Leigh Witchel furthers our discussion on the (sidelined) place of dance criticism in mainstream journalism:
?I’ve had a similar conversation with Alexandra T. over at Ballet Alert. If I recall the substance of it correctly, she maintained, interestingly and arguably, that we have to think of the media as more than an instrument of response to people’s interests. It forms them as well. She felt there was a time that papers operated on that assumption with a sense of cultural duty. It’s easy to posit the self-perpetuating cycle of lower profits and more specialized readers leading the media to think of itself purely in terms of commercial survival.
Pretty depressing I realize, but to ask the question optimistically, can we find new ways to form popular taste??
I agree more editors taking the initiative to offer their readership a broader range of interests would help. But let me provide a grim example of how it?s not happening.
A month ago, National Public Radio?s ombudsman wrote a gently wrist-slapping analysis of NPR?s pop music reviews. They were, he said, ?incomprehensible.? But just look at the examples he cited:
?The songs themselves are the draw. They’re disciplined little gems of composition, poison-pen letters set in the first person and caustic, coffee-shop observations propelled by not particularly heroic desires. The best of them tell about being deluded in love or not being able to let go of an old flame. And even under Merritt’s dour storm clouds, they gleam.?
?Morrissey has always seemed to be a walking paradox, both playful and morose, ambiguously asexual, political but hopelessly self-involved, which is why You Are the Quarry is still a classic Morrissey album. Songs like “All the Lazy Dykes” and “The World Is Full of Crashing Bores” serve up such themes in spades. But his usual inclination towards detachment ends there. And the new Morrissey, the older Morrissey, the wiser Morrissey, the Morrissey of this moment is unafraid to show a more personal side, venting his soul with songs like “Irish Blood, English Heart” about his withering sense of nationalism and, of course, the starkly brave and confessional accusation of Christianity entitled “I Have Forgiven Jesus.”
Both perfectly comprehensible to me (and to Terry Teachout). In fact I remember these reviews catching my ear and holding my attention when they first aired. But then, I?m not a member of NPR?s base demographic. The real problem, it seems, is that these reviews made NPR?s older listeners feel unhip. And because those listeners feel an ownership of NPR, they wrote in?crankily.
The ombudsman?s conclusion is a misguided one. He believes the network should pull smart pop reviews like these and run soft features on pop music instead. But the pop reviews?not the stories on, say, how Timbaland found inspiration in ?The Lord of the Rings??snagged me, and I venture they would snag other younger listeners too. And the listeners who were incensed because they were made to feel unhip are hardly going to abandon NPR because they have to sit through a three-minute pop review. They?re vociferous, but if you heed their every complaint, you?re going to lose a potential new audience and gain nothing.
What is the moral here for dance writing? After all, just as pop reviews are considered a niche on NPR, so is dance writing considered in most publications. I take away two points: We need to build a committed, vocal audience that speaks to newspaper and magazine editors not as uppity representatives of a special interest but as general readers who happen to like the dance reviews. And we need to do what we have the most power to do: write well, and write for a broader audience. In the above article on NPR?s pop reviews, the review excerpts themselves are the best evidence against the ombudsman?s argument. We need to stop hand-wringing over sociological factors we can?t control and start building our arsenal of evidence that dance writing can engage a wider readership.