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The Subjective Approach to Music Criticism

By Peter Hepburn | 31 August 2005

A few months ago Amir Nezar wrote an interesting article about music criticism. You should read it, and then read the rest of this, 'cause it deals with a lot of the same things directly. Anyway, hopefully we can get more of the CMG staff to lend their two cents and 1000 words to the issue. We all come at the music in our own way, and helping to define that may help you as readers better understand our reviews and ratings. So, these are my thoughts on music criticism, starting out with something of a rebuke to some of Amir's assertions.

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There are plenty of ways in which I am not qualified to be writing for CMG, and I'm the first one to admit it. My level of technical understanding of music is lacking, my writing is often hurried and poorly constructed, and my knowledge of musical history still has its holes. Plus, I'm not even Canadian, which is pretty much a prerequisite at this point. Quite honestly though, not a single reason that Amir brought up in his recent On Criticism really has much to do with me not being qualified, which is my way of saying that, much like his argument, the qualifications that he lays out are missing the bigger point. The basic solution is still the same.

To keep things civil, I should point out right away that I agree with Amir on a number of points. The whole democratic ideal of the internet just represents a giant trench waiting to be filled with the collective egocentric ranting and misguided opinions of the uninformed, poorly spoken mouth breathers of our world. Of course there should be limits on who says what where-it's why we turn down the vast majority of the applications we receive for new writers (please, keep sending 'em in, just use your spell check, actually READ OVER what you send). Where Amir goes wrong is in writing off relativism so quickly.

Much of my argument rests on a pretty simple premise, and here it is: we all inevitably interpret music in our own way. While I agree with Amir that we may well all hear In the Aeroplane Over the Sea the same way, it doesn't necessarily mean that we all interpret and understand it uniformly. The most important bit of music appreciation (and thus criticism) invariably must happen after the music hits your ears, and there's no way to handicap for that.

Amir's answer to this issue is, at least partially, that there ought to be a more objective approach to music criticism, focusing more on the technical merits of a given album. While I agree that quite often the technical qualities of an album deserve a good deal of attention, it'd be far too easy to use them as little more than a justification for one's true gut reaction to a record, the "feelings" that Amir belittles.

But don't take it from me, here's what Nietzsche has to say about it. In "Beyond Good & Evil" Nietzsche writes, of philosophers, "They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish-and talk of "inspiration"); while at bottom is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of "inspiration"-most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract-that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact." The same could very well be said of music critics; while we may want to justify our reactions to a record on the basis of objective, technical standards, these are inevitably used as little more than a cover for our true feelings about the music based on something much less scientific. I'm willing to remain the mystic, "honest and doltish," rather than play the hypocritical philosopher.

I don't think that feelings and emotional reactions to music will be the downfall of music criticism. Shit, read what Lester Bangs wrote about Astral Weeks and tell me that his personal (psychotic) reactions were detrimental to the review. There's always a distinction between "good records" and "favorite records." While technically strong, I disagreed with Amir on the overall quality of Interpol's Antics. On the other hand, I can appreciate Emperor X's Central Hug/Friendarmy despite it being an iffy record on plenty of technical criteria. Trying to mask an emotional reaction to an album behind some sort of façade of objectivity is both an easy escape and ultimately less satisfying.

Beyond this, the very idea of approaching indie rock and punk music with technical criteria is a recipe for disaster. The two genres simply aren't complex enough to really maintain any claim to greatness on a strictly musical basis. Sure, there are the Radioheads and math rockers out there with bizarre time signatures and brilliant arrangements, but great music has always been and continues to be made by musicians who are using simplistic melodies and who can't tell 5/4 from 4/4. The Stooges could barely play their instruments when they got started and they gave birth to punk rock. Musicians like Joanna Newsom, Alan Sparhawk, Jason Molina, and Will Oldham write songs that don't necessarily incorporate fantastically complex melodies, but manage to be great on the strength of delivery and lyricism, two qualities that tend to be more than a bit tricky to judge.

This attempt to maintain objective criteria with indie/punk rock would run us back into the hypocritical philosopher issue again. Simply, we would be unnecessarily elevating indie rock/punk rock to a position it doesn't deserve in order to justify our musical tastes. It's like saying someone is "classically trained"-it's just a hollow grab at making them seem highbrow. I love punk rock, but not because it's technically complex (it usually isn't), but because it gets at something more basic and primal. I still have the urge to lose my shit every time I hear Relationship of Command or 13 Songs; to me it seems that you have to go a step beyond. You have to hear Cedric's vocal chords ripping apart the songs or a young Ian with all his passion and righteous fury.

One more point on this subject. One area where Amir and I are in agreement is in the padding of reviews. There is far too much history forced down our throats in reviews, not to mention extraneous fluff from failed English majors. Still, while we should trim the fat back from this sort of work, we ultimately cannot and should not attempt to totally remove it, since it informs not only the making of the piece of music but also the manner in which we go about participating in it. If you pick up the Drive-by Trucker's The Dirty South without having heard Southern Rock Opera (much less Skynrd), how do you understand the mythology, the storytelling, and the power of the three-guitar approach? American must inevitably understand and enjoy Parklife, Different Class, and London Calling in different ways than Brits. It's rare that you can read anything about Slanted & Enchanted without getting a history lesson to boot, but maybe without the history lesson those of us under the age of 30 can't really make the most of the record. Does it make it any less of a record? Absolutely not. Does it lead the critic to laziness? Most of the time, yes, and that's an area that could use some work.

Personally, I think Amir is wrong in attempting to place a technical framework on music criticism. To some degree, though, the key is not choosing a point of view (technical merit vs. emotional drive) but rather by explaining oneself. One of the best parts about CMG is that we have nutcases (I call him that lovingly, of course) like Amir who are willing to take on this sort of opinion and argue for it clearly and concisely.

What we've got to be able to do in either case is explain ourselves. That's the answer, and I think Amir would agree with me on this one. As longs as you can express it, justify it, and work through it, then you're doing something right. Ultimately, with really good criticism you step past assigning things numbers, grades, or rankings and just rely on the strength of your writing to make the point.