Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why Music Criticism?

At this point in time, I have no idea whether I’ll ever be a full-time music journalist. With all the other things to do in life, chances are I will not. But if I absolutely had to choose the most likely profession for me to have five years from now, it would be something along the lines of music criticism. As you may know, I work for the blog SSGMusic as an album/concert reviewer and am doing my final PLU “capstone” project on a couple rock critics. I’ll probably be leaving the country this summer to teach English in Asia, but upon my return, I’ll likely continue my education and pursue a master’s degree in musicology. But who knows for sure. Life’s uncertainties are what make it great.

With all the time and energy I’ve devoted to writing about music, I sometimes feel the need to justify myself. So, I ask, what’s the point? I’ve learned that the best way to really prove anything is to know the opposing arguments as well—if not better—than your own. Because of this, I’ve decided to structure this post as a set of rebuttals to what I think are the strongest reasons why music criticism is insignificant or unnecessary. Here it goes!

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is a common quote attributed to a handful of individuals, including Miles Davis and Elvis Costello. Part of what makes music so wonderful is that, without explanation, anyone can enjoy it. The absolute best moments in music are the ones that can only be felt, not explained from someone else. Music is unlike any other human creation in this sense and writing about it is, in a sense, an eternally fruitless endeavor to communicate what has already been stated more eloquently.

I agree with many of the above statements, but I think that the general idea of “music writing as futile compared to music making” sort of misses the point. Music critics don’t just write to explain power of music; they write to help us more fully understand the art. The ideal music critic is someone who goes beneath the surface of the sounds he/she hears and into the world of the artist. By learning about this world, we can attach more significance to the sounds. This isn’t just about having an “intelligent appreciation” but instead about getting chills at a moment that before hadn’t seemed so special.

When presented the term music critic, the average person doesn’t think of a guide to greater musical enjoyment—they think of a person who says what music is good or bad. And this often gets shaved down to a number value and an explanation. To take a creation, crafted with care into a unique musical achievement, and give it a 6 out of 10 like an Olympic judge gives a gymnast just seems silly. The feelings we get from art are not quantifiable and putting them neatly in a box often takes away from the great joy of the experience.

The idea of rating is one I struggle with. It’s true that music shouldn’t be diminished to a numeric or grade value and I know there are probably many music critics out there who would refuse to give numbers to anything. But rating can be great tool when used responsibly and this is why: the sheer amount of music in existence is intimidating and this we need help navigating the vast abyss. In a perfect world, we would all read and digest every review of every new album but clearly that isn’t possible, and because of this, ratings can be quite convenient. It’s the same thing for movies. Websites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB are valuable for simply finding what the general public regards as the best of the best. For me, rating albums is sort of like writing headlines for newspaper stories. It sums up much of my work reviewing albums, but is hardly important once you've read the actual article. Furthermore, the rating of certain aggregate databases or individual critics should never be confused with the indefinable “quality of the music.”

I take issue with the idea of music critics being so-called arbiters of taste. In many fields, experience leads to expertise and a more informed opinion of the field, but the evaluation of music is not like that. Music can mean something different to each listener and shouldn’t be decided by the highbrow, all knowing critics. It often seems that when an album is given a certain review by a certain important critic, this rating is stamped on it and becomes fact. When it comes to aesthetics, I believe that no one has any right to say something’s better than another.

It's true that sometimes, music criticism gets twisted to represent some sort of enlightened truth. For example, getting a 9 or higher from Pitchfork has often come to mean that this is a good album and anyone who disagrees is wrong. I’d like to believe that most consumers of music criticism take everything with a grain of salt. Just like any form of communication, there will always be biases. That being said, the first amendment applies to music as well. My goal as a critic is not to determine what is good or bad. Instead, it is to form a well-articulated observation that is of value to potential listeners. And usually, I try and avoid negative criticism. In the words of composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, “Life is too short to be wasted on things that are not quality.”

How much value does music criticism really provide society? Artists make art, which—as any sociologist will tell you—is necessary in any time or place, but it seems that critics are more or less speaking their personal opinions, just a bit more loudly than everyone else. When compared to doctors, innovators, or social workers, how are critics really benefitting the human race?

In some ways, this is a ridiculous question. In other ways, it is not. It would be easy to refute this by asking, aren’t there a lot of professions that aren’t benefitting the human race? Like, I dunno, cigarette manufacturers or Wall Street slimeballs? But if this writer goes into the profession of criticism, I’d like to think that the result is of some value to my fellow people. Ultimately, my reasoning has to do with the fact that no matter how many frustrating, horrible things I see or hear about in my community, country or around the globe, the music in my life prevents me from ever being a truly pessimistic and/or apathetic person. If something I write leads people towards that same sort of optimism in the face of doom, then my path is worth it.