The Uses and Abuses of Music Criticism

What is the point of writing about music? This is a question that is not asked enough. I will do my best to answer this in order to justify what I am doing on this site and hopefully find some fresh insight. One way to approach answering this question is to address the common mistakes that I think critics make and arrive and some better methodology via negitiva.

The first and most common mistake is the reduction of musical statements to merely be reflections of the artists biography. For example, there are endless analysis online of what was happening to a particular artist at a particular time this is then present as the final answer to the purpose and the meaning of the work. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that life experience plays a decisive factor in the creative process it is not the only factor for there is a wide spectrum among musicians as from those who’s artistry addresses personal topics an example of such a person is Jil Scott. On the other hand, there are artists such as Max Richter who work primarily in the world of instrumental music and usually produce there work under the guidance of a theme that is not directly part of there life.

A further criticism of the stock biographical interpretation is that it ignores the ways in which local and personal emotions can be channeled into something abstract. Via this route all music even that very far removed from the exact experience of the performer can become personal. Simple biographical interpretations render everything a trivial product of what has happened to a person rather than a fusion of life experience and creative intelligence. Without such a general intelligence it is hard to know how anything could be transmitted artistically from one person to another without both having had identical life experiences. Even for people who may have lived such identical lives there will always be the difference that it is they who are the experiencing it with their own unique personality.

The next mistake is simplification via some sub genre label. For example, the odious term “jazz fusion” which principle use seems to be ghettoise a variety of styles and approaches. What music exists that does not owe it’s heritage to something else? Is not almost all music if you go far back enough some kind of “fusion”? The same can said of completely ridiculous label “progressive rock” . What does it denote? According to Wikipedia “…prog’s scope is sometimes limited to a stereotype of long solos, long albums, fantasy lyrics, grandiose stage sets and costumes…” The problem with such stereotypes is that it only list of sins not a characteristic of a style. There are plenty of groups who have dressed in variety of garbs that do not commit the other sins. Fantasy is just as much a part of pop as any other genre, although in the main the fantasies are hedonistic not conceptual.

Perhaps in the past this label could be applied to a cadre of bands that shared certain characteristics and in this sense could be described as meaningful. However, culture has moved on since then as have the musicians who may even apply the label “prog” to themselves. Of course the idiotic press is ready for such developments and can simply accommodate these changes by declaring whatever developments have occurred to be “neo…”. This solves nothing. Am I perhaps uncharitable in looking for higher standards in what is ultimately slang? Also, we must keep in mind Wittgenstein’s motto that meaning is use, that language is a flexible medium that can change as people use words in different ways over time. This said, I do think the essence of my criticism still stands. That by following such practices the level of discourse is lowered.

However, I would say that often slang in reified by music critics to take on a status beyond mere slang to a stronger and more certain categorization. This I object to, it is the intellectualisation of something that is used intuitively. It is through this process that needlessly sharp distinctions are drawn and barriers erected.

What of positive purposes of music criticism? I think criticism can illuminate aspects of a work that we can have been previously blind to. Further, through the exploration of an other’s opinion we can understand more clearly why we hold the opinions we do. In this sense misguided analysis can be helpful and instructive. However, it must be said that verbal analysis is no replacement for experiencing the music. This is the place that all true musical knowledge stems from and where the transcendent power of music can be encountered. In comparison to this mere words can seem dead and lifeless. None the less, I think there is enough to be gained by writing about music that I will continue to do it.