There is probably no greater mistake (and if I'm about to beat a dead horse, well, we all have to start somewhere) commonly made by people who write about art than the assumption of a canon. I think this is true for people writing about any form of art (which we can call "critics", although that's problematic for its own reasons), and I think it's true for general reasons that can be mapped out to each form, but I want to focus just on the art form that I would rank highest and thus prefer to write about: music.
One thing that music enthusiasts do often, whether they write about it or not, is react badly when they find someone they like/love/respect/want to impress hasn't heard a particular album, song or artist. Such a reaction can come from the very basest motives we can assign such a person (their assumption that to "properly" appreciate or talk about a given subset of music we must first hear a given work) or from the very best; of course, I prefer to believe that the actions of myself and people I like stem from the latter (and let me emphasize that such statements are not j'accuse
so much as je m'accuse
, if you'll pardon my French; typically the only way I understand a failing well enough to criticize it is to have indulged in it myself at times).
In this case, rather than a sense of propriety or self-righteousness (because if there is anything such a person feels while becoming outraged that you haven't heard _____, or worse still, that you have and that you don't agree with them
, it is that poisonously enjoyable sensation of moral superiority and ineluctable correctness that can only provide temporary pleasure and lasting shame), the fan in question is temporarily struck dumb not out of a feeling of ghastliness, of something wrong with the natural order, but rather a feeling of excitement. You want to grab the person by the hand and drag them to the nearest stereo or computer so that they, as well, can partake in this wonderful sound you've found and loved. It is no less dissappointing in those cases when the lucky recipient simply isn't moved as you are (and I've been on both sides of this equation more than I'd like), but hopefully most of us have the grace not to take it personally.
But why does it sting? What is actually happening when you pull someone along in your wake, and throw on (say) Stop Making Sense
(the proper version, with 17 tracks) and skip right to "Slippery People"? For "Slippery People" is not only the first time on the record that Talking Heads slip fully into what we might call their funk mode, but it boasts the records first (only?) moment of what you might call punctum; that astonishing moment, just before the end, where the sound levels go way up, a single colossal massed percussion thump halts the band, and David Byrne, Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt scream out, similarly overamped, "ALL RIGHT!
Listening to the album for the first time, on headphones, and unwarned, you might actually be scared by the explosion for a second; it sounds as if the song is going to continue to rise precipitously in volume and rage until it swallows you. Instead, even though the three continue to chant out half of the call-and-response of the chorus and continue to be announced by a single drum stomp, the volume subsides back to its previous levels immediately after that one line.
What does it sound like? It sounds like David Byrne has seen the future, has seen that the non-American music he loves will continue to be co-opted (as, yes, Byrne himself and Talking Heads have done), as if he already regrets making My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts
despite its excellence, because it will forever remain the record that helped spur on the "safe" way for white boys (and girls) to listen to foreign ideas, defanged (not so much in Byrne's work, but that way lies Graceland
and much worse) and declawed, as if Byrne can already see the collapse of whatever ambitions he may have harboured to usher in a new age.
Of course, that's just how it sounds to me; the more I write, the more I think what I've said in my piece on "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"
(the first section in particular) is a kind of Rosetta Stone that should be applied to all my work.
So this version of "Slippery People" is exciting, whatever interpretation you put on it, but what does it mean to me when I drag you into my room and hit play?
Even more so than when exposing someone to a record out of a sense of rectitude, when you play someone a record you love out of pure joy (which, of course, prefers company as much as misery does), you are hoping that they feel the same way that you do. This is a very personal thing, and so no matter how tactfully your subject may choose to frame it, it can be hard not to experience their differance of opinion as a form of rejection. And as a culture, we are not terribly good at rejection.
I don't think any of that is particularly profound or insightful, but I also don't think we've progressed to the point where reasserting the obvious is necessarily a waste of time. I do want to draw a connection here to canonicity, though.
If there is a canon, then rejection of your self via rejection of the art you love is a non-issue (it already partially is, since in many cases this is only imagined to be going on rather than actually occurring). Instead of a judgement being passed on you, there is now a judgement being passed on the person who is being exposed to the music, or who hasn't been for their lack of exposure. There is now a standard of right and wrong, and you clearly are on the correct side of the line (after all, how many conscious or unconscious believers in the canon believe they're on the wrong side of it?). You can safely dismiss those who cannot see "reason" as merely wrong, with as much or as little malice as you'd like.
Which brings us to Chris Ott. Or rather, it doesn't, not quite. Ott has been a hobbyhorse of mine ever since his A.R.E. Weapons review
(complete with the sentiment that "there's definitely bad music"), which might generously be called a tad unfair. But, wait - Ott isn't another canon builder trying to shore up the critical line on his favorite records (although an obsession with finding some sort of objective truth about the music he writes about does stream through his work); he's a good fucking writer with some muddled ideas. And even worse, even though I have a few of the songs from that disc and enjoy them, Ott can't just be shrugged off (he never can); he's located too precisely the problematic aspects of A.R.E. Weapons and this album. He's taking it far too personally (Vonnegut's famous line about a mounted knight attacking a cream puff comes to mind again), and he's, I think, neglecting to really examine whether the songs are any good above and beyond these other issues, but he's not just disappearing up his own arse.
In fact, when Ott gets savage, you can see sparks fly. It's good writing with, to be crude, bad thought behind it, because Ott is primarily concerned with judgement. For this same reason, his positive reviews (particularly nearer the extreme edge of the spectrum) feel either vaguely empty
or strangely negative
; I'm not doubting the sincerity of his commitment to the music he loves, but without something to tear down, Ott's writing rings slightly hollow. He's a slippery person himself; it's possible to read him while simultaneously marvelling at how entertaining he is and wishing he'd get over his own style.
But if I'm right, if that desire to pass judgement is what's holding him back (and again, the reason Ott is worth reading and writing about and the many, many writers out there who are superficially similar to him are not is because of his skill and verve, whereas most canon defenders are at best boring when writing about music (yes, yes, Nick Hornby, although to be fair his novels have their moments)), then what do we do? What does a record critic (I told you the title was problematic) do if not criticize?
My response, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to quote somebody. In this case, Anthony Lane, who's Nobody's Perfect
I am re-reading right now. He's talking about movies, but I think it's got much wider implications than that. It's possible that there's a better critic than Lane, about anything, but if so I haven't read them:
Of all the duties required of the professional critic, perhaps the least important - definitely the least enduring - is the delivery of a verdict. I am always sorry to hear that readers were personally offended, even scandalized, that my opinion of a film diverged from theirs. I wish I could convince them that I am merely starting an argument, as everyone does after dinner, or in a crowded bar, after going to see a film, and that their freedom to disagree is part of the fun. The primary task of the critic... is the recreation of texture - not telling moviegoers what they should see, which is entirely their prerogative, but filing a sensory report on the kind of experience into which they will be wading, or plunging, should they decide to risk a ticket.
I'm sure the parallels to music are clear. In both arts, of course, these days you don't necessarily have to risk money to experience them, but who has the time to experience it all? I believe criticism has a function above and beyond just recommending given works, believe that when written well enough it becomes art in its own right, but I don't deny that reading a good piece of criticism should clue you in to whether you will like it.
Not, crucially, whether you should
like it. And that's where, for me, Ott fails - I can count on his work being entertaining, fascinating, even exciting at times, but he tries so hard to pass judgment that it winds up being useless for me as an evaluative tool. I can tell what he thinks, but there's no room to figure out what I might think.
Which doesn't mean, of course, that we can in any practical fashion write our reviews with a vocabulary that avoids judgement, nor should we want this. But both writer and reader should have it firmly in mind that however much the task of evaluating art gives the illusion of canon building, there is such a multiplicity of works - and thus multiplicity of canons, in practical terms - that if there really was one "real" canon no one human being could ever grasp it - and we shouldn't pretend we have
. All of our judgements are up for revision, whether ours or others. Whether writers or fans, we pick and choose which records to give our time too, and the fact that we can never get them all shouldn't worry us. Oh, it sends some to despair and others into acquisitive frenzy, but for the rest of us, just finding some works that really resonate, that fulfill certain functions in our life, should be enough. The goal of criticism is to attempt to both express how this happens to you, and to try to help others in their pursuit of this sort of fulfillment; but if you get out of someone else what I get out of Talking Heads, or you get out of Low
what I get out of "Heroes"
, who cares? That just means each work is ripe for good, human(e) writing done by someone who truly loves it, and that for me is the finest type to read, and to write.