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Tuesday, May 13, 2003
Good piece in the Voice about Stanley Crouch getting unceremoniously fired from JazzBeat magazine after writing a column about white jazz critics' bias towards "out-there" white jazz groups. (In which context the annoying Marsalis-esque "traditionalism" stuff makes a bit more sense--experimental jazz does seem to be dominated by whites--but is still pretty stupid.) The piece is sympathetic to both sides, but makes a good case why the move was both stupid and unjust; Crouch has always been controversial, but it's telling that he only got fired after pissing in his own soup. Criticize blacks all you want, but criticize the whites who run the industry, and whoops, you're out the door. It's also nice to see Amiri Baraka discussed as a great writer and critic instead of "that crackpot who wrote the anti-Semitic 9/11 poem"--it was weird to me when reading the accounts of that whole flap how no one seemed to know who he was, and pay no mind to the fact that he was pretty highly respected (if not agreed with) in certain circles.

Of course, the question now would be why no one's bringing up Crouch's (or Baraka's) kind of questions in the context of other genres--like, oh I dunno, indie rock. (Race issues, guys! Deal with 'em!) I will make the prediction that Crouch's criticism can and will be very effectively turned against undie hip-hop--yeah, white guys who grew up in the culture get respect, but if they keep up that emo-rap bullshit, I sure hope there's a backlash. I can barely stand El-P's lyrics as it is, his fabulous production notwithstanding.

Here's an excerpt from the Baraka essay mentioned in the article, "Jazz and the White Critic," which is well worth reading. The part that would most directly apply to all music criticism, however, would be this one (keep in mind that this is from 1960 and is before Baraka became a full-blown Marxist):

Another hopeless flaw in a great deal of the writing about jazz that has been done over the years is that in most cases the writers, the jazz critics, have been anything but intellectuals (in the most complete sense of that word). Most jazz critics began as hobbyists or boyishly brash members of the American petite bourgeoisie, whose only claim to any understanding about the music was that they knew it was different; or else they had once been brave enough to make a trip into a Negro slum to hear their favorite instrumentalist defame Western musical tradition. Most jazz critics were (and are) not only white middle-class Americans, but middle-brows as well. The irony here is that because the majority of jazz critics are white middlebrows, most jazz criticism tends to enforce white middle-brow standards of excellence as criteria for performance of a music that in its most profound manifestations is completely antithetical to such standards; in fact, quite often is in direct reaction against them. (As an analogy, suppose the great majority of the critics of Western formal music were poor, "uneducated" Negroes?) A man can speak of the "heresy of bebop" for instance, only if he is completely unaware of the psychological catalysts that made that music the exact registration of the social and cultural, thinking of a whole generation of black Americans. The blues and jazz aesthetic, to be fully understood, must be seen in as nearly its complete human context as possible. People made bebop. The question the critic must ask is: why?

Now, there's a whole lot of interesting shit going on here when you look at what's happened to rock criticism since its inception. For the sake of convenience, let me divide it up into the Christgaus, the Marcuses, and the Meltzers. All three started off in the 60's, as rock crit got going, and I think they each correspond to a line in Baraka's taxonomy.

Christgau is, I think, clearly the middlebrow: graduated from Dartmouth, but not really an intellectual "in the most complete sense of the word," he came to rock as a fanboy (didn't really study it in school) and runs a "consumer guide." A lot of rock crit has followed in this vein--positivist, subjectively objective (B+! **! 8.3!), listener-oriented, somewhat fawning, generally not too adventurous, fixed in its tastes, attracted more to the surface of "difference" than the meat that makes it that way. For this reason, many "respected" rock crits hate Christgau, but it's a weird self-hatred, since those are the standards most critics end up going by anyway. The author of the Voice piece alludes to this bind, since he admits that he finds Crouch's accusations controversial because they are directed at critics like himself, and are in no small part true.

Marcus is the intellectual, but I think he's a good example of where that tendency can go wrong. A lot of his stuff is far more valuable as criticism than as actual commentary: he's wrong, but in really interesting ways. This makes him valuable as a cultural critic, but it doesn't really help advance the art he's addressing. He tends to elevate the music and the musicians (although instead of Christgau's pedestal, his would be a slightly colder observation chamber) and write about them in very distanced, reserved tones, and his view of political music is, as I've said before, reductive at best--he takes on music that "is completely antithetical to such standards; in fact, quite often is in direct reaction against them" and interprets this as a simple act of dissent rather than a more complicated critique. This, to me, is the problem of intellectuals addressing music: they would be better if they were writers, too. Baraka works because he's got music in the words as well as the thoughts, although I would often disagree with him on the politics stuff. (Tangent: which is maybe why comedy criticism is always so stifled--very few critics have a sense of humor in their writing, to say nothing of the problem of doing this while simultaneously taking comedy seriously.) Marcus has a good crowd of followers who I like, but who I would say don't always fully engage with the music--this kind of intellectual critic tends to be a bit insecure in his middlebrow-ism and so, I think, often assumes he knows more than the musicians he's examining.

Meltzer is I think closest to what Baraka is talking about, and it's no coincidence that his statement of purpose, The Aesthetics of Rock, was written shortly after Baraka's essay came out. (It's also no coincidence that, like Baraka, his line enjoys the least support.) He addresses music-as-consumerism instead of submitting to it, and in doing so gets to its ultimate heart of banality--everyday life and living, buying things and discarding them, girls and cars and surfing--which is, after all, not unlike what Baraka talks about when he wants critics to address the lives of the people who make the music and how this effects the music itself. Meltzer is someone who knew the music and was interested in using his education to address it and understand it. What's more, he was close enough to it to really get to its heart.

I think the bit about criticizing music that "is completely antithetical to such standards; in fact, quite often is in direct reaction against them" is particularly important. Aside from its resonance with both the canonical interpretation of punk and "sellout" rhetoric, that idea of taking music at its word, in some ways, and engaging with it on its own terms instead of forcing it into your own (or those dictated by hype, other critical assessments, etc.) is one maybe all three schools of critics could stand to remember.