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How I Learned to Listen: On 10 Years of Writing Music Criticism

By Conrad Amenta | 18 December 2015

About ten years ago, at the age of 25 and visiting my parents over Christmas holidays, I sat down at the computer in their study and submitted an application to write music reviews for Cokemachineglow. Over the intervening decade I would write about 200 reviews and essays, dedicating what must have been thousands of hours to molding my unsolicited opinion into 500-word communiqués to a vaguely understood readership. It’s in the spirit of decathlonial retrospection that I find myself asking why I would ever do such a thing.

As far as influence goes, Cokemachineglow sits several orders below Pitchfork and several above a blog written by a passionately interested individual. Its writers are volunteers, and perhaps because of this lack of monetary remuneration, Cokemachineglow offers—in addition to a community of likeminded people and free music which, come to think of it, might describe the central value proposition of the mid-’00s internet—a space for writerly prerogative. We writers are, in a word, indulged. That’s not meant to sound pejorative; it’s a real privilege.

It’s apparent to me now that over the years I’ve made assumptions about my position at the confluence of production, promotion, assessment, and consumption of music. The first of these assumptions is common among both readers and writers of music criticism, so common in fact that I may have adopted it from those who wrote to me to say I’d been remiss in my critical responsibilities and violated a tacit agreement between emitters of sound, middlemen of supposed taste, and listeners, whoever they are.

I came to think of my impulse to express opinion in a public forum as a felt understanding of an obligation to help people make informed decisions about what to buy and listen to. The critical framework for this assessment—cultural, technical, political, all or none of the above—is unclear, as was the utility of the gesture, given that music itself ostensibly was and continues to be free, and that it takes less time to listen to a couple of songs and decide if you like the band than it takes to read a review.

No matter. I tired of thinking of myself as a checkbox in a reader’s cycle of consumption, and pitched the idea altogether. This minor alienation was hastened by the inclusion of Cokemachineglow in the aggregation site Metacritic’s algorithms, which combine scores among critical publications to provide handy averages, eliding the reader’s sense of duty to read a music critic’s careful but often idiosyncratic responses to Pavement’s guitar tones or the emergence of a particularly virulent strain of punk.

I modulated my assumptions and chose to believe instead that I was contributing in some small way to music criticism as a standalone art, a dialogue among interested individuals. I allowed this shinier, healthier notion to exist alongside the fact that one of my least favorite types of writing to read is music criticism. Outside of my colleagues at Cokemachineglow, for whom I’ve developed affection and so am biased, I spend no time reading reviews. I usually just look at the scores on Metacritic.

Finally, I tore away my presumption that my writing existed for anyone other than myself. Here I offer a parallel: I’ve played in bands, and so know and am conflicted by the power inherent in taking to a raised platform and becoming, at least for some socially agreed upon amount of time, the center of a room’s attention. More often than not it’s friends and family who’ve paid five bucks at the door to subsidize my hobby, something roughly equivalent to asking your loved ones to pay to watch you waterski. As I exited my mid-twenties, Cokemachineglow became the platform from which I could continue to wrest power away from others by consigning them to “an audience,” to reproduce the egotistic satiation provided by a form of performance to which I was losing access because I was getting older and less popular.

In other words, I had become the ultimate cliché: the music critic as failed musician.

I realized that I was committing what David Foster Wallace, in his review of tennis star Tracy Austin’s autobiography, called the principal sin of bad expository prose writing. I was forgetting, if I’d ever really allowed myself to know, for whom my writing was supposed to be written.

In time I came to shrug off any claim to authority. Instead, my reviews took on the flavor of diary entries. “These,” the reviews seemed to say about themselves, “are snapshots of one particular listener’s reaction in time. Do with that what you will.” Instead of attempting to explain away or to apologize for a confessional review’s apparent lack of utility, I acknowledged that lack, and held close to my heart the irreconcilable contradiction of the review’s simultaneous uselessness and right to exist.

The point at which I began to think of the project of music criticism as something that one should look outward to define was when I read Alex Ross’ 2007 book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century and Richard Rorty’s 1998 collection of Harvard University lectures, Achieving Our Country. The former looks at the history of the prior century through the lens of its music, including the many moneyed interests who leveraged music as cultural force to influence people. The latter distinguishes between a critical, largely academic Leftist tradition and a progressive, policy-based one. Both led me to what I now consider an elegant, if overly simple, realization: there’s a widening vacuum in the economics of artistic production once occupied by institutional patrons of the arts—the state, the military, the church, the unions, and the university—and this vacuum has eroded musicians’ ability to tackle the kinds of socially progressive projects around which people mobilize.

Much seminal art—let’s say The Canon, in all of its unassailable, problematic, ill-defined grandeur—may have been the by-product of propagandistic objectives, but in blowing up the scope of the artistic project to glorify institutions larger than the individual artist, artists were also given license to explore the subtext and unconscious resonance of those institutions, be it power, transcendence, morality, national identity, or individualism in relation to said institution. The artist defined and explored projects of broad relevance.

If a dynamic between the patron and the artist is possible, today we contend with its absence. The erosion of these institutions’ influence and the accompanying removal of the funding mechanisms and subsidies once connecting these patrons and artists have diminished the sense of communal, collaborative movement toward shared epiphany. In the place of the shared project, and in the rise of the individual to fill the vacuum, we are presented with albums that, like my reviews of said albums, aspire to be no more than a writerly snapshot of a sub-subculture’s reaction in time. We are offered art that forgets its audience, or, rather, art that is solely for itself.

I recently took in a performance by Bry Webb and the Providers. Webb was once the frontman of the now defunct Toronto band the Constantines, a band that thrummed with an electricity of punk alienation. During his time in the Constantines, Webb employed lyrics that described nigh-stereotypical young toughs running roughshod through abandoned train yards and gutters. He was unapologetic about his romantic impulse to agitation. “For those stuck between the wars,” he explained, “it’s boredom beyond measure.” Webb’s lyrics read like a Fight Club manifesto. Palahniuk’s book begins in selfsame masculine frustration and ends in anarchistic revolution. What the Constantines’ music seemed to hint at was the seed of a similar agenda. Agitation towards purpose; anger towards overthrow.

I knew that Webb’s post-Constantines music would be much more peaceful, plaintive even. His two-chord structures have been transposed onto an alt-country/folk latticework of stand-up bass, piano, and gentle brushes across the surface of a snare drum. I find his new music pleasant, but I couldn’t help but also think that Webb had migrated from a music charged with generational dread and class-awareness—an interview with Webb once turned me on to Studs Terkel’s Working—to a kind of domesticated amiability. His songs are now most often about his young son, except for those, like the tellingly titled “Ex-Punks,” which describe a diminished countercultural vigor. Webb has every right to sing about his child, of course, and perhaps his domestication has the flavor of profundity when placed alongside his Constantines output. But I left the show feeling that an artist who’d first touched and then raged against the glass walls of rock music’s limitations had drawn back within that box to examine its restrictive contours, not so much with anger as resignation.

We are all, listener and writer and musician alike, exposed, pulled out from under the protective cover of the patron’s banner and subjected to the unsympathetic reality of oversupply—the perpetual echo of the project of the self, resounding from all around us, millions looking inward and then projecting outward on Youtube and Bandcamp, declaring “I am different” in unison. This isn’t to imply that we don’t have a right, in the face of our redundancy, to make art anyway, and perhaps there’s even some bravery in that act of stubborn creation. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Only a few years ago Webb was one of a number of musicians who traveled to one of Canada’s national parks to write a song about his experiences there. His song, “Rivers of Gold,” about a park in the Yukon Territories, appeared on his 2011 album Provider, and while the song doesn’t stand out from any other in its style, it’s linked to the larger themes emerging from the government-subsidized project. Webb is subsumed into a larger cause, even as he writes about his individual experience of that cause, and the constrictive format of the four-minute folk song takes on an aspect that stands awed before nature’s sublime, mystical arrangement, of advocacy for the continued public protection of these spaces so that we may all dabble in transcendence before the staggering indifference of geological time.

At least, that’s what the song could have been about if we’d talked about it in those terms, if we expected songs to be about those things, and if the project were not just a one-off, soon forgotten.

At the far end of a decade spent writing about, for all intents and purposes, myself, I’ve still had few opportunities to write about albums that allude to projects aligned with the public good. Even those artists who receive recognition and financial awards for their work are often described in terms that distinguish them as necessarily apart from their contemporaries and their audience in terms of the individual circumstances that led them to create yet another album about the individual. Far from reinforcing a sense of shared purpose, today’s subsidization of the arts acts as little more than an escalator from person-to-whom-a-listener-might-haphazardly-relate to some higher echelon of commercial stardom.

Critics and musicians alike should organize and advocate, both inside and outside of their modes of artistic production, for the return of the public sphere and the subsidization of music according to predefined and shared criteria. Artists and critics should do so in a coordinated, voluminous, and incessant fashion.

This is not to say that we, as artists and lovers of art, should spend our time asking for handouts, but that we, in partnership with public institutions, should define projects of importance to the public and willingly sacrifice our individual interests to those projects in exchange for financial and moral support.

In this we passionately interested individuals, disconnected and self-interested, nodes in a deactivated network, might turn the oversupply which today defines and subjugates artists to lives of bohemian scarcity into the propulsive force of Movement. And we would no longer have to seriously ask ourselves why we would ever do such a thing.