A Simple Desultory Philippic for Internet Music Criticism, Rather Pretentiously Based on a Remark by Theodore Roethke
Donald Hall, in On Writing Well
, quotes a notebook scribble from Theodore Roethke:
Get down where your obsessions are. For Christ's sake, shake it loose. Make it like a dream, but not a dreamy poem. The past is asking. You can't go dibble dabble in your tears. The fungi will come running; the mould will begin all over the noble lineaments of the soul. Remember: a fake compassion covers up many a sore....
What this really means, I have no idea. All is quiet this New Year's Day and I'm hung over, it could mean anything really, that's part of Hall's point. But I'm-a take it and run with it because I think it means something for all of us who write about music on the Internet.
It used to be that pop criticism of all kinds was a rare bird indeed. Books and movies were much more important to the American media, and popular music and culture trend-spotting were more blips on the horizon than the horizon itself. What few music writers there were wrote for specific print-based audiences: magazine readers of a certain demographic, newspaper readers in a particular locale, fanziners and broadsheeters and pamphleteers. Some few writers attained a kind of stardom through their position or placement or sheer reach, and the hundreds or so comprising everyone else more or less trailed in their wake, stylistically and philosophically.
Now, of course, everyone can be a music critic. In fact, this is awesome like an opossum. Pop music is supposed to bypass the serious discussion part of consciousness and strike directly at the more mammalian and reptilian parts of the brain. A great song on the radio stretches its fingers out to find the emotional and physical and spiritual switches in us, just waiting to be flipped. Music is a heart thing.
We've intellectualized it, as is our job and responsibility as humans. We've found ways to quantify the music we love, to categorize it and demarcate it, latitudes and longitudes, identifying tattoos that help us keep track of what we like and why we think we like it. "Popular" music used to be manufactured in buildings in New York and shipped out to the rest of the country via a shifting set of delivery systems called "groups." Things changed, then changed back, then mutated in many different ways, which is the glory of American music. It got to the point where "pop" was a dirty word -- but that point was about ten seconds after it started, and we simultaneously and alternately reject and embrace success. When we get fed up with this shaky construct called pop, we invent another genre that takes as its fulcrum point the rejection of pop, then that genre reveals itself as pop to its very core; because what use is a new genre if there is no subgroup in which it is popular? Most of what is popular on the radio now used to be called race music, or rhythm and blues, or colored music or black music or whatever; now Usher and Destiny's Child and Alicia Keys are all "pop." But Norah Jones is also pop, and Good Charlotte and Britney Spears are also pop, Evanescence is pop, N.O.R.E. featuring Daddy Yankee and Nina Sky and Gem Star and Big Mato is pop, if it's on the radio it must be pop. So what does pop mean anymore? Are we, finally, back to "popular"?
This Dewey Decimalization extends to all genres, and has become subcultural code. Country music has used black music as one of its bases for eighty years now, but it's still "revolutionary" for Big and Rich to have Cowboy Troy on the mic. People have died trying to prove how punk they are, how alternative they are; Kurt Cobain's desperate search for street cred ended ten years ago but his disciples live on. 50 Cent became a genre hero by getting shot 7,546 times and beefing with Ja Rule over who snitched out who, Eminem (who makes a career out of targeting people or puppets who cannot fight back) does a song about how it's really all about him but how he's not going to fight back, it gets played on the radio right alongside Snoop's song about how he keeps his blue rag hanging out his pocket on the Crip side, these are both rap or hip-hop on the basis of their significations but they couldn't be further away from each other in sound, in feel, in their heart. What is hip-hop? What is emo? What is laptop, what is rock en espanol, what is the difference between jungle and drum'n'bass and grime and garage? Is this track microhouse or regular house that only incorporates elements of microhouse? Was Chuck Berry a country songwriter?
We love fracture, discord, dischords -- it makes our jobs (often unpaid) easier. We are all too happy to spend our time figuring out what the music we listen to is, how to write about it so our readers know the appropriate tags, how to identify the flags hanging out the pockets of our music. But I think we're not digging deep enough. We don't communicate the love enough. We stay skimming the surface, relying on all of these labels, in lieu of getting down where our obsessions are. For Christ's sake, shake it loose!
Hip-hop writing on the Internet is increasingly all about judging each individual verse by each individual guest rapper, measuring it with some kind of fake stick to see if it stacks up in the reviewer's mind to other verses by the same rapper or different rappers on the same song or different songs, and comparing it all like it's a scorecard. How is this criticism? Not to be an ass, but this is just nibble, ticky-tack, quibble; it has nothing to do with FEEL, with LOVE, with CRAFT. Great rap is not a game of numbers, it's a game of how to put words together with sounds to create an impression on a listener. A lot of hip-hop writers, who got into the scene because of great love for this style of music, have turned into bean-counters, abacus-men, nerds to the x-treme. If they'd allow themselves to FEEL and to LOVE again, they'd maybe stop ripping everything apart like some schoolmarm with a red pencil. And the readers and listeners would actually benefit.
And I've done this too and I'm sorry.
People who write about indie rock are even worse. Everything is compared to everything else, there is no original thought: "XXXX is like YYYY mixed with ZZZZ, except back when YYYY were good because they were unsigned" is pandering rockism at its boldest and most ugliest. I have had to stop reading about dance music, because boring-ass disquisitions about what genre a track REALLY belongs to pretty much represent my idea of hell. And don't get me started about death metal lovers nerding out about what sub-sub-section of craft a record belongs to, or jazzbo hipsters freaking out about whether a particular saxophonist is more influenced by Charles Lloyd or Albert Ayler. It's enough to make a guy question whether or not the Internet's increased freedom of expression is a good thing after all, whether we might have been better off when fewer people were allowed an opinion.
But I don't actually agree with this idea. And I have done this too and I am sorry.
So what is this all about? It's about the idea that our criticism needs to step up a level. We should be focusing less on the flow charts in our minds and more on how music sounds. The important questions are not where something fits in, but how it sticks out, how it makes us feel and why, does it kick ass and why or why not, what part of the heart or head or ass or genitalia it hits, or misses, and why.
I propose that our music criticism become deeper, wider, more meaningful. Is that too much to ask? Probably. Do I expect this to have any impression at all? No. But I can change how I approach music, for myself and my own writing: I'm going to shake it loose, I'm going to make it like a dream, but not a dreamy poem. And I'm not going to be afraid to dibble dabble in my tears, if it should come to that -- I ain't afraid of no fungi.