In this age of internet exposition, professional criticism has been drastically devalued. We listen to our friends—and more often than not, just the sound of our own digital voices. The line between critic and random blogger can become hard to discern. Even as one who is (admittedly) muddying those waters as a random blogger, I try to spend some space advocating for the critical profession, proper. The field, at its best, can rise above simple trend-spotting and see value the everyman of the era won't notice. Most of the 'rediscovered' artists in recent memory were preserved for us in time capsules by small cadres of professional writers who believed the world would someday be ready for these sounds.
Kristin Hersh has a unique wrinkle in this conundrum. She is an archetypical cult artist—maintaining a small but deeply devout audience. I've met very few casual Hersh fans—ones who are content with just a couple albums. Those on the outside of this cult seem perplexed by the fandom she inspires. Thankfully, most of the world finds her fans quaint rather than unhinged or obnoxious like juggalos. Of course, that same quaintness can be more than a bit condescending. Kristin, by virtue of being a female songwriter (who spends a portion of her career performing solo, acoustic) is too often relegated to a chick-rock / lilith-fair ghetto. Like being labelled 'World Music', it can then be filed safely way from other more real types of music.
What's worth noting, is the vast majority of professional critics count themselves among the cult of Kristin. It wasn't them who labelled her chick-rock, it was us. If you only read about her, she's a vital and wrongfully overlooked figure in a musical landscape made up of REMs and Pixies. Many of her reviews (even for her latter-day missives) border on hyperbolic. Talk to someone outside her fan base? You'll probably walk away thinking she's just another Tori Amos or Ani DiFranco. Must we pigeon-hole by gender? Do we have such a hard time taking women seriously as musicians? Or have all the scant few slots we set aside for them already taken up by the PJ Harvey's of this world?
If you need storied histories to suplement to your musical consumption, Hersh has so much to spare she is working on a second memoir to follow her first, Rat Girl. Hailing from the 80s music scene that set the stage for everything we call indie-rock today, she racked up a couple of bonafide minor hits that broke out of college radio and into mainstream airplay.
Thankfully she's persevered—though it doesn't seem it's been at all easy. Recent interviews belie a barely contained disgust for the music industry. Over the years, Kristin has moved her work towards a crowd-funding model. Overall, an interesting development: fans paying directly to finance the recording of a new album. Usually the pot is sweetened with sundry prizes: exclusive deluxe versions of the release, handmade artwork by the band, etc. Of course, this model only works for an artist with a loyal fan base. Wildly popular performers, with ready funding have little need for it. Obscure artists' audiences will be too small (and probably unwilling to pay for a record they probably won't see for months).
While it's certainly a blessing that crowd-funding has kept new records coming from artists as diverse as Juliana Hatfield to the Swans, it's worrying that it might also have a blindspot. It's proven there can be enough of an audience to raise the capital needed, but is that playing to a fan base that will only atrophy over time? They have to win new ears somehow. How do they get their music reported on, seen and ultimately heard by a new audience that could, if won over, sustain them in the future?
This is where the critical community should come in… right? They probably hear these albums and could advocate for crowd-funded works if they wanted to (if their publishers / advertisers allow them to). Is their diminished stature is up to the task? Even if critics shower praise on Kristin Hersh, will you read past the first paragraph? Furthermore, will you go and listen to her music? Nowadays, most of us listen to new music based on what people exactly like us play (via what an algorithm thinks we would enjoy—based on what we already like).
It's not just amateurs like me pissing in critics' pool: part of their dwindling influence is their own doing. There is a truly shitty ratio of professional writers to genuine insight. If you read multiple reviews of the same album, you'll likely begin to see the same phrases repeated, verbatim. Writers sometimes pass off whole portions of an albums' press materials as a review. Or they'll parrot broadly accepted views without challenging or expanding on the party line one bit. It's shoddy critics who built the chick-rock ghetto in the first place. No wonder Kristin can sound so wounded about it.