Welcome to Tap Don't Talk, a conversational feature which pits 405 writers Rob Wilson and Mike Clark against each other to shoot the shit about current affairs in the world of music. This is more casual, personal and comprehensive than a typical in-depth feature, firing up ideas about a certain topic that might not all fit into a normal article but are still worth discussing. This is by no means a conversation limited to just us though, feel free to add your two cents in the comments section below or call us names on Twitter if you want - Rob is @robinamicrowave, Mike is @Pixleh and, of course, there's @The405. Enjoy!

Mike: It's been a while since we've done Tap Don't Talk because of life commitments and stuff, and it will likely be a further while until we get the chance to write another because it's coming up to exam season at university. Still, we've managed to carve ourselves an alcove of time to discuss something, and discuss we bloody well will! Quite a lot has happened in the time we've been away: Record Store Day; Coachella; the whole Fluence thing; Kate Bush's return; Future Islands appearing on Letterman and subsequently blowing up (yay!); I could go on. But what piqued my interest the most, because I like reading about criticism, is the article Jazz critic Ted Gioia has written for The Daily Beast called 'Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting'. The whole furore around the article died down a while back, it was published well over a month ago and the internet moved on to another of its manifold daily controversies, but regardless, I think it's something worth discussing still. The crux of Gioia's argument is that the lack of theoretical and technical knowledge of music and the focus on petty gossip is killing criticism. Now, we represent the two strands of Gioia's dichotomy: Rob knows music, studied it, and has even put out an EP; whereas I know very little about music theory or anything like that. I can't even play an instrument. So, Rob, as a music critic who fulfils Gioia's 'requirements', what do you think about his article?

Rob: First and foremost, I believe the argument Gioia puts forward is a reasonable and important one: music criticism is in danger of heading down the pan (with certain magazines). Things like using obnoxious descriptive techniques in order to sell an album instead of describe it, or limiting some potentially brilliant reviews to three-sentence-long PR statements have had an impact. But in terms of applying music theory (discussions about chords, scales, modes, what have you) to an album review sort defeats the point of what I consider to be good criticism. I'll concede that having knowledge of music theory allows me to pick up on things others might not (like the use of 7/4 time in Foals' 'Providence' but it's the most important thing is learning about the critic's experience, combined with that academic knowledge, which tends to yield the best results. A lot like it does with music itself: what good are beautiful scales if they're played without passion? (average metalcore) And what good is all the passion in the world if what's being played isn't remotely interesting? (Take my view on Jake Bugg, for example). Gioia doesn't really consider that, and his argument is then spoilt by the technophobic, luddite stance which he takes in the second half of the article, simply because it made him so hard to like, and therefore hard to listen to. A lot like music itself.

"Art is ultimately emotional, after all, and an emotional understanding is as important and valid as technical understanding..."

Mike: I'm caught in two minds about this. For one, I don't think music writing is heading down the pan at all - to be reductive, Gioia's article reads like: "Wah wah wah! Things aren't what they used to be!" The state of criticism isn't worse than what it was before, just different; the mainstream criticism he bemoans may be mostly predicated on gossip and celebrity culture (I'm guessing you think NME is incredibly guilty of this, and I'd agree), but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of other great music critics working in alternative spheres - Neil Kulkarni, for example. You've just got put in the effort to find them. But for all Gioia's hyperbole, I think he touches on something that's quite interesting and valid: technical knowledge is important, but only to an extent. I know that probably sounds like bullshit considering that I've already acknowledged that I know naff-all about music theory, but I consider myself more of a film writer than a music writer. I know about film; I've dedicated time to learning about it and I'm taking a film course at university. I also like to think that what I know about the technical, theoretical and historical aspects of film makes me a slightly better writer. But only slightly - and if anything, it just gives me the confidence not to feel like I'm not chatting absolute shit, as I often do when write about music, because I do get insecure about that. Anyway, while having some technical/theoretical knowledge aids the process of engaging and understanding a text, it's not absolutely necessary - art is ultimately emotional, after all, and an emotional understanding is as important and valid as technical understanding.

Rob: You've answered the question there. Theory is something to dip into a draw from, not use as the entire basis for a piece of writing. If someone wants to find out the chords, scales and harmonies used in certain popular songs they can either find the sheet music or watch the reams and reams of YouTube tutorials which tell you how to play those songs. The key thing sheet music and guitar tutorials can't give you is feeling. But reviews can. Video reviewers like Anthony Fantano at The Neele Drop have taken that to the next level by expressing their feelings visually, rather than simply through words. I don't want to watch the next instalment of The Needle Drop and hear him say "[Artist X] uses this chord, and then this chord", I want him to explain how that chord resonated with him. Do you see what I mean?

Mike: Of course, as you said, theory should only be used as a means to an end. But that end can be reached with or without theory. Of course, a writer should know enough about their chosen subject to appear insightful and informed, but that needn't be based on technical jargon and years of study - that can simply come from listening to a lot of music and reading other criticism regularly. Really, it's down to whether the writer is any good or not - you need to be able to express your thoughts intelligently, incisively and honestly regardless of theoretical knowledge. That's the foundation of good criticism and the technical stuff is ultimately only a building block. I mean, a writer may be well versed in theory, but they could be a dull, self-important ass about it. If you do have that knowledge, you shouldn't laud it over your reader or act like you know everything because that would be impossible, which Gioia is slightly guilty of in his article. He also seems to ignore the fact that criticism thrives with differing perspectives; the thoughts of the theoretically informed and uninformed and both have their own merits and weaknesses and what they have to say should be valuable to the overall discourse. But he seems to want a very singular discussion about music, which does more harm than good.

Rob: Exactly, in the same way that a person well versed in theory could be a dull, self-important ass, a musician could be layering their songs with some serious theoretical application but lack the relatable desire to get their message across. Take the Sex Pistols for example: most of the "basslines" on that big old album of theirs just copied the root note of the chord the guitar was playing over it. That's really basic stuff. But it's one of the most influential albums ever written, to the point where an entire movement was catapulted into the mainstream off the back of its success.

"I don't think criticism is simply a case of consumer guidance, telling readers what album to listen to or what film to see. Broadly, a piece of criticism is writing that deeply engages with a text and an art form in general..."

Mike: When you started writing about bassliness following the root notes there my brain sort of shut off. As someone who doesn't know about the theory, it just goes over my head - and I'd expect you to do the same if I started wittering on about the 180 degree rule or the difference between long shot and a long take or whatever. On its own, theory isn't really interesting to read about unless you're really into it, nor is it particularly interesting to write about when you're trying to be accessible, but when intelligently and passionately applied to a text it could be. For example, one of my favourite film critics, Film Crit Hulk, does this all the time when it comes to film - and even wrote a really great article about what happened to Weezer. While the article definitely demonstrates some theoretical knowledge about music based on experience, what he's lacking is made up by good writing.

Rob: I remember reading that Film Crit Hulk article for the first time and not understanding much of it. Mainly because I wasn't as much a fan of Weezer as I am now, but also because I didn't have much concept of theory. But over the past year or so I've developed my knowledge of both theory and Weezer and the article really made sense to me. It's hard to write against melody, but when you get it dead right (as Matt Sharp did on those first two albums) it can sound incredible. The amount of POWER Weezer got out of their harmonies is the most startling and impressive factor, it was what made their early material so memorable. But I agree, he could talk about that for a million years and it wouldn't be interesting if he wasn't a good writer. It's the fact that he loves Weezer lots and lots that makes it such an enthralling read - I know Weezer have their core fanbase, and that's fine, but there are those who preferred everything they did before 2001 and will connect with the words Hulk puts forward. That's what makes it a good piece, not just his knowledge of theory.

Mike: Exactly. But we also need to consider what we think criticism is for, and what it should aspire to be. In what you've written here it seems to me that you're equating criticism with reviews, which is a bit simplistic. I don't think criticism is simply a case of consumer guidance, telling readers what album to listen to or what film to see. Broadly, a piece of criticism is writing that deeply engages with a text and an art form in general, and a good piece of criticism will be as moving and thought-provoking as the art it seeks to investigate. It should stand on its own as an intelligent piece of writing; be insightful, entertaining and the reader should come out the other end knowing and/or thinking more than they did before. The writer should use their experience to illuminate something that may not be so obvious to a casual consumer and ultimately teach them in understanding art in various ways. As I said before, to do that the writer will need to have some knowledge and experience of their subject and poetics -- it stands to reason that a writer who has spent time learning about a subject, whether academically or casually, is passionate about it -- but they also need to have knowledge of language. The best writers are readers, after all.