Posted Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012, at 3:55 PM
After a few days of teasing “something big,” Spin has announced that it’s moving a major chunk of its album reviews over to Twitter. The 26-year-old music magazine plans to review more than 1,500 albums this year in the form of single 140-character tweets—while continuing to post about 20 longform reviews each month on their website.
If you followed this story yesterday, you may have missed that last point: In the initial flurry of responses, many music critics interpreted the move as the beginning of the end. Music website The Daily Swarm ran the story with the headline “Spin Ushers In the Phasing Out of Music Criticism,” while A.V. Club editor Steven Hyden quickly declared “Hey, look! Spin is giving up!”
This is a rather exaggerated view of Spin’s new project—but such responses can largely be blamed on Spin senior editor and avowed troll Christopher Weingarten. Hired to that position just three months ago, Weingarten handled the announcement and, apparently, much of the overhaul. Weingarten aims to be the watchdog of music criticdom, but his fierce contrarianism and bullshit-calling seem better suited for a freelancer or a voice on Twitter than a senior editor writing on the behalf of a major magazine. Weingarten made his name reviewing 1,000 records on Twitter in 2009, and by delivering a profane, alternately astute and sensational rant against the state of music criticism at the 140 Characters Conference that same year (the video went viral, and became a sort of annual tradition).
Weingarten’s write-up of the Spin announcement bashes traditional music reviews for six paragraphs before mentioning that the magazine will, in fact, continue publishing longform reviews. Up to that point, most of it reads like this:
The standard music review, once presented as an imperious edict, has increasingly frayed into a redundant, gratuitous novelty in an era of fewer and fewer actual music consumers … The value of the average rock critic's opinion has plummeted now that a working knowledge of Google can get you high-quality audio of practically any record, so you can listen and decide for yourself whether it's worth a damn… Um, but don't tell anyone we said that, okay?
Music criticism will inevitably evolve into a “downloader’s handbook,” Weingarten says, and by the time he states, in the second-to-last paragraph, that “longform music criticism is a viable and under-appreciated medium in any year,” it sounds like a concession.
But moving beyond Weingarten’s gadflyish write-up (you got us again, Weingarten!), the nitty gritty specifics of the move are, I’d argue, not all bad. The main victim of the overhaul will be Spin’s 80-word blurb reviews, especially of those records destined to receive only middling scores. And they’ll be able to review a lot more records. As a member of the generation that grew up reading more overlong Pitchfork reviews than pithy Robert Christgau pronouncements, I had little appetite for those mid-length capsule reviews anyway.
I am somewhat concerned, however, about records increasingly being reviewed within the snark-infested waters of Twitter. Twitter critics like Weingarten and @Discographies sometimes best 1,400-word reviews with their 140-character ones, but too often Twitter criticism, which I’ve enjoyed for two or three years now, turns into a sort of twit crit: little more than a series of adjectives (left unsupported by the concrete nouns necessary to make a convincing argument), namedropping of influences and genres, and snark. Sure, reading even a dismissive review may be better than reading nothing at all, but some are so glib and reductive that they are ultimately more damaging than informative.
Will Spin be able to avoid those pitfalls? I’m not going to rush to a judgment of Spin’s experiment just from its first reviews, nor will I attempt to review the venture, the product of a lot of thought, in just 140-characters (though I’m tempted). Instead, I’ll follow them over the next few months, and hope that they produce something substantial—a new kind of worthwhile voice.