Old Musing on Music Criticism
What follows is an older musing from my old blog about music criticism, partially edited for clarity and conciseness. It reflects myself as someone just getting into the world of discourse, and it shows. I’m no longer afraid of music criticism, as refining experience over time has been most beneficial to fostering opinion and analysis.
I’ll be honest: I find music criticism quite intimidating. Not scholarly music analysis; I actually find that much more comfortable because there are established analytical frameworks, methods, and structures. But music criticism that grades the quality of music, that’s intimidating to me.
The major cause of my intimidation (almost fear, really) is how pluralistic the music scene is. Popular music today has an uncountable number of sub-genres and artists, making it impossible to know everything about popular music. I find that somewhat depressing. I love to accrue knowledge, and to find limits to that due to sheer practicality is a blow to my idealism.
Pluralism also means that the criteria and acceptance of what is “good” music varies innumerably. In a web swimming with music criticism, how can I know if an album I’m considering in buying is good? Can I even trust my own opinion and my own musical tastes?
Gotta love postmodern pluralism, right? Personally, I appreciate the liberation it gives in allowing others to voice their opinion on truth in a great dialog. But conversely, I’m frustrated that I sometimes find truth hard to find.There isn’t an objective sign pointing to an absolute, trustworthy source, if even one could exist in a world of various contexts and worldviews. Perhaps this was a subconscious reason I started this blog; to get a hold of truth through analysis, a method I do feel secure about. At least with more scholarly analysis, I’m grasping at some great meaning without the feeling of inadequacy in face of the bulk of pluralistic music criticism. The questioning of “what’s good music?” really strikes a nerve with me. It’s through discussion with others that I’ve realized that I need to better appreciate my own thoughts and no solely rely on the experts for my own opinion.
Okay, I think you get the picture of my own uneasiness. Now I bring this up because at the Festival of Faith and Music 2011, the music critic Jessica Hopper gave some insight into what makes great music criticism. One issue she address is the lack of cultural context utilized in music reviews. Context, including the artist’s album art, persona, interviews, tastes, alliances with other artists, prices, web presence, tweets, tours, careers, lyrics, method of distribution, etc., all influence the artist and make us their artistic persona. For good music criticism, critics must look past the surface and analyze the artist within the big picture. If they don’t, they miss things by just looking at the surface, which is only one facet of the artist and their work, not the whole.
For an example of this, one may turn to Pitchfork’s review of Fewer Moving Parts. Here only a fleeting glimpse of David Bazan is seen, most of the review focuses on what the critic assumes the intent is of the lyrics, with connotations of attack. It seems clear that this reviewer may have some biases against Bazan, for instance, why is the questioning of faith be “avoid-at-all-costs lyrical territory?” Who says what and what isn’t appropriate for lyrical exploration? It seems the critic supplies that boundary, likely based on his own taste.
This also brings up another facet of context, the context of the reviewer, also emphasize by Hopper. There isn’t such a thing as an objective review because we measure music based on our past experiences of music. We cannot be impartial and come to a piece of music without context, it’s impossible. Hence the example of the review of Bazan’s album. It’s clear this reviewer has some problems with Bazan, and that of course affects his writing. However, one’s worldview doesn’t always mean a negative review, the opposite may happen as well. Take Pitchfork’s review of Kid A. It is astoundingly full of hyperbole and fluff, such as the last paragraph, with sentences filled to the brim with over the top vocabulary (someone here loves his thesaurus!), but not much content. Obviously, this critic is so caught up in his love of Radiohead, it distorts the clarity of his review. I do not doubt the quality of the album, but the review barely helps tease out any of its meaning. Everyone has a worldview built from past histories from which they analyze content, and we need to remember this. We cannot separate ourselves from our worldview, they are intrinsically a part of us. Perfect impartiality is impossible, but quality criticism isn’t, so long as we and critics alike are conscious in how our worldviews affect our opinions and address that appropriately (exactly how we address that now, I’m not quite sure*)
Jessica Hopper’s insight into the importance of context really aids me in my struggle of finding truth within a pluralistic music scene. To find a good critic then, it seems its advantageous that they are 1)critics who address artists on a holistic level, and 2) always attempt to stay open-minded. Overall, we must remember that context matters, that strangely present, yet seemingly absent thing that shapes us all.
*Well, personally I used to think it might be ideal to try and stay objective. But of course music is art, and art invokes emotional response. Our feelings are a vital part in our interpretations of music, and we shouldn’t discount them as interfering or burdensome. After all, they are an inherent part of our being, and an important one at that. (Besides, how can you exactly do you rationalize how a song is “good”?)