Wednesday, February 14, 2018

on the roles of the conceptual musician and the conceptualizing critic

[from a discussion with someone who took exception to my approach]

... I might be misunderstanding here, but you seem to be arguing that it’s misguided to look for  --and arrogant to claim to have detected  -- larger patterns in the swirl and sprawl of musical production...

That we should attend to the specificity of discrete musical objects, all the aspects that make a given artist or work unalike...

Certainly one doesn’t want to be seeing things that aren’t there, at all. But larger patterns and currents are discernible....

I would never say digital maximalism is a genre  -- it’s a tendency that allowed me to talk about a bunch of things on my mind along with some records I really liked.

But surely you’re not denying that there are entities such as genres, movements, scenes etc -  zones of musical practice and discourse that are much more defined and objectively real than a tendency like digimax. Self-defined too,  by the practitioners and fans – as opposed to imposed from above by critics.   

To write about genres/scenes/movements, or about tendencies/currents... it seems to me that this is much more of a break with “the charismatic ideology of creation” than writing about an artist or a particular work as a stand-alone entity.

Nothing exists in a vacuum...  musicians are always working within a field of possibility that is governed by technology, things going on in adjacent fields of music or adjacent zones of culture, the state of the discourse around music, social energies etc  

The exceptional artist is the one who sees and seizes the new possibility, the area of unexplored territory, before the others.

An example of this would be My Bloody Valentine... they emerged out of a set of ideas prevalent in the mid-Eighties rock underground (approaches to the guitar, an aesthetic of fatalism and confusion and surrender, etc), at first they were second-raters but after various changes they found some possibilities with the guitar that no one else had hit on, while content-wise they took it a little bit further into androgyny/bliss...   on the EPS and Isn’t Anything  they rise to a peak where they are at once the culmination of the mid-eighties tendencies (husker du, dinosaur jr) and inauguration of  the next paradigm (fully achieved with their own Loveless) ...  and in the process they play the largest role in spawning the next phase of UK indie rock, ie. shoegaze

MBV go from being generic, to being exceptional, to being generative (or genre-rative, even) – but even in the exceptional moment they are still embedded in a wider field of musical practice and discourse.

on the subject of the critic as “cultural seer” 

... well I would never accuse myself of humility!

I’ve written  in various places, books and blog posts and columns, and I’ve spoken (in interviews) extensively about the tradition of music writing I come out, and how the attraction of what my role models did was that they actually seemed to make a contribution to music, to have power...   maybe that’s archaic in its inflated notion of what a critic can be, but that’s the ideal, and the path 

Personally I think it’s more egotistical for a writer to issue an endless series of discrete opinions about disparate musical objects (the generalist model, most music journos in fact but especially newspaper staffers) and expect people to be interested.

I mean if you can’t form larger clusters of significance out of what your taste is drawing you towards, or repelling you from.... why should I bother to pay attention?  Why do your opinions and judgements matter more than any old bloke in the pub?

But for sure, this is an old fashioned view of the critic’s role --  the Clement Greenberg/Susan Sontag/Lester Bangs idea  -- although my following that path began long before I read any of those people, the spurs for me were British music writers like Burchill, Morley, Hoskyns....

on the rise of the conceptual musician or critic-musician (or simply musician who's read a lot of criticism, books on music - resulting in a feedback loop - e.g. there's one well-known 21st C electronic artist who told me when I interviewed him that he read Blissed Out in college)

I am actually hatching a piece on this, the rise of the conceptual musician, who is well versed in criticism and basically a kind of critic themselves...   and what role does this leave for the critic, when the artist explicates what they are doing so well

It’s not a totally new thing, you had your Green Gartsides during postpunk, or Momuses, or whatever... but it does seem to have reached a new pitch recently... and often feels like the music doesn’t seem able to stand up by itself without that critical support and framing


This idea that genres are fiction and classification is arbitrary (yes you could classify songs by other ways, like songs that refer to birds, or songs that have a mandolin in them, or...).... i think it misses the point, which is that genres are social facts.  If you have a population that decides for itself that such-a-such a zone of music-making is a genre...  according to discernible musical affinities and restrictions... and then you have an array of institutions and social spaces associated with that genre (specialist record labels, specific clubs, etc)...  then you have a scene and a genre.  Saying that this is just an effect of power/knowledge is sort of meaningless, because power/knowledge is everywhere. Truth doesn’t exist outside of it, it’s an effect of it. It’s a war of “this is my truth” versus “this is my truth”.

And if your argument is that I, or any critic, is trying to exercise and achieve effects through the employment of power/knowledge... I’d be like, yeah obviously.  When I posit the existence of a musical entity, I’m engaged in a conscious attempt to persuade people to see things how I see them. It’s never based on nothing – the raw materials of musical practice and so forth have to support the construction. But equally sceptics or anti-adherents are playing the game of power/knowledge too - they are refusing the sway of one set of ideas, suggesting a counter-truth.  Discourse is a battlefield and there is no pure, outside perspective from this.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the writing of Chuck Eddy but he'd adopt this stance of  contrarian skepticism towards new genres that were hip with his fellow music critics. So he’d say, reflexively, oh what’s this jungle nonsense, it just sounds these old Mark Stewart tracks I used to half-like. He wrote a book called The Accidental History of Pop that was about deliberately playing mischievous havoc with the idea of genre. Possibly read some of The Archaelogy of Knowledge because he references that thing Foucault wrote about like the Chinese Encyclopaedia with all the bizarre taxonomy of animals (animals that look like the Emperor, etc). He deliberately and provocatively devised a whole bunch of daft ways of reorganizing and reclassifying the history of pop and rock. However not one of these genres took off in terms of becoming part of critical parlance....  partly because people sensed the intent behind them was satirical not serious. But also because there actually has to be some genuine social energy at work behind genre-formation and scene-formation.  The critic can’t just move around populations and sets of musical practices into shapes that don’t have any correlation with what’s going on.  Not if they want to have an impact.

I don’t know if I ever think about these things - the impact I'm looking for - consciously when embarking on a specific piece – at the first degree I’m a journalist looking for a story  – or some phenomenon or tendency that makes for a good argument

But on a more general level, there is a self-conscious imperative: one of the effects aimed for is an acceleration  – for things to keep moving, both ideas around music and – directly or indirectly – the music itself.

Like that Beat/Norman Mailer idea of not going anywhere particular, “just go” – “to go and keep going”. Stagnation is the enemy.

It might be argued of course these peculiar demands of music on my part – that it not just be enjoyable and have various artistic virtues, but also stir in me new thoughts – that this is an unbalanced or corrupting perspective. 

I couldn’t say really , it’s what I’m saddled with anyway – I’m wired to look for that!

(I can also have new thoughts about old music, whether new to me or stuff I’ve lived with for years).

But in that specific case of the conceptronica piece, the argument that I might make is that a certain kind of dead end has perhaps been reached – what seemed striking and interesting with the Ferraro/Lopatin phase, is now becoming  parodic in some instances and problematic on some levels – the elevation of concept over music.  A certain over-neatness and over-cerebralized tendency has crept in.  The idea of music having some kind of viscerality or expressive/purgative/energy-releasing-or-activating  aspect, that has  disappeared.

So the point of such piece would be to identify this tendency, acknowledge what it has going for, but perhaps get people thinking about what has been lost, or what alternative routes might be.

I tend to have a dialectical view of music as something that progresses by correcting itself – it goes too much in one direction, then you get an exaggerated correction.

But these swings back and forth are actually what propels the music forward....

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