Monday, May 31, 2010

Some plugs, some thoughts on music criticism

I had a road trip this weekend for a wedding. As the weekend approached, I thought I would make good use of the 8-hour drive to get some work-related reading done, and maybe even some recreational reading. What really happened was that I took a series of power naps, ate too much trail mix, and listened to music. The only reading I did in the car was from The James Brown Reader.

But I also got to catch up on one of my very favorite regular podcasts. I've mentioned Popdose here before. The site is one of the most consistently entertaining and informative pop culture news sites out there, and the writers lack the pretension that oozes from so many other such sites. They've also got a great podcast. Which brings me back to the purpose of this post.

Popdose's most recent podcast
featured an extended chat with Steve Almond, author of the new book Rock and Roll will Save Your Life. I haven't read the book yet, but it's on my short list for summer reading. Listen to the podcast, and I bet you'll add it to your own list.

This is all rather serendipitous. Marc Morrison (my co-host on First Impressions and fellow music geek) recently had on- and off-the-air discussions about the level of pretension and snobbery in music criticism. Now, don't get me wrong - we all have some level of snobbery here (mine tends to shine in discussions about Journey and the Black Eyed Peas). But it's to the point where I generally don't even bother reading reviews until after I've heard an album, if at all. It's not even just that reviewers tend to be pretentious, but also that other peoples' reviews often steer me wrong. Most recently, I was looking forward to the new Band of Horses LP, Infinite Arms. The night before the album's release, I read Pitchfork's scathing review. Within moments, I went from planning to buy it the next morning to vowing not to buy it at all. I won't get into the specifics (you can read the review for yourself), but this is a perfect example of the pretension that tends to shape Pitchfork reviews and by extension, frustrates the hell out of me. (I ended up streaming the album from NPR and buying the damn thing anyway. Because it's good.)

A former music critic, Steve Almond shares this frustration, but articulates it much better than I. A month or so ago, Almond wrote a sort of teaser editorial for his book in the Boston Globe. Almond's piece so perfectly expresses my own frustrations with much music criticism and my feelings on music more generally. It's a short piece that I recommend you read. But I want to quote Almond's basic point, which resulted from an epiphany while covering an MC Hammer concert:


The very idea of music criticism — of applying some objective standard to the experience of listening to music — suddenly struck me as petty and irrelevant. I spent several more months as a critic, but my essential belief in the pursuit evaporated.

I’d come up against a concept I’ve since come to think of as the Music Critic Paradox: the simple fact that even the best critics — the ones, unlike me, with actual training and talent — can’t begin to capture what it feels like to listen to music. Because listening to music is a collaborative endeavor. Fans don’t just sit there (as critics do) parsing the technical merits of a song. They bring to each song their own emotional needs: their lust and sorrow, their hopes and heartbreak.


Criticizing a particular band or song might make you, and some of your readers, feel smart or sophisticated. But it rarely does anything to advance the cause of art. After all, you can’t rescind the pleasure someone derives from a particular piece of music. All you can do is deride that pleasure, which strikes me as a fairly stingy way to make a living.

I myself still write about music a good deal. But I devote myself almost exclusively to spreading the gospel of those bands that I love. As for the bands I don’t like (and there are still plenty of those) I tend to assume someone else will.

I love music, and I love reading. Ergo, reading about music is one of my favorite things. But I read so little in the way of what is traditionally thought of as music criticism or hell, even music journalism (looking around the house, it appears I only buy music magazines when one of my favorite artists dies. I bought more magazines in the weeks following MJ's death than I probably ever have). But two things that I do love reading are 1) legitimately informative writing on music and 2) peoples' personal experiences/relationships to certain works. To put it in Almond's terms, I enjoy reading proselytizations of pop music. This is perhaps why I love the 33 1/3 book series - they're clearly labors of love. Moreover, the books in the series tend to be deeply informative (as in the books on Bowie's Low and the Stones' Exile on Main Street) or personal ruminations on what a particular album means to the author (Michaelangelo Matos' take on Prince's Sign 'O' the Times is a particularly good example of this) or a combination of the two.

What Almond's point boils down to is that being a music fan isn't about consuming a product, being duped by tastemakers or any other externality. Being a music fan is ultimately about emotion. In short, music criticism becomes less about criticizing the music, and more about criticizing the listener and their enjoyment of that music.

I'll stop here, but the discussion the Popdose boys had with Almond was really smart and insightful, and I can't wait to read the book. I'll try to report back when I do.

No comments: