By definition, or at least according to the Oxford Companion of Music, music criticism generally refers to “the intellectual activity of formulating judgements on the value and degree of excellence of individual works of music, or whole groups or genres.”
For most fans of popular music, or at least those who grew up from the 1970s onwards, however, music criticism generally refers to reviews of a given artist, live performances and studio recordings.
Mike Jamir, former record executive at Vicor and many other record labels, started his long career in music as contributor and associate editor for Jingle Chordbook magazine in 1972. Before Jingle, music reporting was limited to the society and lifestyle pages of broadsheets, as in pieces by columnists like Rosalinda Orosa who was into classical music.
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“Back then popular music wasn’t a topic mainstream editors felt would impact on their readers so they’d turn to people that were seen and heard in the musical events that ‘society folks’ go to for media exposure,” Jamir notes. “Jingle was the first publication that focused on music that the young generation were tuned into, and made it such an interesting read.”
The Jingle years
Although known primarily for publishing song lyrics with matching guitar chords, Jingle’s content included its extensive coverage of the entire local music industry—from radio airplay to record labels to live concerts and eventually, record reviews.
Over the years, it cultivated several generations of music writers slash critics, many of whom, including this writer, are still active journalists and are now writing and editing for different publications.
Like Pocholo Concepcion, now a desk editor at the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Concepcion still occasionally writes about music. He points out that Jingle’s appeal to music fans can be attributed to its edgy, irreverent and frequently tongue-in-cheek approach to writing that often drew comparisons to America’s Rolling Stone magazine which not only focused on music but also on popular culture in general.
“I think there is a huge difference between music reviews/criticism in Jingle and the ones in the papers. The Jingle writers were candid, casual, more fun to read, as opposed to the newspaper columnists or reviewers who sounded scholarly and boring. The Jingle writers, or at least some of them, were apparently influenced by the Rolling Stone style of music reviews,” says Concepcion.
“Reading the record reviews was a solitary ritual for me. I savored the vivid descriptions, somehow it paved the way for my own transition from reader to writer. And then in college I had literary criticism as a subject, which I aced, so I realized this criticism shit was something I could do,” the Inquirer editor continues. “There was a time all I wanted to write were reviews and critiques—which are two different things, I read somewhere. What the heck, to me, music reviews or criticism are the real gauge of a record or a gig's worth.”
Pissing Angel versus Bangaw
Equally important to the actual reviews were Jingle’s rating system for record reviews — which was often a source of strong and emotional feedback from mostly distressed readers. An excellent record is usually given an Angel rating (after the magazine’s iconic pissing cherub) while the worst releases in the opinion of the reviewers are usually assigned with bangaw (blowfly) ratings.
“[To its credit] Jingle was also the first to seriously acknowledge and react to readers’ feedback. The letters that came in was the goldmine from whence gifted writers were discovered and brought into the fold,” Jamir muses.
Former music reviewer Bernie Bagaman, who now works in public relations and currently writes movie reviews for ScreenRaven.com recalls those times when the reviews of certain records extended to the magazine’s letters section ironically called Bongga & Boquilla.
“What I know is some letter writers accused Jingle critics of being Rolling Stone [critic] wannabes. B & B [Bongga & Boquilla] was their outlet for questioning the critics’ judgment. I remember getting a written thank you letter from a songwriter who wrote for Keno's debut album. I singled out his tune as a standout though I blasted the album as a whole.
“But I think one of the most legendary critic-fan battles was the one between Manny Espinola and the fans of Duran Duran. That was war,” Bagaman offers. Espinola panned Duran Duran's Rio album in his review; he gave it a Bangaw. This was at the height of the band's popularity. For two years, the hate mail addressed to Espinola just kept coming—which earned him a sort of cool notoriety among the batch of Jingle writers.
By the time Jingle folded during the 1990s, many of its writers continued to write about music for national dailies. While the Jingle approach continued to be a hit with Concepcion’s readers, it did not exactly endear him to some concert promoters in particular.
“One of the most legendary critic-fan battles was the one between Manny Espinola and the fans of Duran Duran. That was war.”
“After I wrote a bad review of ex-Toto vocalist Bobby Kimball's Manila concert, the promoter complained to my editor, short of having me fired. To this day, we’re still not talking,” Concepcion offers.
Meanwhile, magazines like Rock N’ Rhythm and the glossy Pulp picked up where Jingle left off and in the case of the latter, pushed the envelope even further.
Joey Dizon, who was with Pulp during its formative years and was the magazine’s editor-in-chief during his last five years there, says he was fortunate to have written for the magazine at a time when there was a resurgence of sorts in the local band scene.
“And all of a sudden, there I was—some snotty nosed kid from Malabon who was a fan of local music so much that I fucking hated it when shit bands put out anything less than the best,” Dizon recalls. “I was a heavy metal fan who had a pop ear, so it seemed I expected a lot.”
But just like in Jingle before, both fans and critics at Pulp developed a grudging respect for each other.
“It was such a good time to be a writer because fans were passionate, and it was sort of a great love-hate relationship with them,” Dizon acknowledges. “They’d love you if they agreed with you, and they’d let you know if they disagreed. It seemed there was this one big discussion/dialogue every time a new album came out. And I’ve been fortunate enough I think, to call it before they all became greats or failures.”
Dizon, who now hosts the podcast Kill The Lights, is one of the few music journalists who is also a practicing musician, having played guitar for the metal outfits Skychurch and Intolerant.
Like Concepcion, Dizon also often found himself on the receiving end of the wrath of the fans and musicians who strongly disagreed with his views.
“Musicians would call my boss Vernon Go and ask that I be fired, while passionate fans would send me nasty emails and question who I thought I was,” recalls Dizon. “Every now and then the threat of getting my ass kicked seemed to be real, but nothing ever really bad happened. I guess it was because at the end of the day, though I was nasty and brutally honest, I never made it personal... well, 99.9 percent of the time. I’m sure there was that one point wherein I just got totally personal just to be a dick, but that was very seldom.”
“Every now and then the threat of getting my ass kicked seemed to be real”
Another journalist slash musician who also wrote for Pulp and later Yahoo! Music is Stereodeal’s Adrian Arcega. He explains his approach to writing:
“Writing music features and reviews is craftmaking in its own right, as the writer needs to tell an artist’s story from a particular angle but at the same time elevating music journalism beyond the who-what-when-where-how-and-
“By the time I got to do some reviews for Yahoo!, I made sure to follow the review-as-narrative-form. I was being paid to offer my opinion, so I might as well make it engaging for the reader, while offering insight learned from both the academic perspective and from an experiential one, being a musician.”
“The devotion to ink and paper—and, yes, more involved criticism—struck some people as legitimizing, in a way. I don’t necessarily agree”
Aldus Santos, who also wrote for Pulp and is currently the editor-in-chief of online music portal Pinoytuner, says the atmosphere during the early 2000s was still favorable for the kind of in-depth lengthy writing that he himself and his other contemporaries were engaged in.
“Beyond changes brought about by technology, I think going the long-form route was in itself a statement. The devotion to ink and paper—and, yes, more involved criticism—struck some people as legitimizing, in a way. I don’t necessarily agree, but that was the atmosphere then,” Santos admitted.
Next best things
Fast forward to 2019. Pulp, now on its 20th year is still around, Billboard Philippines came and went and every now and then somebody brings up the idea of reviving Jingle in online form.
But there doesn’t seem to be much music criticism that can be read on most mainstream publications, at least not on the surface. Concert reviews, mostly on concerts of foreign artists, do make it on the pages of the top dailies while new artists pegged as the next best things—or at least the ones that got the attention of the commercial record labels—also get a lot of press.
For indie artists, fans may need to surf deeper. There’s Bandwagon Asia which has microsites specific to the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore but reviews, at least on the Philippine side, are few and far between.
“I haven’t seen much music criticism mainly because the old music sites—Philmusic, Pulse, Pinoytuner, Radio Republic—are now gone,” Arcega observes. “There are the occasional features on the few remaining websites, but they tend to be fluff pieces that offer not much insight (I know because I’ve written fluff pieces before too) or the occasional ‘hey, this scandal happened’ news item.”
James Saspa, who was the editor of Jingle on its last few years, blames the dearth for the emergence of social media.
“Online actually opened floodgates and now anyone with an opinion who can put two words together is suddenly a critic. Good on one hand because now you have multiple perspectives from all over, which can be refreshing. Bad on the other because the traditional gatekeepers (editors, professional guilds, etc) are bypassed so standards go down,” Saspa opined.
Tony Maghirang, another Jingle alumnus who now writes about technology for The Manila Times agrees and offers a more philosophical view.
“Music criticism has deteriorated. Maybe it's because the advent of portable technology has made each of us a critic of our own likes and dislikes, no need to share it or pander to the demands of others. Maybe because those who still write well about music are still stuck to the blinders or semantics of their youth. Maybe because the music itself has moved to different dimensions where our bedrock notions of music criticism no longer holds true especially ranged against too many subgenres—hip hop, death metal, post-rock, that have sprouted since our heyday as music reviewers.”
Santos, on the other hand, thinks that music itself is more important than music criticism per se. “I feel that people need to be equipped with the idea that it is possible to apply deeper rhetoric on what is otherwise a mass form: the popular song,” he said.
Be that as it may, at least one promising music site, offers hope. The Flying Lugaw which calls itself “a notorious zine-styled blog based in Metro Manila who are known for their discerning documentation of the best and worst of local independent music.”
Its headwriter and curator who identifies himself as simply Lugaw says he and his editorial team are very passionate about covering the indie music scene, even though he also experienced the same issues as the critics that came before him.
“There are tons of people who want to know more about our local music community and they want to know how it works from the very start to present day.
“The industry doesn't really take music writers seriously as much as film critics here”
“Writing more about local music just adds up to my experience as a journalist who documents shows whether they're big or small. The downsides from this is how the industry doesn't really take music writers seriously as much as film critics here and also there are some music artists who have the gall to take things personally if you negatively write about their record for instance,” Lugaw confessed.
Undaunted, Lugaw, who says he’s exposed to “a ton of [music] content available today,” nonetheless believe that criticism remains vital to the good of not only the indie music community but also to the entire industry.
“Without critics, how can you know which music you might want to listen, or not?” Lugaw asks. “To the artists, they can take these criticisms and if they want to, take them to heart for improving their craft. To the industry, critics are the purveyors of good music, especially those who are diamonds in the rough.”
There’s no question music critics and their work will continue to be relevant. As Arcega points out, “As long as art exists—and as long as critical thought is encouraged—then music criticism still has a future.”
Edwin P. Sallan started his career writing and reviewing music for Jingle Chordbook magazine. He still writes about music every now and then.
Portraits by Joseph Pascual
Jingle cover images courtesy of Jingle collector Allen Mercado.