Everett True over at Electrical Storm asked me to do a joint article on this topic. As neither of us could quite work out how we would go about this, I wrote something on his suggestion, sent it to him, and am posting it here. It’s a little autobiographical, for which I do apologise.
Defining the Tastemaker-Critic in Web 2.0 Environments: Criticism, Popular Music, and the Web.
Criticism is the first and most important line of defence against capitalism unchecked. Counter to the circular monopoly of PR and sales, criticism attempts to unpick quality from calamity by bearing witness to culture in an authoritative, original way. The arts are amongst the first to suffer in a crisis, but criticism comes before even these, fragile to the touch and only delicately of this world. At its best criticism achieves insurrection. Lately, however, it has been caught in transition, expropriated and expropriating itself from old media, here and there giving rise to new forms of thought shaped by web 2.0 environments.
I came up, critically speaking, in the mid-to-late nineties. Being from Ireland, the bloated, maggoty corpse of the mainstream British music press, in addition to Hot Press, provided the diseased critical manna for my ravenous mind. Q, NME, Select, Melody Maker were all in the death-throes of mediocrity (at best), yet in my innocent state I lapped up their by then anti-metaphysical, anti-experimental, cool-canonising editorial policies. Mojo was a little better, and later in the decade I found a little succour in its pages. Shards of Lester Bangs that somehow found their way to me through the mulch hinted mysteriously at rock writing of more scope.
At about 18, after a few years of fairly wide-ranging musical study at school, I began a music degree. It was a traditionally conceived programme organised around harmony, counterpoint, music history, analysis, and aesthetics. It had absolutely NO ROOM for popular music. The closest we got to such was in third and fourth year when ethnomusicological courses threw up academically tantalising genres like the blues, African highlife, and Latin nueva cancion. These were apparently valid for study because, though in terms of material and form they were undoubtedly genealogically Popular, their relative lack of participation in the (apparent) fetish commoditisation of popular music meant they could be considered separately. The idea that pop and classical forms might be equal in value seemed anathema. If I’m charitable, I would say that the discrimination for classical was merely a strategy to counter its obsolescence, and nothing more pernicious.
Because of this background (and what I can now see was a lack of adventure), I had the mad impression in my late teens and early twenties that the only serious critical, philosophical writing that got done on music was in the realm of high art, where Hanslick, Schenker, Adler, Riemann, Forte, Rosen, Dahlaus, Taruskin, the New Musicologists and all the rest burrowed away more or less successfully at an ambitious, wide ranging vision of music as a system of knowledge and/or as an index of social and cultural mores. The taste-maker critics referenced above — and here let me say that I take the label ‘taste-maker’ to be one of value, not quality — such people as Ian Penman, Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, (small shudder) Paul Morley, Greil Marcus, no less than Kael, Didion, Willis, Frank Kermode, and Ebert in other realms, had the whole time been engaged in such a project in relation to popular spheres of culture.
Popular culture had formed itself in my mind into something of an Adornian succubus devoid of inner dynamic or contrast (or quality). This was, at any rate, the libidinal affect I got from the critical canon the admittedly narrow (in some senses) degree made use of. But I continued to cherish popular music at least as much as I did ‘high’ forms. The conspicuous dissonance between cognition and affect that this brought about led me into a search for new voices, which I duly found in The Wire, initially, then on the web, ultimately. I’ll come back to this.
The peculiar and particular cultural energies being played out in and in the context of popular song were manifold and multiform, rich with enigma, achievement, and tension. Popular music writing of the eighties, the ‘pale white boy theory’ Simon Reynolds recently addressed, knew this. It sought to found a sort of para-space that intermediated between continental philosophy, psychoanalysis and cultural theory, and popular culture. It staged similar theoretical admixtures, at a distinct formal level, to that being carried out in the best writing on contemporary classical music by people like Paul Griffiths and Richard Toop. I missed this popular writing, though. Mine was the era of britpop, beer, and bathos.
Later still I began, and continue, a PhD that is somewhat absorbed in these struggles, a project that focuses on interzones of culture in the twentieth century, specifically on underground music as a liminal musical activity that plays with strategies, tensions and signs from high and low regions of culture. Underlying my writing is an indebtedness to the new blog networks that form around nodal points like k-punk and postclassic. (As it is to the para-academic Zero Books, which seeks to emphasise the fact that, in Mark Fisher’s words, ‘serious writing doesn’t have to be opaque and incomprehensible, and popular writing doesn’t have to be facile’.) These step over the nineties back to a time when theory (of the ‘pale’ variety) met popular culture head on, matching its wild energies and jargon-laden technique with blizzards of creativity, intensities of interpretation, all of its own. As Pauline Kael remarked, ‘we become like clockwork oranges if we accept all this popular culture without asking what’s in it’; these blogs are the place where the question is being asked most interestingly today.
At a time of increasing stricture for mainstream critics, when popular criticism is hopelessly middling (cf Alex Petridis and Stuart Heritage at the Guardian, or any of the current NME or Q writers), at best, and even esteemed critics from across the spectrum (Alan Rich, Todd Phillips at Variety, a significant proportion of the UK’s classical music critics) can’t hang onto their jobs, it is in these blogs and webzines that some of the most incisive writing on music is currently getting done. Demographics get increasingly specific, choice becomes almost unlimited, and adventure and originality in music writing becomes almost impossible (witness the closure of Plan B, or look to the ever-stunning Wire for an exception that proves the rule). Yet the same richness can be adduced in popular culture as ever, and this richness throws up trails of phosphorescent response if you should seek them. Creative writing has largely been pushed to the edges of culture, but it thrives, largely unremunerated, on the web. The crisis is of course not one of achievement or ambition, but means.
Norman Lebrecht recently lamented the calumny of criticism in the New Statesman, praising open source blogs and arts pages on the web for their proactive resuscitation of criticism as art and as force. He offers the common and tired reservation, though, that without the surveillance of institutional markers the reader cannot know of the authority or prejudice of the writer. But surely it is the writing’s job, as it ever was, to convince the reader either way, to persuade, argue, or celebrate convincingly and on its own terms? Evidence-based judgements of criticism surely surpass canonical prejudice any day.
The new boundary-trampling zeitgeist of music gets some answer in the flat realm of blogs, where Britney and Beethoven can theoretically find themselves interpretative bedfellows. Yet such a join, such an elision of thought, rarely occurs. Though there is much to celebrate in these (relatively) new media activities, such cracks and lacks as these show up quite frequently, and they flag-up some of the unresolved tension of popular and high culture.
Many writers on popular music enjoin it to act as response, not as symptom, of capitalism and administered society. It is a wonder, then, that music which takes these subjects most explicitly as its subject, contemporary classical music, fails to register on most radars. Likewise the neglect of the rich and provocative classical canon. The capacity of early modernist music to ‘illustrate the suppressed discord in society’, in Toner Quinn’s phrase, continues in contemporary notated forms, which act as a moral impetus to culture. The prejudices and tensions that can be read into popular culture at the symbolic level resonate much deeper, in some respects, in contemporary classical. Most bloggers exhibit a hopelessly ahistorical prejudice, in cultural terms at least, in failing to look beyond the music of the last half-century. Nowhere is this clearer than in all the discussion around theory and its use in musical criticism I linked to earlier. To me, the term ‘theory’, in any sort of music-critical context, denotes analysis; that is, criticism that looks at the notes and their systematic use in musical composition. Theory, in this respect, judges tonal hierarchy’s, atonal arrays, and issues around topos, form and genre. Yet even such an astute writer as Reynolds does not even think to draw the issue into his elaboration of the relationship between music criticism and theory, which for him denotes continental philosophy and other related forms of cultural writing. Perhaps the issue is that the best ‘art’ music has already done some of the work that bloggers and critics attempt; it is itself a layer of interpretation. Notated forms offer a sort of novelistic polyphony, a particular image of society, unavailable elsewhere. Their neglect leaves much ‘theory’, even though of course that theory seeks primarily to examine popular culture, much the weaker, bereft of valuable musical context and history. But this is an observation, nevertheless, that skirts the venerable seam of the best, theoretical, blog writing.
Criticism, as I have said, is vitally important to culture. The critic does not simply describe, as Tom Johnson (in reliably literal form) suggested, but instead offers opinion, judgement, and argument grounded in concrete description of the event or object being critiqued. The clue is in the name. The tastemaker critics, particularly in web 2.0 environments where the medium of criticism is potentially available to all, provide a sort of authority (self-generated, as noted) and art of their own that compliments the music with new layers of meaning and significance. They guide readers, encouraging them in their own inquiries, fostering a network of critical thinkers. The critic as artist seems a valid image on which to end.