Criticism on Criticism
A response to Coke Machine Glow’s article on music criticism

Update: As of 2/10/06, this article was re-edited. Thanks to David from CMG for his articulate response.

This article was written in response to two Coke Machine Glow articles
which you can check out

here
and

here
.

It's all
connected. I think.

So, I'm taking the bait and writing a reaction (albeit, a delayed reaction) to
Nezar's On Criticism [link].
Make of it what you will. I'm going to try to confront a few things that
bothered me, and if you in turn have your own thoughts/responses that you want
to share, send ‘em my way. I seriously don't get enough
e-mail.

Nezar has brought up a topic that I personally find very interesting from a few
perspectives As a person, an avid listener, a young musician, and a (basically)
pro-bono music "critic," the role of music and music criticism confuse me. Now,
since you are reading this article, I figure it is safe to assume that you
listen to your fair (wink) share of music. Also, for some reason, you probably
aren't content with listening to what is immediately available to you (although,
it is important to note that if you are on the internet, a lot of music is more
immediately available to you than ever before). I do hope that I am reading your
mind correctly because your enjoyment of this article depends greatly upon this
ability of mine. You have something of a critical stance towards music, no?

Ok, so to start from a quasi-anthropological perspective, we might want to try
viewing music as "organized sound." Music performance could be viewed as a
ritual that involves the construction of audial patterns by a performing entity
for a listening entity (the latter entity must be human and could potentially be
the former entity). I feel that this rather ridiculously abstract framework
might be somewhat useful for analyzing the concept of music…enough of a
structure yet enough variables to account for personal preferences and cultural
differences.

Let's say that music criticism is sort of a subsidiary of music performance. If
we were music critics in Europe a few hundred years ago (or musicologists
today), we might want to talk about how certain pieces of music are superior
because of their harmonic complexity which we might say is inherently divine or
something hyperbolic like that. Well, that's fine and great and all (sort of) a
few hundred years ago, but hey, it's also a really closed-minded perspective.
Harmonic complexity or complexity itself is not inherently magnificent.
It is merely a means for musical structuring. It is a foundational pattern or
constraint for Western music, and it is at times a critical key to analyzing
that music and many of its derivatives. The role of the critic is arguably to
help guide musicians and/or listeners along the constraints of that culture.
He/she sort of assists the process of enculturation or "cultural education."

But in different contexts, critics have different criteria by which they judge
the music. Sometimes they gauge "authenticity" (generally folk, punk, indie, emo),
complexity (math rock, jazz, classical), dance-ability (electronica, techno),
social relevance (punk), innovation (experimental) or catchiness (pop). Note
that the genres in parentheses are matched with terms that I feel they are
generally
associated, however correctly or incorrectly.

Or sometimes a critic might judge just by immediate reaction or for immediately
personal reasons. As Nezar points out, such a reaction might not be "critical"
though. However, Nezar really does sort of take the fun out things a bit too
much: "Perhaps even worse are those instances when reviewers spend paragraphs
detailing how the music ‘feels,' offering little to no justification for these
perceptions." C'mon, what might have Animal Collective been telling us with that
last album title?

While I agree with Nezar on a few fronts, I think he treads a little too quickly
in a few places: "Fundamentally, there is an objective fact in music criticism:
that all of us are dealing with the same music. It follows the same chord
patterns, time-signatures, contains the same lyrics, comes out of the speakers
the exact same way, regardless of who's listening to it (I'm ignoring details
like the volume of the music or anomalies in hearing, of course). Whether or not
those objective aspects result in any particular subjective emotional experience
is something different altogether -- but then the reviewer would have to say
‘it's structurally good, but it just doesn't resonate with me, because [whatever
reason].'"

As Harry Partch once pointed out, there is no sound that is enjoyed in one
culture that is not thought of as a horrible noise in another. "Structurally
good" appeals to a universal, objective notion of structure, but the
organization of sound varies widely between songs, artists, genres, and
cultures. What would be good structure, especially in the realm of experimental
music, new genres, and cross-genre music?

Another one: "Music criticism ought to be first concerned with the objective
fact, the music itself, and secondly whether or not its relation to other things
(history, tradition, cliché, etc.) makes it better or worse."

What he fails to realize here is that his first group IS the second group of
things. Instruments are parts of tradition, as are time-signatures, chord
patterns, whatever. And furthermore, for most of the American music I listen to,
I don't need the music review to tell me that it's gonna be in 4/4 time. I
already know because otherwise the critic would probably say something. And why
"ought" a music reviewer explain all this stuff all the time? He shouldn't be
wasting the reader's time with technicalities and a boring, self-aggrandizing
display of basic aural abilities and harmonic knowledge.

A real critic questions context instead of merely reciting it. As the internet
encourages more and more cross-cultural listening and as experimental artists
get more exposure, critical listening becomes more and more confusing.
Questioning the "objective standards" by which one might evaluate an
album/song/style almost becomes an essential part of listening, especially when
actively searching out new music.

If you are bothered by materialism and American consumerism, well then, I think
the role of the music critic would be to play along passively just like a TV
fashion expert. Provide the music that fits the constraints of your audience,
your sources and your "tastes." Rate it accordingly, explain and perhaps
valorize or condemn the context, and you are done. The musician can be whatever
he or she wants without a care for other people.

My opinion: this feeds off of and encourages hierarchy, inertia, and
self-centered consumerism. What could we do instead as critical listeners? Maybe
question what kind of enculturation a music/an album/a song/an artist
encourages. What constraints are really being challenged and engaged?

I have faith in few things in life, but I believe music presents a unique
opportunity for connection between people and cultures because music, on one
level, strikes instantly, in its moment. It can cross boundaries instantly. Yet,
there is an essential historical or contextual component in the enjoyment of
music.

Whether we are aware of it or not, music and music critics already facilitate an
enculturing process. The idea I'm supporting is that we might want to think
about what we are in fact supporting. Nezar misses the point I think: Context is
essential to the enjoyment of music. Understanding it isn't essential. My
experience, however, has been that understanding music and its context greatly
increases enjoyment and awareness. I mean, a music review itself is a context,
an authoritative service. What kind of context you give or values you give is
your choice, but remember that context affects listening and experience.

As active music lovers, we have the ability to reshape the constraints and
patterns of music production and music reception as well as day to day thinking
and living. We must be careful in challenging these patterns, but I hope that we
won't just resign ourselves to passively playing off the trends of music, music
criticism, and life put down before us.