Pop Playground
Music Criticism

for 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.

Of all the duties required of the professional critic, perhaps the least important - definitely the least enduring - is the delivery of a verdict. I am always sorry to hear that readers were personally offended, even scandalized, that my opinion of a film diverged from theirs. I wish I could convince them that I am merely starting an argument, as everyone does after dinner, or in a crowded bar, after going to see a film, and that their freedom to disagree is part of the fun.
Anthony Lane

So if you've torn down every "objective" standard by which to judge music, and accept that everyone is free to like whatever they want, how the fuck do you write music reviews?
Gavin Mueller

Music criticism—no, criticism in general—is a bastard offspring in the eyes of most people. Because criticism requires an object, because it relies on the existence of a work of art (however nebulously defined, but that's another essay) in order to exist, it is somehow inferior. Of course, that kind of thought must assume that art itself is object-less and somehow hermetic, sealed off from input. And it also rejects the idea that criticism (which is, ultimately, a form of writing) is art as well as commentary on art. It is art about art, which certainly limits its appeal to those who care enough about the art form being examined, or rather who care about it in a certain way. To love music (or literature, or painting, or what have you) is not necessarily to want to constantly analyze one's reaction to that art, or to want to consider in depth others' reactions, and there is nothing shameful or lacking in that. But sometimes the love of music does lead the listener to this sort of compulsive accumulation of opinion, wisdom, humour, judgment, argument and reinforcement that music criticism and the communities formed by makers and readers of music criticism offer.

It has for decades been impossible for anyone to write credibly on criticism (or practically anything in the arts) without some reference to relativism, and the situation in music criticism (or at least the branch of the community Stylus exists in) is especially relevant, heated and ultimately simple. Relativism can be a dangerous and distorting thing in some fields—there is no room for debate as to whether in normal life two and two make four, but other than that sort of thing we have to take matters on a case-by-case basis. And then there's aesthetic relativism.

And here's the big secret of music criticism, the irreducible mystery that we'll never solve until (or unless) we solve what might as well be called the human condition: People just like what they like. It's not consistent or predictable, it's not rational, and any reason they give to you is almost always one that comes after that central, visceral, pre-intellectual reaction. And it's this, I think, which has spurred the anti-rockist backlash, the kind of perspectivist shift that attempts to let us all let us like what we like without some tin-pot aesthetic despot trying to tell us we can't. Rock criticism, out of which almost all current music criticism flows, was partially an attempt to legitimize and defend a genre of music against its opponents. That sort of advocacy was a reaction to a view of the aesthetic world that tried to impose a kind of objectivity onto people's reactions, but by now we've come to a place where some of us are trying to move beyond these sorts of reformations and counter-reformations, these constant additions to the canon, and move on to more productive grounds. Liking or disliking art doesn't make you a good or bad person, so why do we get so invested in other people's taste? (I have my own opinions on that, but this essay is going to be long enough as it is, so let's leave that question as rhetorical for now)

I still remember vividly the moment when the truth of the irrelevance of taste revealed itself to me: It was the summer before I left home to go to university and my new computer temporarily shared a room with my father's PC. We were both at our computers, and I was listening to the title track from Spiritualized's Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space LP. It was, and is, in my opinion a beautiful song and when I'm in the right mood (as I was then) I consider it to be almost impossibly sublime. And just as the last notes faded out, my father turned to me and asked “was that out of tune or something?”

Now, my father is the one person in the world most responsible for my love of music, and his collection composes the bulk of my early listening. He is someone I love and respect. And there, in such a blunt and obvious fashion I could not have ignored it, it was made apparent to me that there was no way we were hearing the same thing in the song that was playing. I knew my love for the song was genuine and unforced, and that his complete lack of interest in it wasn't just that he wasn't giving it a chance, or that he needed to hear it five more times, or all the other little strategies we employ. His reaction was just as genuine and unforced, as valid, as mine was. And if I was unwilling to second-guess myself, and determined to extend to Dad the respect that means I was unwilling to discount his reaction out of hand, how could I justify not extending that respect to anyone else?

Things began falling into place. All those rickety arguments I had concocted in the privacy of my own head as to why otherwise reasonable people liked music I didn't, all those attempts to reconcile good friends' love of bands I just plain hated like the Backstreet Boys and what have you, were unnecessary (and baroquely silly, to boot). Maybe, and this was a seismic shift at the time, they just liked that music. And even if they didn't like music as much as I did, maybe that had less to do with them “not having heard the right music,” and more to do with the fact they loved other things the way I loved music. Maybe I had been privileging my own interests, my own tastes they same way they privileged theirs.

This is wonderfully freeing for anyone who cares enough about music to need to write about it, but it is also rather disastrous. To refer again to Gavin Mueller's post, excerpted above:

If you position yourself as some sort of arbiter of taste, you have to privilege your musical values over other things—but by "popist" logic, this is (at best) pointless (since everyone has his own opinion) or fascist (since you attempt to "impose" your own opinions on others). And with mp3 blogs and p2p, everyone can listen to the tracks themselves and make their own decisions. So where do reviews go from here?

I do agree with both of the conclusions drawn by popist logic; pretending as if there is some sort of objective scale on which our reactions to art or even the art itself can be ranked strikes me as both pointless and aesthetically fascist. If one conceives of criticism of being the process of setting oneself up as an “arbiter of taste,” then indeed the only sensible reaction seems to be to pack up your bags and depart Criticland with a hearty good riddance.

And to be fair, those same visceral reactions I so extol are strong enough that it feels to us, to all of us on some level and certainly to me as strongly as anyone who has every argued along rockist lines, as if there is an objective aesthetic order and that we are on the right side of it. One of the reasons this sort of mindset is so common, so hardy and so intractable is that it seems to make a good deal of common sense. We feel that some art is better than others, and human beings have been mistaking their own experience for universal human experience at least since the birth of philosophy. To compound matters, it would unbelievably tedious and wasteful to preface every single opinion we utter or set down with “this is just my opinion, but...”.

To look at these difficulties and conclude that criticism is pointless, either mush-mouthed or reactionary, is both unnecessary and defeatist. It also overlooks one essential truth: As long as art keeps being made, some people are going to continue to talk about it. And in this day and age, some of that talk is going to be in text. And some people are going to be better at it than others. And other people are going to want to read those they consider better (since, after all, criticism is another form of art and all I've said about taste in music applies to taste in criticism as well...). Criticism is not going away, but we cannot let it just consist of people telling other people what they should like.

The “with mp3 blogs and p2p, everyone can listen to the tracks themselves and make their own decisions” part of Gavin's quote strikes me not as an argument against criticism, but one for it. As Anthony Lane put it in the quotation found at the beginning of this essay, I think it's time for criticism to stop being regarded as a lecture and start thinking of it as an argument, a discussion. But an argument in which all parties agree to keep in mind the implicit “this is my opinion” status of all involved, one in which a degree of respect is accorded to everyone's tastes because all are equally absurd and indefensible. An argument where those of us who (theoretically at least) are entertaining enough to be given a wider forum from which to speak are not regarded by anyone, least of all ourselves, as arbiters of taste, but rather as genuine fans of the music we love who have chosen to spend much of our free time trying to express that love in all of its facets in a way that others find valuable and who have been lucky enough to find a platform to do this from.

Criticism is an art that is created out of love for another form of art, and it is silly and unproductive to have it mired in disputes about who loves best. It is an art that is about communication, about sharing with others the ultimately ineffable ways art makes us feel, and it is disgraceful to not listen to people attempting to participate in good faith. I haven't articulated precisely what all of this new criticism (if it is new) would be like, and I couldn't if I had 20,000 more words, not least because it's not just up to me and because anything so high-flown would overlook the prosiac reality of having to create content every day or week or month, but I can leave you with six things I think will shape it, or that at least shape my writing.
1. The phrase "there's no accounting for taste," while accurate, is not an insult.
2. The only thing separating "a silly diversion for the masses" from "high art" is who the spectators are.
3. Agreeing to disagree is not dishonourable.
4. Your personal canon is rich and wonderful, but so is mine.
5. To be critical is to investigate why and how something works, not necessarily to say that it does or doesn't.
6. If we disregard one opinion, we must disregard all of them.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2005-09-21
Comments (19)

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