Monday, November 2, 2009

preamble to a panel discussion on music criticism at the New School in 1999

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture"--this famous dismissal of pop criticism is often attributed to Elvis Costello (one of rock journalism's greatest beneficiaries I would have thought) but I believe it was originally a quip made by Thelonious Monk. At any rate, it now has almost proverbial status--deployed whenever it's felt necessary to point out the futility and fatuity of writing about music.

There's a number of ripostes to the "dancing about architecture" jibe. The philosopher Friedrich Von Schelling once declared: "Architecture is frozen music". Which would mean that music is fluid architecture, and thus something it makes perfect sense to dance to. Indeed, music does operate as a kind of space you inhabit, an architecture of emotion that you dwell inside and that colors your moods.

Anyway, I've always thought that dancing to architecture might be kind of cool--in a sort of absurdist performance art street theater happening Fluxus kind of way.

This is just playing with the wording of the claim "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," rather dealing with its intent--the accusation that writing about music is pointless, parasitic, an always already doomed act of hubris. And there is a sense in which the very stuff of music, what makes it work and what makes it magical, does elude capture in words--no matter how diligent or determined the writer, there is a sense in which what goes on in a piece of music criticism is an elaborate writing around the unspeakable nature of musical
pleasure--the mystery of melody, the compulsion of rhythm, the grain and aura of a particular voice. You could probably say the same thing about other forms of art criticism, though. Nor does an intrinsic near-impossibility of writing about music constitute any reason not to keep trying -- for there's always the possibility that words might fail, interestingly or suggestively.

There is an idea spinning off the "dancing about architecture" put-down that I'd like to see our panellists address, though -- an idea related to a perceived ineffectual-ness of writing about music at this historical juncture. What I'm talking about is the inheritance that anyone who becomes a rock critic buys into, and which is both promise and burden--the twin idea that writing can make a difference to the music, and that the music can make a difference to the world. In rock, both these ideas--which began in the late Sixties counterculture, flagged a
bit, and then were recharged by punk-- seem shaky and far from self-evident in 1999. With hip hop, it's probably still a vital part of the discourse that music has weight, can challenge, subvert or represent some kind of effective cultural dissidence. Even if this power is thought of as diminished with the commercialisation of rap, it's still felt as a recent loss, something that can be regained by an effort of will. As for rave and electronic dance music, many of these scenes subscribe to counterculture and punk-derived ideas of an underground or
resistance, although in half-articulated fashion, but mostly they are more about retreating from consensus reality into their own artificial paradises, rather than changing the world.

There was a time when rock artists were regarded as seers with an oracular power to reflect the Zeitgeist in their songwriting; the job of the critic was the exegesis and interpretation of these tablets from on high. Nowadays, with rock culture splintered into a welter of micro-cultures and niche markets, the assumptions that could once be made that everybody is interested in what a Dylan, Springsteen, Costello, Clash, Stipe, Cobain, Vedder, or similar figure--has to say to us, are no longer tenable; it's not clear that anybody is even pining for figures who represent a focus for a unity of alienation or aspiration. In the face of this, I sense two responses on the part of writers: Some have reconceived their role--instead of trying to mobilise their readership to invest its belief in a particular visionary
artist or rock statesman, they're attempting to understand what's already popular, to discover why a particular band or sound resonates with its audience, and to hopefully detect submerged currents of resistance or progressive values. Others have embraced irony--a non-partisan, omnivorous approach that treats all values and allegiances as provisional. But both these strategies face a struggle, I think, when it comes to preserving the notion of rock as more than just another facet of today's entertainment culture.

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