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Wednesday, January 30, 2008 

Manifesto(?)

So today on the Stylus board we got into talking about that old canard rockism. I was asked about my terms by the esteemed Jonathan Bradley, and after I found I'd written a little essay addressing the whole thing on much broader terms, I figured I'd post it here. Caveat lector, unless you find philosophy and art interesting.

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This is one of the reasons why 'popist' is a really ill chosen term. I guess 'rockist' and 'anti-rockist' would be slightly better, but...

For me, a rockist is a person who agrees with at least one (but usually both) of the two following statements with regards to aesthetics (we're talking about musical aesthetics, but I see no reason why the structure doesn't apply elsewhere as well):

1. There is something outside of our subjective experience of art that is valid to appeal to in terms of our critical and appreciative practice
2. A particular person's subjective experience is more/less valid than another particular person's subjective experience

Of course, I'm not sure #2 isn't just reducible to #1, so maybe think of them like Kant's different formulations of the Categorical Imperative.

Rockists are usually rockist because, in terms of 2, they think their experience is more valid than someone (everyone?) else's. But we all think that, deep down, or at least that our experience is more valuable (which is a different thing, and this distinction is why of course I don't discount breadth of listening, musical training, etc) than someone else's. The crucial turn the rockist takes is in being insecure enough that they require an objective foundation for this feeling, rather than realizing that since everyone has this feeling (including people the rockist 'knows' are 'wrong'), it isn't much more than our knee jerk feelings that we are special, unique, and so on.

In order for our feeling that we are 'right' and others are 'wrong' about art to be held openly and freely, we have to rationalize a structure that allows people to be right and wrong about art in a way that is, when you get right down to it, indefensible. Maybe your personal taste in music is that danceability is your be all and end all; well then, if you're a rockist, what makes music good for everyone is the extent to which it facilitates dancing. Someone will disagree, because aesthetic experience and that mysterious thing we call "taste" isn't even close to universal; but for the rockist, that person is objectively, demonstrably wrong. They run into so many problems with this for two crucial reasons: The first is that rockists don't agree on their universal standards and the second is that there is no objective way to demonstrate that someone disagreeing with a rockist is wrong. Even about something as basic as melody; not only do some people genuinely and in good faith not enjoy melody as much as other elements of a piece of music, but even among melody lovers there is not consensus about what makes a good melody (as past discussion here suggests).

Now, most people on some level know at least some version of this. And I personally do in everyday speech occasionally say something like "ugh, I hate this band, they're a bad band." But I realise that what I'm really saying is "I don't like this band." I should still stop saying it the other way - it confuses people.

There's a theory much like that in ethics (I can't be bothered to try and look it up - ascriptivism, maybe?) that says ethical statements work in this fashion, that saying "murder is morally wrong" is functionally equivalent to saying "I don't like murder," and it's had all sorts of problems (justifiably so). But that's because one of the whole points of ethics is trying to find a principled answer to the question of what it is about a statement like "murder is morally wrong" that goes above and beyond subjective experience. Maybe they'll find out that there's nothing there, but we feel very deeply (and have come up with a lot of really cogent thinking about the idea that) there's something more at stake in morality than just subjective experience. But with aesthetic appreciation, there has yet to be a really principled, defensible explanation of what's at stake above and beyond me saying "I don't like that song." That's what a rockist would have to do in order for me to stop being so knee-jerk anti-rockist - give a cohesive and, as I said, principled account of what's lying behind there.

Which doesn't mean that I, especially as a critic, don't have things to tackle myself. As Gavin Mueller put it after he stopped writing for us,

So if you've torn down every "objective" standard by which to judge music, and accept that everyone is free to like whatever they want, how the fuck do you write music reviews? It seems to me that the current format of music reviews is indelibly linked to rockism. It continually strikes me as a poor way to discuss music in this "new" critical language. Most critics lazily punt by calling stuff "catchy" or "fun" (like these are descriptors). I, more drastically, stopped writing reviews. If you position yourself as some sort of arbiter of taste, you have to privilege your musical values over other things -- but by "popist" logic, this is (at best) pointless (since everyone has his own opinion) or fascist (since you attempt to "impose" your own opinions on others). And with mp3 blogs and p2p, everyone can listen to the tracks themselves and make their own decisions. So where do reviews go from here? That's what I want to know.

The reason I've kept that quotation, from an old comment on an old Stylus article, is because I think he's quite intelligently and quickly summed up the problems for anti-rockists and anti-rockist criticism. And I do believe there's a principled, cogent account of what criticism is and is for that addresses these. It's what I almost did my thesis on. I don't have the time to tackle it until I've done my actual thesis, of course, but it's interesting to note how well Ingarden's notion of art as intentional object works with this kind of aesthetics.

Oh wow. Hmmm, so much to think about in there. It's true for music as well as any other art, there has to be a basic canon and certain "rules" to distinguish "good" music from "bad" music. Obviously plenty of people are moved by, say, Celine Dion ballads, and others say that Leonard Cohen has an "ugly voice" so they won't listen. But it is equally obvious that a Leonard Cohen song has more and deeper things to offer to the listener than a Celine Dion song. A critic starts with one's experiences, but as you compare experiences to that of other involved listeners, the critical literature grows, and the music gets better for it, too, I think, as the standards are raised. Music criticism isn't all subjective. There are some very objective reasons why a lazy, wave-riding inept singer/musician/entertainer with no ideas but lots of exposure is not contributing much to music.

Hans: But it is equally obvious that a Leonard Cohen song has more and deeper things to offer to the listener than a Celine Dion song.

More to offer which listener? The one who likes Leonard Cohen or the one who likes Celine Dion?

It's true for music as well as any other art, there has to be a basic canon and certain "rules" to distinguish "good" music from "bad" music.

I think this is true for each person, sure; but again, the problem comes when we start pretending there's some sort of objective set of these that hold for everybody, because there simply isn't.

A critic starts with one's experiences, but as you compare experiences to that of other involved listeners, the critical literature grows, and the music gets better for it, too, I think, as the standards are raised.

Leaving aside for a second the idea that it's impossible for us to tell in any real way whether standards are raising (it certainly seems so to us, but we are inescapably biased), I actually think one of the worst aspects of rockism or whatever you want to call it is the idea of received wisdom. I don't want my criticism to convince anyone that they 'should' like or dislike band x; I'm fine with it reaffirming or clashing with their own taste in a productive or interesting way, but not only do I think I can't change your mind, I'm not convinced I would want to if I could.

There are some very objective reasons why a lazy, wave-riding inept singer/musician/entertainer with no ideas but lots of exposure is not contributing much to music.

Such as? I'll accept for the purposes of the argument that your description makes sense (but we might come back to that), but even given that... your reasons?

You guys are smarter than me.
re: Jonathan. The imaginary-tabula-rasa-ideal listener who listens to a Leonard Cohen and a Celine Dion song at the same time will find that LC's has complex wordplay and puns and allusions and interesting imagery with original phrasings while CD offers platitudes and string arrangements that are timid and she's been relying on for ages... I guess what I'm trying to say is that while they both give their heart to a performance- actually, Celine Dion probably gives more of her heart to her performances than Leonard Cohen- the ideal listener would objectively admit that there's a lot more going on in a LC song than in a CD song.

Re: Ian
Of course any canon it's sort of a democratic pretense. Let's not get metaphysical. Nothing is ever true for everyone. (But, say, enough people agree that Bob Dylan is really good and influential that it would be foolish to say something like: "Well, he's just some folk singer, can't sing very well, let's get him out of the rock book")

As to the second part, I guess my question to the rock critic who has just said that he's not convinced that he would want to influence a listener's mind with his review is then... why? Why write about a band if not to create change, either pointing out the good things or the flaws? Criticism, and I think anyone who's a critic by choice is not, contrary to the usual depiction, someone who wants to bring someone else down, but someone who wants to elevate and create something better by pointing out things that could be improved on... That's criticism to me... I may be wrong. I'm totally out of my element here, you guys. I'm sorry. As I said, I don't know as much about music and musical criticism as I should. I'm learning.

Oh, and as to the objective reasons why hacks don't contribute much to the evolution of music, so to speak? Well, because they're just doing the thing that has been done over and over and over- they do add a little bit, though, I guess? Everyone does, inevitably.
Out of my depth, as I tell you! :-p

(One of) the problems with that, Hans, is that your 'ideal listener' not only does not exist, in fact never can exist, but it's not clear at all that we would want him or her to. And they're not a tabula rasa at all - what you've posited is a 'blank slate' that happens to share several of your biases and preferences when it comes to music.

Let's re-approach it this way; I prefer Leonard Cohen to Celine Dion, and clearly so do you (I am not sure where Jonathan stands on this). I don't have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is the implicit claim that a person who prefers Celine Dion to Cohen can only be one of three things:

insincere
ignorant
in error

That simply isn't true (and if you begin saying it is true, than we're all in trouble, because many of your tastes and my tastes are vulnerable to the exact same attack), and inventing out of whole cloth a pseudo-blank slate to justify it isn't helping your case at all.

But, say, enough people agree that Bob Dylan is really good and influential that it would be foolish to say something like: "Well, he's just some folk singer, can't sing very well, let's get him out of the rock book"

But again, you're presupposing there's some sort of 'rock book' that holds for everyone! Intelligent people with exposure to plenty of music can not like Bob Dylan, whether because they don't like his voice or they find his pose unconvincing or whatever you want to call it, without being wrong. These people are (generally) not trying to tell everyone else that they shouldn't like Dylan - and in that case, why should we tell them that they should? A canon, conceived objectively, is a list of things you must like in order to be a 'good' listener. I have no problem with the idea of personal canons, and of course I have no problem with the idea that some performers are respected on a broader scale than others - but the 'objective' rock canon is a huge problem for everyone except the very rare listener who happens to agree with every 'canonical' opinion (which is, of course, also difficult because what is 'canonical' is not consistent from time to time and place to place!).

As to the hack... if we're going to call them that, then the hack arguably doesn't contribute much to the musical understanding of, say, a Robert Christgau or even to people like us. But why would that be the only contribution that's significant? Also, why is innovation regarded as the only significant contribution to music?

lol Well, I can't really disagree with any of your points, of course nothing can be universally loved, or unassailable. But again, my question would be: in the context of there being nothing objective, and all musical tastes being merely that, "tastes", (although something in me resists the idea of Beethoven really not being in any way superior to me picking notes at random on the piano)- again, if no music is really better than the rest, what do you see as the purpose of criticism?

As for the importance of innovation... Well, you got me. I approached that from the point of view of someone who's likely to say: "Oh, it's been done, it's derivative, I heard that kind of thing before, boring." As a matter of fact, it's not one of the things I value at the top of my list. If one needed constant newness in music, no song would be played more than once. But even as I say that, I realize there is no one thing I can put high on our list, (not melody, not technical dexterity, or intelligence, or, I dunno, beats per minute or something!) There's only things that I value at a particular time because they match a mood or a setting or an interest. That's one of the reasons I find the newest trend in Internet radio boring- ("Liked that song? Our algorhytms will search for another song that sounds EXACTLY like it! And then another! And another!")
Ok, comments are a little too protracted for this type of conversation!!! Someday we'll match wits on AIM! And I will inevitably lose!!! *haha*

Woah there, hoss - I'm not trying to do away with "better" or "worse," just the notion that these terms are anything but subjective. What is the goal of criticism? To create art about art. I certainly, as a subjective being, feel that some music is better than other music, and you as another subjective being will agree or disagree with me. I just don't want either of us to think that I'm more 'right' than you are, or vice versa.

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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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