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Tuesday, November 16, 2004
In this Kyle Gann piece (via The Rambler) he makes the distinction that I've been making for a while, "rock criticism" v. "musicology" (or Lester Bangs v. music theory, or "descibing things" v. "analyzing things" if you prefer), in an interesting way:

I have two kinds of student writers. One kind is very good at style and
atmosphere. They can talk about music in relation to their lives, tell how
certain songs make them feel, relate their likes and dislikes. The other type
knows musical terminology, and can describe music in intelligent detail. The
first type of writer is entertaining to read, but ultimately merely subjective;
the second is more persuasive, but a little dry and lacking in color and emotive
effect. Almost none can yet combine the best of both worlds. The first type are
almost all pop music aficionados; the second type tend to be classical and jazz

Besides the correlation to what I've written about on this blog, it also caught my eye because there was a time when I was also spending a lot of time thinking about student writers. I don't much anymore, because a) I'm not a student writer now, and b) in retrospect, it was kind of stupid. That said, though, I did go on about it far too long here.

Anyway, the way this is relevant is that it demonstrates the degree to which you can't blame the teacher for the institutional flaws of the program or discipline. If anyone could get student writers to bridge this gap, you'd think it would be Gann. But since there's a lot of self-selection going on, people come to the program having been inspired by traditional music criticism, which if it's pop is impressionistic and if it's classical is analytical. It's hard to break out of that, because if you've decided to be a music writer, that's what you want to be, and for whatever reason, writing programs have a strong bias against telling students that what that want to be is stupid. (OK, I understand this.)

On the one hand, I think Gann is coming at this from the wrong angle--what's missing from pop criticism that we find in jazz/classical criticism is not that it can make objective value judgments, because it can't. All pop fans hate something they once intensely, unquestionably loved--I mean, I once owned 3 MC Hammer albums, you know? For jazz and classical folks, I don't get the sense this happens--OK, you might not be as geeked-out about Shostakovitch or Ellington as you once were, but that doesn't change the fact that these guys were still very, very good at what they did, and probably geniuses. This is not the case with the pop music we like as early adolescents, and, let's be honest, not the case with the pop music we like at any point in our life. This is a large part of pop's appeal: it is made by non-geniuses, by ungreat people. We might argue passionately that X is better than Y, but we do it in the terms we do ("Poision are pussies, man!") because we know, deep down, there's no actual rational justification for our views. Pop music is dumber and less complicated than jazz and classical music. Oh sure, I can make a great case for why that's good and interesting and worthy of attention, of the way it wedges itself inside this proscribed space and makes hay of the microvariations, of the contextualizations and narrative developments, but I'm not sure there is a way you can analyze, say, Poision and Ozzy Ozzborne's early solo work to say which one is better.

But you can analyze them in ways we haven't been, and this is where I think the potential for crossover lies. One of the things that interests me about classical musicology is the way it isn't just a dialogue for critics or listeners, it's also something that fundamentally informs compositional and performance techniques. When pop criticism does this, it's mainly in negative ways--keyboards are lame and fake, or heavy metal is stupid, or pop-country is conservative and commercial ("bad"). What it doesn't do is break open the music and show what it's doing in a way that encourages other people to work off that. Sure, musicians do this already, but not with criticism's help; they just use their ears to hear something, like it, and figure out how it's done. If pop criticism wants to make judgments, I think it can do this most usefully by highlighting things that are going unnoticed, or explaining where pleasure comes from. And this is where analysis comes in. I don't think it would work comparatively with pop, but it would work within the context of a song or an artist.

On the other hand (that was a long break, huh?), I think he's dead-on with the stuff about making classic criticism more subjective. Those music-appreciation things sound stupid because they try and posit a subjective interpretation as something eternal--well, of course this is what this bit represents, don't you see? But what pop criticism has shown us is that by explaining the particular personal meaning something has for you, you actually encourage other listeners to strengthen their own personal connections, not take on your individual interpretation. The best pop criticism, it seems to me, is very specific. Klosterman is good at this. You know he's not trying to make a universal statement about GnR because he's telling you the name of his friend from high school. And once he's done this, once he's grounded it in the personal, he's won the right to make broader subjective statements. And then, as Gann points out, the critic can then explain what particular individual elements in the music suggest this, and why. You can make the case. I'd like this, and I do see some people doing it already.