Genius and the splintering of arts journalism

For the future of music criticism, Sasha Frere-Jones' new company cannot replace his old one

The announcement that Genius, the website best known for crowdsourced explanations of rap lyrics, bagged an A-list music critic was nothing if not a little snide. “Pop Music Critic Leaves The New Yorker to Annotate Lyrics for a Start-Up,” read The New York Times headline. But the nose turning belied the significance of the move for Sasha Frere-Jones, 11-year pop music writer at the most august of arts journalism institutions, The New Yorker, who joins Genius as their new executive editor.

It’s a major poaching for the startup formerly known as Rap Genius, providing the clout of a respected critic on its roster. That today the definition of music journalism is broad enough that a five-year-old startup built around annotating lyrics is in the same market for talent as The New Yorker is astounding. In part, that’s down to Genius’ popularity: It gets 30 million unique visitors on average per month, according to a spokesman, and last year received $40 million in venture capital on top of $15 million in 2012.

The expansion of arts journalism to sites like Genius also reflects a splintering of traditional criticism. The kind of criticism The New Yorker is famed for digs deeper than the average review, combining analysis, context, social commentary, personal experience, the artist’s background, and judgment on the art itself. Today, those functions are increasingly split into separate parts, by separate voices.

If you want to know whether the art is any good, you can go to Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes for an instant score. To figure out an artist’s intent and background, there are blogs by the artists themselves like jazz pianist Ethan Iverson’s “Do The Math.”

And there is Genius. Founded by three former Yale graduates in 2009, it started with a Wikipedia-like crowdsourcing model wherein contributors annotate and decode hip-hop lyrics. Today, it has expanded far beyond music, allowing annotations of everything from Kendrick Lamar to Plato’s The Republic to the Brown v Board of Education judgment. Verified artists can annotate their own works, such as East Coast rapper Nas, who contributed commentary for his seminal 1994 record Illmatic and is also an investor in Genius.

Lyrics are debated among contributors, and meanings are refined. It’s a popular pastime. While Genius only has about 30 staff in its New York headquarters, it has close to a million contributors, said a spokesman. Genius seeks the definitive interpretation of a phrase, a metaphor, a double entendre. A user clicks on a lyric and they see its meaning. Simple.

But Genius’ strength is also the reason why traditional approaches to arts criticism (what Frere-Jones has primarily done) shouldn’t be completely displaced by new approaches (what Frere-Jones will increasingly do).

Art is much more than a code to crack, a foreign language to translate, a meaning to “get,” after which it can be claimed as one more unit of accumulated knowledge. To appreciate art is also to experience it on an emotional level. “By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art,” wrote writer and critic Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation. “Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”

Meaning in art comes from a variety of sources. “All meaning is in part by the artist, the art, the association the art confers, by individual experiences, and socially constructed,” said David Hajdu, music critic for The Nation and an associate professor of arts journalism at Columbia Journalism School. “There’s a danger in presuming there’s something innate in the work.”

Genius displays the meaning that a crowdsourced community (or sometimes, as with Nas, the artist themselves) assigns to songs as if it’s the only correct meaning. It claims to work towards “definitive guides” for the texts it analyzes, achieved through a faith in the wisdom of the crowd and the checks and balances of community moderators. That definitiveness creates the appearance of certainty in the interpretation of a song that is surely responsible for much of Genius’ popularity.

But a fine piece of Harper’s or New York Review of Books criticism is greater than the sum of its component parts. It does not aim to merely decode a piece of art’s supposed meaning, just as it does not merely dish out a “fresh” or “rotten” rating. It brings together the multitude of meanings art may have, adds elements beyond meaning that make art alive—personal experience, the merits of the work, social commentary—and rolls them in an idea or argument about the world we live in.

Genius says little about these things, or even how a song sounds—a loss for a hip-hop-centric website, considering that in rap, an artist’s “flow” (the rhythm in which they percussively release words) is often regarded as equally if not more important than the meaning of the words themselves. Much as the divorce of music and lyrics makes for an incomplete analysis of a song, so is the separation of a crowdsourced meaning from all the other ways to read a piece of art.

Genius excels at what it does, harnessing new media tools for close readings of literary texts, stoking debate over interpretations, and peeling back the significance behind beloved songs. But it’s only about meaning. Great criticism, like great art, is about much more.

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Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw. Tags: , , , ,