The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism
Retromania, Retro-historicism, and History

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Consider, for instance, the critical reception of Planet Mu founder Mike Paradinas’ latest record, released midway through 2013. Titled Chewed Corners and released under the µ-Ziq moniker, everyone rushed to agree that it was “retro,” and the mechanical retro-historical gears started turning. The Guardian placed the album alongside the year’s other prestige act retro-releases, Daft Punk and Boards of Canada, without more. Boomkat touted it as a “recalibration,” a form of “reconnection” with rave tradition. PopMatters called it “revelatory rave, the sort of nuanced nostalgia that only someone who was there ‘back in the day’ could conceive of.” And for Allmusic, the record “reflected Paradinas’ knowledge of, and pleasure in, over three decades’ worth of electronic music.” How exactly, or why this would make the record worth listening to, nobody cared to say. In each case, it was sufficient to name the historical period being engaged and move on.

But the winner of the prize for the most intellectually redundant yet rhetorically pompous response to Chewed Corners goes to Pitchfork. After pointing out that Paradinas’ last EP XTEP apparently bore the influences of “chillwave, italo disco, piano house and plenty else besides…” we learn that “‘Taikon’ and ‘Twangle Melkas’ draw on Kuedo’s Vangelis-via-Southern-hip-hop schtick; ‘Tickly Flanks’ owes a debt to the sugar-rush hardcore-footwork hybrids of Machinedrum, though it’s a little torpid in comparison to its forebear. ‘Wipe”s syncopated rhythms nod to UK funky, while ‘Houzz 10’ could be a symptom of the recent house revival.”

This type of review says so little it might as well read: #ChewedCorners #Paradinas #chillwave #italodisco #pianohouse #hiphop #hardcore #footwork #UKfunky #house = 7.1/10.

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The sort of retro-historicist criticism we are describing here is more than just bland and uninteresting writing. It is an approach that not only has its roots in but also conceals an ideological commitment that blinds us to what is most interesting about so much of the best music being released today.

The fact that by and large we fail to notice this ideology is simply evidence of the extent to which it is entrenched. This is how ideology always works, of course. It is at its most effective precisely at the moment it disappears from view. Ideology always takes the form of the chess master inside the box; it’s always what’s inside pulling the strings.

Popular art today is made for a population consisting of spectators, whereas avant-garde art is made for a population consisting of artists, who could be anyone.

Retro-historicism is driven by the same basic ideological commitment that we described above as underpinning both Reynolds’ recent account and so much of the music criticism of the past 50 years: the idea of historical progress itself.

For the retro-historicist, as for Reynolds, once upon a time musical history unfurled itself like a ribbon, genres begetting genres, innovation stacking on innovation, each new generation constantly repudiating and then supplanting the one that came before. And then slowly but surely, over the course of the last 20 years or so — which is to say more or less contemporaneously with the explosion of the world wide web — the ribbon of history started folding back on itself in its interminable cycles of recursion and self-reference. And because for the retro-historicist, this way of relating to music isn’t the result of any particular philosophy of history, isn’t contingent in any way, but simply how things are — an ideology-free zone — there’s no real alternative but to keep pointing out that we’ve “been there,” “done that,” “heard this before” while grimly clinging on to the hope that one day the ribbon will begin to unfurl again.

There are alternatives.

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Of course, a confrontation with the ideology of progress is not something new.

In an essay published in e-flux journal in 2010, the philosopher and art critic Boris Groys reminds us that the modern era, and particularly modern technology, constantly confronts us with the “inevitable” movement of progress: iPhone, iPhone 2, iPhone 3, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S. The obvious problem with such an approach is that it quickly becomes self-defeating. The iPhone 5 was always already superseded, obsolete. The real truth of its existence is the anticipation of the newer and better iPhone 6. What is new today will be old tomorrow, just as what is old today was new the day before. And the logic of progress suddenly starts to seem less exhilarating, more interminable.

As Groys explains, the early-20th-century artistic avant-garde attempted to address this problem of the destructive progress of history. How to make the art of the future when that art is always, necessarily, rendered old? The answer was to stop creating the art of the future altogether. Only then would it be possible to produce something lasting, art that truly resisted the destructive forces of progress.

So what we see with works like Malevich’s Black Square and Duchamp’s Fountain is a shift from a logic of “invention” to one of “discovery,” a total repudiation, in other words, of progress and originality as such. These are works that no longer attempt to be “new,” but rather to discern and to manifest something about the “conditions for the emergence and contemplation of any other image,” any other work, in general.

The iPhone 5 was always already superseded, obsolete. The real truth of its existence is the anticipation of the newer and better iPhone 6. What is new today will be old tomorrow, just as what is old today was new the day before. And the logic of progress suddenly starts to seem less exhilarating, more interminable.

So, in Malevich’s case, what is being demonstrated is the necessity of the relation between image and frame. In Duchamp’s, the act of exhibition itself. And in both instances, these fundamental gestures immediately become inescapable. After Malevich, whenever we see an image, we now also see, in a certain way, the black square, because any painting would also be a black square if it were erased. Likewise, after Duchamp, whenever we attend a museum, we now know that it is the institutional conditions that produce the “artwork” at least as much as the artist. It is precisely the act of placing the urinal in the gallery and naming it art that makes it so. And in both cases, Groys shows us that it is the very “weakness” of the work — its refusal to manifest the will of the artist, precisely its refusal to be inventive or original, the fact that literally anyone could have done it — that guarantees its timelessness.

For Groys, the avant-garde attempted to overcome the tyranny of time’s progress by making not “strong” masterpieces of art (Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, Van Gogh’s Wheatfield With Crows), but works (a urinal signed and dated, a black square) whose transcendence consisted precisely in their weakness.

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It is not hard to see how one might run a similar argument in relation to music.

Think of Cage’s 4’33” or Eno’s Music for Airports. Here are two pieces of music that reproduce Groys’ logic almost exactly. 4’33” is just about the “weakest” work imaginable. Even less than a black square on canvas, it consists of precisely nothing. The “art-content” of the work is zero, an absence of innovation. But, as we all know, this is exactly what makes it unique, what guarantees its position as one of the most significant musical works of the 20th century. With 4’33” Cage is pointing, first, to the impossibility of silence and, second, to the act of listening itself: which is to say to the very conditions that make all music possible.

Brian Eno’s Music for Airports is also an incredibly “weak” work, so weak, in fact, that it is hardly there. Musically, Music for Airports is totally uninteresting, which is precisely why it is interesting and even important. Whereas the effect of 4’33” is to draw one’s attention to the presence in “absence,” the effect of Music for Airports is just the opposite: to transform “presence” into absence, to tend to disappear. Eno’s “discovery” of ambience (and it is worth noting that, for both Cage and Eno, the artist’s “discovery” is in actuality a kind of appropriation: from acoustic engineers at Harvard in the former case, and from Erik Satie and Buddhism, in the latter) alerts us to the question of attention, and in doing so points once again to one of the primary conditions of musical experience per se.

So both Cage and Eno can be read as having refused the progressivism of their respective traditions. In both cases, the strength of their works consists precisely in their weakness. They are important because they refused to “advance,” choosing to alert us to the conditions of any such advancement instead.