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Tuesday, May 22, 2007 

Accidental manifesto

While looking up some stuff for today's post on my Low blog, I stumbled upon this utterly fantastic interview with glenn mcdonald, one of my music writing heroes. It's very old, but (depressingly?) still relevant:

Far too much criticism tries to be an arbiter of value, in addition to, or even instead of, describing the music and letting the reader/listener supply their own response. Witness the grades and star-ratings nearly everybody puts on their reviews. There's no such thing as "a B+ album" or a three-and-a-half-star album or whatever. Value is not an internal property of a work of art, so to me grading a record is not just inane and offensive, it demonstrates a profound misunderstanding about how people react to art. An album could be an A+ to one person, on one particular day, because it delivers a completely perfect encapsulation of everything they're currently asking for from music, but to somebody else, with different needs and prejudices, the same album could be absolutely awful. To the same person who loves it today, it could be merely mediocre three years from now. Real responses to art are complicated and mutable, with all kinds of dependencies and ambivalences and reservations. If you think your job, as a listener or as a critic, is to stamp a C on something, or an A for that matter, all you've succeeded in doing is impoverishing your own experience of the music, or if you're unlucky enough to be influential about it, impoverishing some other people's experiences of it, as well.

Of course, there's still the other traditional role of the "critic" (as opposed to the "reviewer"), which is to try to place the work in some sort of larger context, and/or analyze it in a deeper way than a casual, under-informed listener is prepared or willing to, and thus get at some notion of artistic merit, which at least in theory is separate from the question of how valuable it is or isn't to any particular audience. This can be done with music, but a) almost no popular music criticism actually amounts to this, and b) I don't even think it would be very interesting if it did. It's probably possible, for example, for a group of reasonable, knowledgeable people to agree that
The Joshua Tree is a work of high artistic merit. It's a technically proficient implementation of a distinctive and influential aesthetic with a complex and intriguing heritage. But so what? It still may be too slow for you, or too pretentious, or not sexy enough, or any of a hundred other things that mean when you listen to it, your skin crawls, or your attention wanders.

So what's left? Why write about music at all? I think the worthwhile thing you can still do, and on a good week this is what I'm intending to do in my column, whether I succeed or not, is write about how music moves you, about the ways you find to connect with it, and how you contrive to allow it to affect your understanding of the world, or yourself, or break-ups or gender-politics or the Civil War or
something. You can be an object lesson in how to have a more rewarding relationship with music.

Truer words were seldom written. I don't claim to succeed fully in what he's talking about, but I'd like to think sometimes I come close (ditto for most or all of Stylus). And at least that's where I'm aiming. Also of note is the War Against Silence #500, "A Truce", which was the perfect way to end that regular operation of that column. I miss it, but I don't, if you know what I mean.

A very well-put "manifesto". Not sure I exactly follow that kind of principle in reviews myself - but I do avoid putting any kind of grade on things because that nails it down (falsely) far more than simply trying to describe the music does.

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About me

Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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