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How Rap Genius and explainer sites are killing music journalism

By David Holmes , written on January 20, 2015

From The News Desk

"RapGenius.com is white devil sophistry / Urban Dictionary is for demons with college degrees" - Kool AD, "Middle of the Cake"

Last year, jazz critic and music historian Ted Gioia wrote a widely-read article lamenting the death of traditional music journalism. In "Music Criticism Has Gone to Hell," Gioia was sad to report that, "One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music. Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting."

Gioia isn't exactly wrong. More ink and pixels were spilled debating the merits of the Golden Toilet Tower at Kanye West's wedding than unpacking the sonic and lyrical chaos at the heart of West's 2013 masterpiece Yeezus.

But music and general interest publications have always been overly fixated on the love lives and sartorial choices of rock stars. And while the click- and share-obsessed economy of digital media has inarguably intensified these tendencies -- just as it's driven other journalistic verticals into ever-dumber hunts for short attention spans -- music criticism's habit of discussing anything but the music is nothing new. Even within the canon of great music writing you won't find many mentions of pentatonic scales or deconstructive analyses of drum rudiments. Instead you'll find great storytelling, great characters, and personal and cultural reflections on an artist's work. And by virtue of their unique excellence, those stories have always been in short supply.

No, there's a different scourge threatening music criticism that is more native to the web: The explainer.

Explanatory journalism has existed since long before the Internet arrived, particularly within subjects like politics and science. But in recent years, sites that seek to explain or annotate quite literally Everything have emerged. These destinations take two forms: There are the huge user-contributed mainframes of information like Urban Dictionary, Wikipedia, and the most infamous and well-funded of the three, Rap Genius. These sites hand over the reins of cultural criticism to the Internet masses. Sometimes they're edifying, sometimes they're not. But in the spirit of Silicon Valley, all three are designed to be self-correcting. If a Rap Genius user posts a wildly off-the-mark interpretation of a Wu-Tang lyric, the community will theoretically downvote it into oblivion.

And then there are the explainer sites that operate more like traditional journalism outlets, like FiveThirtyEight and Vox. They employ supposed experts who write articles with titles like "Everything You Need To Know About X" and "Ten Reasons Why X Matters." The variable could be pour-over coffee, meteor showers, or an under-appreciated rock band that recently reunited. In theory, these articles help shape a cosmopolitan readership that is well-informed on an astounding variety of topics. In practice, however, the articles often provide just enough information -- much of it shamelessly inaccurate --  for the reader to sound smart.

But, to briefly bite on Vox's method of Q&A rhetorical discourse, what does all this have to do with music journalism?

First, let's talk about Rap Genius. The site has long courted controversy, and not just because of its dearly-departed dipshit of a cofounder, Mahbod Moghadam -- you might recall Moghadam adding some appallingly misogynistic and approving annotations to the 141-page manifesto of UC-Santa Barbara killer Elliot Rodger. Long before that misbehavior, however, Rap Genius staked its claim as the latest in a long tradition of recontextualizing black music for the bourgeois masses.

In a 2013 essay in The New Inquiry, Eric Harvey likens Rap Genius to the early 20th century musicologist John Lomax. Lomax insisted that the black blues musician Lead Belly perform in prison garb while Lomax stood onstage "translating" his lyrics, sometimes willfully misinterpreting his words in order to shock or perversely delight white audiences. Harvey admits that Rap Genius' founders are far more savvy and self-aware than Lomax, and yet their site regularly plays host to similar misinterpretations:

Even when they’re serious, the translations are often bizarrely off-base, contextualizing rap lyrics within a gangsta mentality even when such ideas aren’t raised. One would think that Scarface’s “My Block” would be straightforward enough to resist further explanation in the first place, let alone the RapGenius annotation, which inserts violence, drug abuse, and poverty where they were not mentioned, or even tacitly referenced.
Many rappers, like Nas who has provided both annotations and investment money to Rap Genius, welcome this crowdsourced interpretative dance, telling Forbes the site has the potential to be "something great for hip-hop fans all over the world." Other hip-hop artists are not so kind, like Das Racist's Kool AD who calls Rap Genius "white devil sophistry" on the track "Middle of the Cake." Both of them are right. As a site dominated by crowdsourced contributions, Rap Genius is only as good as its last annotation.

But setting aside racial implications, where Rap Genius poses a troubling trend for music criticism is in its assumption that every lyric can and should be explained or intellectualized with some finality and certainty. From modernist paintings to rap songs, artists often present their work with some measure of mystery, allowing the audience to fill in the blank spots with their own deeply personal reactions. Rap Genius, and its ever growing family of sister sites like Lit Genius and Law Genius, do not allow for such wiggle-room. No line or word shall go unturned. It treats art like a Wikipedia entry for mitosis.

If Rap Genius was merely an upstart community of fans and artists, then traditional music criticism could go about its business unfazed. But it's become much more than that. Through a clever method of assigning unique URLs to every annotation along with every page, Rap Genius rises to the top nearly every time a rap song or lyric is searched on Google. The company has also raised over $50 million in venture capital rounds led by Andreessen Horowitz* and is using that capital to hire top journalistic talent like The New Yorker's pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones. Is this what the music journalist of the future looks like? Staying home from shows, balking at artist interviews, and sitting in bed explaining what "bandz" are to kids in the suburbs?

That brings us to the second form of explainers which look like traditional journalism but have the same deflating effect on music criticism. The latest site from Vox Media, which has raised over $100 million in venture funding, is dedicated to explaining and demystifying complex news stories "in plain English." The biggest problem with Vox is easy to identify: It's often flat-out wrong. It turns out that smart, easy-to-digest journalism doesn't lend itself so easily to the fast production cycles of Internet media, which requires writers with little specialization to quickly educate themselves on a topic using Wikipedia or other secondary sources before regurgitating it back to the public. No wonder things get lost in translation.

But Vox hasn't limited itself to the realms of finance, science, and other hard news verticals that beg for "explanation." After all, the tyranny of trending topics leaves no discipline unscathed. The site also seeks to boil down the arts into bite-size content nuggets in a way that differs from Rap Genius only in presentation.

Today, for example, Vox's Kelsey McKinney published a piece called, "How Sleater-Kinney became the last great rock band." Nowhere in the piece does McKinney share how the Washington state trio decimated every other guitar act on the planet. The writer does however spend 1,700 words offering up a disconnected narrative of the band that is both bloating and deeply dissatisfying, like a meal at the Olive Garden. It reads like a fan-girl's rewording of a Wikipedia synopsis, and yet McKinney never lets her enthusiasm boil over in a way that might pique the reader's interest. The outcome I imagine is the opposite of what McKinney intended: If I had never before explored the work of Sleater-Kinney, this article, which is like a VH1 host reading stereo instructions, wouldn't make me start.

Thankfully, McKinney does eventually let the band's music speak for itself by embedding a few YouTube clips, though she introduces them with the caption, "What are the five Sleater-Kinney songs I need to hear to understand the group's appeal?" Wow, nothing says "rock & roll" or "fandom" like "understanding the group's appeal." That's because unless you're the type of person who's afraid of sounding gauche at your next dinner party, there's no reason to "understand the appeal" of Sleater-Kinney. Either you like them or you don't. And in the age of YouTube and Spotify, it's easy enough to figure that out on your own.

That's not to say there isn't a fascinating story to write commemorating Sleater-Kinney's return. How about an oral history of the "Riot grrrl" movement in the 90s? Or even a personal essay about how the band's music was a welcome form of catharsis for McKinney in her angst-ridden teenage years?

But those types of articles aren't in Vox's playbook. It would prefer to explain why others care about a band instead of making the reader care herself. And worse, it keeps the reader at arm's length as an outsider looking in, instead of drawing the reader into the glorious scene that birthed the band.

And that's where Rap Genius and Vox both fail as replacements for music criticism. It isn't because, as Gioia asserts, they don't dissect the technical elements of the songs. From a lyrical perspective, Rap Genius accomplishes that just fine. It's because they treat art as a thing to be explained, not to be felt. And they treat readers as cultural tourists whose connection to an artist's work can only be communicated in the most literal terms.

If you're the kind of person who spends all your time at museums reading the plaques, that's fine. But true music lovers require something with a bit more soul.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]

  • Andreessen Horowitz partner Marc Andreessen is a personal investor in Pando