clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, January 05, 2004
Addendum to the below.

The shorter version: music criticism that ignores the music is just literary criticism, and literary criticism of pop lyrics is just no good. Trust me on this one, kids. Sure, some pull it off well (I'm a big fan of Meltzer's stuff, which is basically really good literary criticism) but you can't have a whole profession-slash-genre based on that. Rock crit as we know it wouldn't even be possible without the development of semiotics and cultural criticism, which has allowed us to talk about the context and "message" of a song instead of its actual content. And this is OK--it's produced some awesome stuff--but people have been analyzing music for thousands of years without the benefit of cultural analysis, and so it's weird now that people are analyzing music without the benefit of musical analysis, you know? There seemed to be some effort at doing so when people first started taking pop seriously, like with that famous Beatles review talking about the modalities of their vocal harmonies, but that was quickly subsumed to the more vital, and more rockin', criticism of Bangs-Christgau-Marcus.

The main reason for this, aside from most critics not being musicians (if you're a musician you sort of learn it by feel and can at least describe it from that perspective), is that we lack the terms. It's perfectly acceptable for a rock critic to throw in a term like "funky keyboard riff" but no student of classical music would think of saying "that Bachy ending," since there's a term for that. ("Cadence," I think.) And it really is perfectly acceptable to say "funky keyboard riff" since I mostly know what that means. But it could be far more specific. We could, for instance, get inside said riff, look at the structure of it, and compare it to other funky keyboard riffs--or non-funky keyboard riffs, or funky bass riffs, or whatever. I understand the difficulty of that, since so much of classical musical analysis relies on notation and there's almost no notation for pop. Plus, there's not only the notes and the rhythms, but the swing of the rhythms, the performance of it. And, of course, the prevalence of the beat. Instead of the tempo changes you see in classical, directed by a conductor or ensemble, we have a constant tempo with lots of little variations inside that, and, again, current terms of musical analysis are unequipped to deal with that. But that doesn't change the fact that there's a lot more we can do with the framework we're given, and without asking the music to change into something else.

On the other hand, you look at something like wine criticism (which, yes, has a name, but which, no, I can't remember--some variant on "sommelier," yes?) which is routinely mocked for having a jargon specific to that discipline with things like "nose" and "body" being thrown around willy-nilly. But at the same time it makes a lot of sense. We do have very few descriptive terms for smell in our language, and only a very few more for sound. That's why we need to invent them. That's why professions develop a jargon: so members of that profession can make themselves very specifically understood.

Still, I recognize that it's precisely this lack of a jargon, and this focus on cultural rather than musical analysis, that makes music criticism, along with movie crit, somewhat widely read. People seem to be able to grasp most things rock critics throw at them just with the information they have available to them as cultural consumers. Of course, this is precisely because they use terms like "funky keyboard riff," since we've all heard a funky keyboard riff before, or "Beatlesesque songwriting," because, well, you know. In other words, the musical analysis in pop criticism currently is at the level of a game of soundslike, but this does allow people to grasp what's being said a lot easier. And it would certainly be a shame to lose that.

That said, I do think developing a true pop music vocabulary is both possible and desirable. Because--and this is important--we can do it without losing that other strain of criticism. Ideally, the analysis would exist only to feed that criticism, to make it stronger and more interesting and productive. I'd be bored to tears by criticism that simply examined the subtle modal shifts in Carlos Santana's solos. But I would be interested in criticism that could point out just how a song was similar to its predecessors, how it chose to be different, and what that difference means.

Anyway, that's a project that won't be possible for a while, but it's certainly something I've been thinking about.