Disconnecting the Dots: Getting Critical with Music Critics (And their Readers)
or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Music Criticism.
Heard of hermeneutics? Apropos of art, having hermeneutic is nothing different from having hands; minds make merry with the senses, like fingers they flip through their conceptual rolodexes. Adjectival reservoirs, as deep and musky as a grandfather’s sock drawer, are drained infrequently; usually one chooses for comfort and practicality: Words wrap their selves around their phenomenal equivalents; thinly second skinned or wholly mummified, the verbal tries in vain to save the beating and breathing from the sepulchral. More often than not, one’s description is only prescriptive; custom dictates discourse to such an extent that one’s take on a tree is no different than ruminations on a record.
When Nietzsche shat on all the “system builders,” rumbling into the room like a rhinoceros and toppling over carelessly crafted conclusions as so many argumentative structures doomed by their frail premises, few heard the thunder in his words: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” And so factum/factus/facere was given a Viking’s burial, laid into Actuality’s longship and blazed out to sea. Things, whether acted, done, or occurring, were from that point, pallor’d pieces of information, broken down, dead on the page.
Eschewing the argument contra truth, the thinner issue isn’t without its relevance: Prescriptivism erases one’s objectivity, allowing only interpretation addled by values and interests specific to the agent. Explanation eighty-sixes concision; what’s left is nothing but a filter. Information taken in isn’t strained free of its solids, it’s distorted; our eyes see a/the thing in soft-focus: Attributes are smeared, a slug under an indifferent boot-heel.
Consider a tree: A woody perennial with an elongated stem, studded with branches from its midsection to its top, bare at its bottom. Looking from the window, this is a rather accurate definition; yet further delineation is required. What value is afforded by further fleshing? Is the tree coniferous? Deciduous? What of the Cypress, Spruce, Cedar, Deodar, and Pine? Should one regard the needles? Juxtapose Juniper with Ginkgo? Thankfully, all of this is left to the botanist; only when children point and demand definitional placation are we forced into realms of feigned expertise. Connecting nature’s descriptive dots is a relatively easy task; contrast the natural with the non-natural, and the dots remain suspended in their space, discarded with disgust like the too-demanding Times crossword.
The LP, CD, and cassette—and their plastic traces realized in “dubs” and “burns”—are conceptual foot hills freed of their foot holds. Climbing the artifice is nothing different from that demanding child, relentless with his/her questions about root systems, leaf-presses, and the mystery of photosynthesis. Which is why one usually takes the easy way out: Painting “critical” prattle with clunky cliché.
E.g.: AC/DC’s 1983 album Flick of the Switch is a prime example of an outfit transcending the nuts and bolts of a genre once declared dead by guardians of Rock’s last bastion, viz., The Who; AC/DC’s 1983 album Flick of the Switch transcends the “Rock Out w/ Your Cock Out” aesthetic, shaving semiotic free of the face of Rock & Roll; AC/DC’s 1983 album Flick of the Switch is evidence that Angus, Malcolm, Phil, and Brian are a band big on beat, right on riff, and heavy on howl; this is a record roiling in rock strut, breathing in smoky bravado, and transcending the sum of its parts in a greasily engaging gestalt for a horde of knuckle dragging needle heads who can’t pronounce the aforementioned psychological phenomena, much less understand it. When there’s nothing to say, wax ineffable. Saying it’s music that transcends is like getting profound without having to plumb the mental depths necessary to arrive at profundity.
Aping the wordless, breathless rock writer does little for both sides of the equation: It renders the writer worse; it leaves the reader with a review that’s bloated on bogus brilliance. (We are all a guileless, guilty lot.) But, here, as in several other instances, the critic’s lazy impotence is confounded by the reader’s hunger to have a record’s sound handed down in a single sentence. Give the reader a blow-by-blow, a play-by-play, an automatic relay light on flight, and formula heavy. Don’t encapsulate, boil down, or offer in nuce; keep the mitts away from metaphorical genitalia; an impassioned, intelligent critique will come across like jets of the warm milky white: Impenetrably dense, and in love with its own stroke.
But writing needs its reader as stirred gin and dry vermouth need their olive so as to make a Martini. Just as there are hundreds of ways to descriptively access the “tree,” the critic can take any angle with artifice. Fuck geometric law; rays unite, divide, and stand staid in space merely waiting to be turned straight, right, or obtuse. E.g.:
Flick of the Switch
Atlantic; 80100-2; 1983
AC/DC’s first platter in 21 months is a much welcomed nest of nasty. Making better on Bad Brains’ rock as architectural anabasis, Angus & Co. craft a hit record devoid of hits; there ain’t a radio friendly piece of strange in the set.
Starting with the rumbling bucket of bolts that is “Rising Power,” and ending with the fuggitall frappe of “Brain Shake,” Melbourne’s madmen have tired of saluting those about to rock, and have taken up the act in sweaty fuckin’ vivo; join in or get out of the goddamn way.
And Malcolm Young is God.
Flick of the Switch
Atlantic; 80100-2; 1983
Those that loved the swaggering Chuck Berry’d Nighttrain of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap will not be disappointed.
Flick, while not as catchy as earthdog anthem For Those About To Rock, is a fine collection of songs, all of which rest solely on Messrs [Angus] Young and Rudd. This is a record as much about kick/snare/cymbal combos cum [Angus] Young’s razor’d riffs, as it is frontman Brian Johnson screaming ‘til his head hemorrhages into a fine red mist.
Well worth that Turtles’ gift medallion you’ve been saving.
Flick of the Switch
Atlantic; 80100-2; 1983
Trying to escape Sting’s pneumatic wheeze via “Every Breath You Take” is about as easy as not being surrounded by women—and men for chrissakes—donning artfully torn “Flashdance” sweatshirts in the midst of your post work workout class. Phil Rudd’s pugilistic skin bashing is pure antidote to this metastasizing disease. Spandau Ballet know this to be “True,” they wear as much product on their domes as Queensryche, who, incidentally, have yams lodged firmly in their Lycra slacks.
Suck this one back; cure the disease.
Hence, straight, right, and obtuse: Straight tells it like is: Here’s what this band is about; here’s a sip of the sonics; buy or die. Right tells it in relation to the bands oeuvre: If you liked X, you’ll love Y, and possibly Z. Obtuse grounds it in its zeitgeist: Here’s what’s going on in 1983; if you don’t like it, you’ll like this record. Of course, all three of these examples are forged from formula. Even worse, all three examples are aware of music as commodity—reviewer as product pitcher.
Consider some slick monthly called Vacation or Traveler or Expedition. Flipping through its pages one sees advertisements for Land Rover, Cialis, Rolex, and Coach. There are some articles about “secret getaways” that’ll no longer be secret; jai alai; single barrel rums, and the medicinal properties of mud. Lots of hot soccer moms poured into leather trousers; lots of Harrison Ford stunt double dads; lots of preternaturally immaculate children wearing blue blazers and Bermudas.
Who’s this magazine for? Using the ads as clues, one would be inclined to say WASPy, middle aged, urban, bourgeoisie. The people that are reading, buying, and subscribing to this magazine are living its contents. They are caused by its copy and effected to acquire what its glossy pages preen. Brit wagons, hard candy, Swiss sun dials, and cowhide manipulated to cradle pedicure’d feet are only playing pieces; the game board is where the real shit goes down, even if its more about reading, talking, and fetishizing the game than it is “winning” it.
Transpose Music for Vacation. Change Traveler to Tunemaker; Expedition to Euphonia—it’s drearily the same. Even one of Vacation’s hacks may deny their self of a little reality now and again; putting together a piece on Peru isn’t to articulate the type of its terrain, the psyche of its people, the fragrance of its food: It’s to sell it, baby.
Say it proud; say it loud: it’s all big C Commodity. Call it art, call it point A in a scheme of personal transcendence; you’re plugging your ears with wax so as not to wreck on the shores of supply and demand. The majority of review readers demand cogent but straightforward copy because they are interested in the “product.” They scan the spew to separate sonic shit from Shinola; it’s the reviewer’s task to relay this information without even a hint of their prescriptive bent. Once the shape is strained, the reader’s lost, and agrees to disagree.
Perhaps the exit is there all along. Listen to Heidegger when he begs us to let a thing appear as “what it is.” To do so, he says that we have to “learn how to do so; for [the object] gives itself to be seen.” Does Flick of the Switch give itself to be seen? Is it as palpable as Pita, or as pugnacious as Prick Decay’s sound as sonic trash? Or does it operate in ordinary loci, where heads bang, feet tap, and shagging slickly ensues around Side Two, culminating as “Deep in the Hole” skips, stuck in its own vinyl static?
The dots are there for writer—or reader—to connect. Leaving them be is honestly a more attractive enterprise: What writer wants to think of him/herself as an advertisement, replete with bumpers and jingle? Admitting this as fact is prescriptivism’s casualty one in conceptual denial. The more we agree to agree, the more homogenous the review becomes; the more the adjectives atrophy. Having writers tell writers how a review should be written is as dangerous as the readers demanding a writer to behave accordingly. Friction is not only encouraged, it’s necessary.
Ultimately, seeing rock writer as bullshitter is to deny one’s own predilection to prevarication. Of course, one man’s nonsense is another man’s aphorism. Transcending this antithesis is something yet to be done, even by those that have quaffed from the eternally full mug of Boy Howdy! If/when that antithesis is erased, opine is—after all—only opinion.