same brush, as if we're some kind of grand cult of ineptitude? Is it because the blogosphere has become something of which mainstream papers like The Guardian are increasingly wary - something that is undermining their supposedly untouchable position as the nation's arbiters of taste?
Whilst I am sometimes as guilty of lapsing into hyperbole as any writer, I try very hard to avoid writing purely as a fan. Indeed, I've written critically and honestly about artists whose work I really admire (wait for my hatchet job on Morrissey's forthcoming Greatest Hits for example, or see my thoughts on Prince at the 02 or my critical review of Bruce Springsteen's 'Magic', a good deal more honest than some of the slavish fanboy writing that appeared in print - 'the best album of his career' - do you really mean that?). Not every blogger drools slavishly without exercising critical judgement - indeed, such acumen is less and less the preserve of print journalists, many of whom seem to have a bewildering lack of knowledge of musical history or cultural context.
It's also worth remembering that musical appreciation is subjective - for every listener turned off by an artist like Stephin Merritt's reliance on conceits and wit, there will be another listener enticed by it. When writers discuss music, they ought to concentrate on trying to identify elements that could unite a group of listeners, even if that group might be a marginal minority (let's also not forget that, not least do the margins often become the mainstream in the long-term, but that minorities can exercise their own significant influence). At the most conservative interpretation - this might focus on a songwriter's grasp of melody, rhythm, metre, harmony or poetry. If they combine all of the above, they are probably on to something. If we're adopting a more adventurous standpoint, we might be wise to look at how successfully writers subvert expectations on these criteria and challenge their audiences, developing their wider tastes. Simply writing to assert your authority over other, mostly non-professional writers is too easy and serves as an unhelpful guide for readers.
The newspaper that pioneered internet content with Comment is Free ought to avoid alienating those people who most welcome the freedom and creativity afforded by the internet. Otherwise, their cultural commentators will simply render themselves irrelevant. For all the current media hype surrounding predictions for 2008, it's worth remembering that for every Mika, there's a Burial or Arcade Fire - acts now invading the mainstream whose unique and broad appeal developed initially from word of mouth over the internet. The 'blogosphere' has introduced me to a good deal of uncynical and positive, but also ultimately realistic writing about music. This comes from the people who actually consume music, rather than simply blagging their way through a PR-directed selection. Is there any reason why I should not be informed by these people every bit as much as by the journalists whose writing I also admire?