Friday, June 25, 2010

An Ethos

Warning: I'm about to get a little snobby. I realize that a lot of what I write on this blog is criticism, so I've decided that I really should establish criteria. As I have hinted at in the past, one of my major peeves is a lack of solid established criteria in critical journalism, so I'd like to establish what problems I have with the implied criteria of a lot of journalism and the criteria I would like to use.

The question that I think people often forget is this: what is the purpose of criticism? Academic criticism generally aims for a clarity of understanding, but when you open up a Rolling Stone magazine and read an album review, what do you expect to get out of it. The answer, quite simply, is the evaluation of a potentially enjoyable experience. I read reviews so that I can better know what to listen to, read, look at etc. I am attempting to increase the amount of enjoyment I get out of my art experience. Now, by enjoyment I don't necessarily mean immediacy, such a catchyness or popular sensability. Enjoyment, as I see it, is rather an effect in which one is attracted to revisit an object from which they have had a positive, memorable experience.

So, the rating stamped upon a review or evaluation and the focus of that writing should reflect the enjoyment of the author and what specifically created that enjoyment, thus establishing the predicted enjoyment of the reader. As simple as this seems, this is hardly ever the case with journalistic criticism. Take, for example, the recent reissue of Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones. I've heard enough people talk about how great this record is that, though I have not given it an honest listen, I do not deny that it can be a wonderful, worthwhile experience. But most reviews and revisits aren't about that. They talk about Altamonte, the end of the 60's, the American blues legacy. In other words, context, context, context. And that's where I think the problem lies. The reissue of a record, I think, is the perfect time to divorce it from context. When it was released, it was immersed in a specific time period, culture etc. Instead of forcing it back into this frame, the reviewer should consider whether it is a worthwhile listen outside of it. But they don't. Instead of focusing on the sound coming out of the speakers, they talk about the stuff that surrounds the record historically: influence, trends, and breaking new ground. All these things are fine subjects for an academic, but for someone just trying to find good music to listen to they can get in the way if they don't eventually lead to an enjoyable experience. Granted, influential records are usually good records, but influence and quality are not synonyms.

Let me present a scenario. For a long time a single trend has dominated the music industry. All of the sudden someone releases a record that is completely different, and its pretty good too. It gets rave reviews, five out of five, ten out of ten, 99% on Metacritic or whatever. A year later, the same group releases an almost identical record. It has new songs and everything, but an almost identical sound. Should this album get worse ratings? It certainly will, but in my opinion it certainly shouldn't. Lets say that I am a reader unaware of this group and their two records. I want a good listen. Which record should I buy? The ratings would suggest buying the first, but the listener would really get the exact same experience out of buying either.

Defiance of context and quality are often confused. In 2003 a favorite duo of mine, OutKast, released their most recent record, Speakerboxx/The Love Below. One half, Speakerboxx, was a very solid and rather subtle Southern Hip-Hop style album. The other half, The Love Below, was an iffy yet very experimental album drawing influence from sources as diverse as Funkadelic and the Smiths, producing a few amazing songs, but a number of misfires. The double album was highly acclaimed. Why? Not because of its solid, enjoyable segments but its ambitious, exploratory ones. Do not get me wrong, the best art, as Harold Bloom often says, is strange, deeply, deeply strange, so much so that you may have to dig through layers of banality to find it. But ambition and exploration can easily fail to excite and they often do. They are not accurate primary criteria for evaluating the quality of art.

What I am trying to get at is this: what goes on outside of art can point to greatness inside of art, but where history and art do not match, history tends to break down. Some of the greatest records are the most influential and groundbreaking, or created by the greatest guitar players, rappers, producers, and singers of all time. Think of Van Halen's "Eruption" or Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)". These are, pure and simple, expressions of extreme musical ability. And they are certainly extremely enjoyable. But after repeated listenings, no amount of technical prowess, musical development, influence, crate digging, obscurity or anything else matters. What matters is enjoyment, plain and simple. This is my ethos. Let's hope that I can stick to it.

PS: What makes things enjoyable and to what degree, however, is a question for a later post or another person, I'm not quite sure.

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