Let’s Get Critical

Let’s Get Critical


Unless you’ve been hiding from the internet lately while you completed that commission or struggled to get that project grant application in on time, you’ve probably crossed paths with the great debate going down between the defenders of current pop music criticism and the champions of more rigorous analysis. In all truth, this is not a new discussion but, like many perennial debates, it is still hard to look away when a fresh volley is lobbed.

For as much as it stirs the pot when a “serious music” review mentions the soloist’s hem line, it turns out things get even more heated when pop goes under the cold lens of the theoretical magnifying glass. In this Twilight Zone, considering suspensions in the construction of a Miley Cyrus hit is perhaps more controversial than viewing and commenting upon Miley Cyrus’s naked breast.

For as entertaining as I’ve found Owen Pallett’s Slate contributions playing the “what do we talk about when we talk about pop music using Western music theory,” what I believe it was meant to ultimately drive home is that, as with much in life, there is a serious benefit to moderation. Swing too far one way and get mired in the vacuous TMZ gossip mill, yet swing too far the other and end up lost in a realm of IKEA instructions feeling like you’re short two screws and a hex wrench. But while there is plenty of room on all sides of published musical discourse for improvement and that’s important to explore, this is largely a false drama. In my experience, music writers across genres rarely live firmly affixed to either pole. They publish anthologies of the Best in Music Writing (well, they did) that demonstrate such things if you’re short on research time. There is plenty of bad music writing out there, just as there is plenty of bad music. Yet your definitions will probably vary from mine to whatever degree, so I value the diversity of that continuum. As music fans, we’re all hunting the good stuff, no?

The piece of this argument that I’m hung up on is the idea that pop writing is too “lifestyle” oriented, implying to me this unstated idea that the heavy theory crowd is above all that silly nonsense. You can fetishize anything, whether that’s an artist’s row or an artist’s body. Mixing up lifestyle with artistry is not just a pop phenomenon, though it’s easier to dismiss, I suppose, when the words are smaller and the pages glossier.

So we’ve each made music lifestyle choices for better and for worse, and we might all be improved if those choices felt less like fences. Perhaps I would be a better critic if I took the time to consider the output of Justin Bieber on the critical scoring points that matter to me, independent of the mainstream media through which I disregard him, but you won’t convince me of that. Talking about music by talking about that slick industry 1% is just a neat distraction in these critical conversations. To my mind, what’s important is that I try and understand work—any and all work—that says something remarkable to my ear and to share that with others on whatever terms I might best rest it.

So let’s talk about love and let’s talk about chord structure. But don’t make me talk about network reality shows involving music performance. Because dear god, that’s just not okay.

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8 thoughts on “Let’s Get Critical

  1. Emily H. Green

    The only thing I have to add: I haven’t read all of the back and forth, but I’m surprised by the lack of focus on gender. Maura Johnston’s piece in the Village Voice (http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2012/02/sexism_women_in_rock_female_musicians.php) from two years ago addresses the very silly ways critics talk to and about female stars. So, if we want to critique “lifestyle” music journalism, let’s make sure we recognize that gender often deeply affects the language and subject matter of that journalism. It’s notable, for instance, that one of the examples you cite here is Miley Cyrus, whose gender (& sexuality) performance has always been policed by critics. It’s my hunch that most “lifestyle” criticism focuses on women.

    This is not to say that analysis is free of gender police — sometimes of an even more subtle and dangerous variety. There is a long debate in musicology about the patriarchal quality of harmonic analysis itself. Does it discipline/control the expressive/sensual sonic medium? It’s easy to see how those words are both accurate and easily gender coded. I suspect that some readers of Owen Pallett’s piece on Daft Punk (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/03/daft_punk_s_get_lucky_explained_using_music_theory.html) saw the transcription of “Get Lucky” and thought something like “Ew.” That reaction reflects a deeply-held belief that harmonic & formal analysis is sometimes, somehow, inappropriately macho & controlling. It focuses on the adherence to and deviance from norms, and in so doing, is in danger of reinforcing those norms.

    So, yea, it’s a non-drama, but one with high stakes. The call to arms about the need to return to analysis is potentially a quite macho one, while the focus on musicians as celebrities is potentially demeaning and unfair. A pox on both their houses.

  2. John Graham

    It’s quite easy to judge the work of others on the basis of value judgments; we all do it from time to time. However, it really is true the music has always had the effect upon culture such that the composer acts as shaman to those to find agreement in his/her work. Some folks, for lack of talent or just plain over-sensitivity express entitlement with regard to positive feedback, regardless of how their music affects others and without concern for any honest criticism which may come their way. The bloated commercialism of “music” designed to appeal to the uneducated and unsophisticated obviously has nothing to do with the furthering of musical craft, but tends to reflect the absence of any constructive ethos which benefits society as a whole. While glaringly tonal, much pop music then proceeds to express puerile visions and hopes which elevate the consciousness of none, and instead glorifies both self-centeredness and self-importance (Justin Bieber?). So then, what can be positively said for current composers of serious orchestral music whose work happens to be tonal as well?

  3. Grant Cooper

    “While glaringly tonal, much pop music then proceeds to express puerile visions and hopes which elevate the consciousness of none, and instead glorifies both self-centeredness and self-importance (Justin Bieber?). So then, what can be positively said for current composers of serious orchestral music whose work happens to be tonal as well?”
    I’m totally confused – is it BECAUSE (all?) that pop music that is tonal glorifies “self-centeredness and self-importance,” so, therefore, ALL music that is tonal does, (or must be suspected of doing), the same thing? IS there NO tonal music, yet to be written, that is not “puerile?” What are we saying, here????

  4. william osborne

    I’m not sure it’s what you are getting at (if this is too off-topic just don’t post it,) but the idea of lifestyle might be thought of as the biographical context of composers. I feel that the most profound composers are those whose work closely reflects the events and feelings of their lives. I like Stravinsky and Bartok about equally, but Bartok seems the more profound because I feel he more closely connected his life, and especially his inner-life, with his music. I probably enjoy the music of Ravel more than Debussy, but Claude seems the more profound because he seems to more fully explore the reaches of his mind.
    I love Puccini and indulge in his work frequently, but Verdi seems the deeper composer because his characters are more authentic. They are more closely connected to real life.
    Sometimes I feel composers truly reflect their life, world, and mind in music but I still don’t like them too much. I feel like I hear details of Wagner’s personality and worldview in his music, but I probably wouldn’t want to be his friend.
    Sometimes there seem to be correlations between music and the life of a composer that remain enigmatic. Why did Berg compose “Lulu?” What was it about his world he was trying to say? Wozzeck I think I understand, but Lulu remains a puzzle with tantalizing hints about the dangerous time in which Berg lived.
    I like placing the work of Schubert and Chopin in the salon culture that was a central part of their worlds. I would have so loved to have been there. I love looking for Schumann’s madness in his music, even though I’ve never really found it. And I hear in Brahms his discovery of music history and cultural nationalism which made him the first academic composer (and sometimes a bit ponderous.)
    This approach, of course, is more difficult for relatively abstract and formalistic composers like Beethoven. It’s difficult to assign their work musical signifiers for non-musical concepts, but one senses that Beethoven lived in a heroic age, the late age of aristocratic monuments, the age when the bourgeoisie and the ego of the individual was rising to power. Structure begins to fall apart, cultural nationalism is beginning to arise, there’s a glorification of power in the artist-prophet, and one already senses a trajectory toward the coming catastrophies of Europe.

    Anyway, maybe lifestyle is saying that art is often culturally isomorphic with the world around it, and that deep levels of meaning are found when we see those connections. I’m still working on applying this to Mr. Bieber — the Internet, late capitalism, mass media, cultural uniformity, exploitative marketing of the powerful sexual impulses of teenagers, the music industry and neo-liberal philosophy. Hmmm.

  5. Jon

    Emily, I think that’s a great point to bring gender into the equation. This double-standard permeates so much reporting not just about music, but about everything. I can still remember so clearly this awful profile of Condoleeza Rice in the Atlantic several years ago (hardly a tabloid or celebrity rag!) where the (male) writer could not seem to get over writing about how she was dressed all the time in a way he NEVER would have done about a man. It was pretty embarrassing and pushed me over the edge to cancelling my subscription. You lost me a bit though with the discussion of harmonic analysis being a masculine or macho enterprise. Why would anyone react to Palett’s transcription with an “Ew?” What’s macho or controlling about trying to understand the technical means by which music has the affect that it does? Certainly analysis can be anachronistic or apply inappropriate techniques for the body of music under study, but I thought Pallett avoided these traps. If he had, for example, written about how subversive a rock song was for using parallel fifths or not properly resolving its sevenths or moving from V to IV, that would have been absurd since these common practice “rules” are not rules in the rock idiom. But rock/pop is similar enough to common practice classical music that it seems reasonable that some analytical techniques could transfer. Like common practice music, rock music is “tonal” in the sense of generally having a clear pitch center; its harmony is mostly triadic; it is based mostly on similar diatonic scales; and it has a similar approach to counterpoint, i.e. melodic lines that move mostly by step and are generally consonant with an underlying controlling harmony (though of course rock/pop has much less strict voice-leading rules). I found Pallett’s analysis to be very helpful in elucidating why the song has the affect it does and how it is similar to and different from other songs. What is macho or controlling about this? I didn’t think he was forcing it into a box or claiming that this analysis was all there was to the song, he was just trying to use harmonic analysis to help explain the affect it has. What am I missing here?

    1. Emily H. Green

      Jon – That’s a really fair criticism of my .. criticism of criticism..
      Pallett’s analysis is in face fairly mild. I’d still put it in the “hey, guys, I figured out the music!” kind of criticism, which, to me, is just as superficial as the “what designers do you wear?” criticism. (As an aside, I think it’s fair to say that each of these types of criticism is gender coded.) The”hey, guys, I figured out the music!” quest usually privileges one kind of listening (harmonic) over another (say, dancing). That’s fine, as far as it goes. No criticism can be all things to all people. But unfortunately, articles like Ted Gioia’s (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/03/18/music-criticism-has-degenerated-into-lifestyle-reporting.html) highlight that there is a pretty deep attitude that ONE way of listening is correct, and those who don’t engage in it are, like the cheezburger cats, DOIN IT RONG. That’s where the macho attitude resides. Whether it’s implicit in Pallett’s analysis is up for debate.

      This is not to say that “figuring it out” isn’t a valuable experience. That experience is at least half of what it means to be a musician. But, in my view, that’s not good criticism. Good criticism is more than some sophisticated version of “this song is good because X,” just as as it is more than a description of what some pop star ate for dinner.

      In case you’re curious, this whole debate fairly closely tracks the debate in musicology circles that led to the development of a “new musicology” in the 90s. What became clear then as, hopefully, now, is that each “side” has something to learn from the other, and that no one loses any ground by acknowledging that music’s currency is cultural identity as much as it is sound.

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