Dasein, Red Elephant.

Music Criticism as Literary Art


redelephant: I have been thinking a lot about music criticism lately. How does one begin to criticize something as intangible as a piece of music? One could do it chronologically and technically, from the beginning to end. Plough through that symphony or pop album, inserting comments on the use of a specific instrument or musical technique. Whether it is counter-point or cacophony, the overall tone of the music review (more so than the literary review) is overwhelmingly subjective or personal. The reviewer has a built up vocabulary of musical knowledge, accumulated through a discriminating appreciation of sounds. Like Seamus Heaney’s ubiquitous Irish bog, these sonic layers gradually come to form a mush of musical history, one that automatically and unconsciously defines a music piece as excellent or flawed.

I still remember the time I first introduced Sonic Youth to a girl I knew, a teenage prodigy who was composing symphonies and concertos for professionals. She had an grandiose knowledge of classical music and when I plugged her into Becuz from the Washing Machine album, she listened with an intense look of concentration, instantly pointing out the specific musical techniques that the song employed. Atonal motivic development, syncopation and Ionian counterpoint in the cantus firmus. Not invariably different from Webern or Schoenberg, she concluded. We only pick out things we appreciate from the bog.

Through the severe hegemony of the subjective and personal, most music criticism, be it academic or popular, do not tackle the social context or ideology behind the musical piece. Public intellectual Edward Said in a 1987 article in The Nation, laments about the domination of masculinity in music criticism.

Music criticism and musicology, as well as the worlds of performance and composition, are strikingly removed from the main fields of cultural criticism. In a recently published exchange between Pierre Boulez and Michel Foucault the latter remarks that, except for a passing but idle interest in jazz or rock, most intellectuals who care about Heidegger or Nietzsche, about history, literature and philosophy, regard music as too elitist, irrelevant or difficult for their attention. Musical discourse is probably less available to Western intellectuals than the obscurer realms of medieval, Chinese or Japanese culture.

It is therefore predictable and yet odd that feminism, much concerned with almost all the humanities and sciences, has offered little in the way of music criticism. Feminism in music seems to be roughly at the stage where literary feminism was twenty years ago: a sort of separatist enterprise, which attempts to identify women musicians of the past who spoke with a voice of their own. Beyond that, there is a void. But it would be wrong to fix the blame exclusively on music criticism or on feminist theory. The problem is that music today is as massively organized a masculine domain as it was in the past. Without significant exception, women play a crucial but subaltern role.

Said might be right about academic criticism in the realm of classical music. However, this deficiency seems to be less apparent in the popular music criticism, particularly in the genre of rock music. Lester Bangs, one of the greatest rock critics ever roam this earth, pioneered a unique style of criticism that emphasized on the subjective feeling that music gives one, while subtly and unpretentiously offering a comparative appreciation of the piece’s relation to the wider (and social) universe of sound. The celebration of the feminine in his 1981 review of The Shagg’s Philosophy of the World espouses a strong consciousness of music’s authorial persona, and hence its ideological/social position.

In this Village voice article, Bangs opens by declaring his love for women in rock:

Which is why the only hope for rock'n'roll, aside from everybody playing nothing but shrieking atonal noise through arbitor distorters, is women. Balls are what ruined both rock and politics in the first place, and I demand the world be turned over to the female sex immediately. Only hope. Valerie Solanas was so much greater a prophet than Warhol that I can only pray she might consent to lead the group I'm forming. The absolute best rock'n'roll anywhere today is being played by women: the other night I saw God in the form of the Au Pairs, the Slits are stupendous, the Raincoats are better than London Calling or anything by Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde doesn't count, Joan Jett deserves her place in the sun if not reparations, Lydia Lunch is the Female Role Model for the '80s besides being one of the greatest guitarists in the world . . . the list is endless. (Patti, come home!)

He then goes on to praise the Shagg’s socio-music ideology:

But credit must be given to the foremothers: the Shaggs. Way back in 1972 [sic] they recorded an album up in New England that can stand, I think, easily with Beatles '65, Life with the Lions, Blonde on Blonde, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks as one of the landmarks of roll'n'roll history. The Wiggins [sic] sisters (an anti-power trio) not only redefined the art but had a coherent Weltanschauung on their very first album, Philosophy of the World..Their and my religion is compassion, true Christianity with no guilt factors and no vested interest, perhaps a barter economy, but certainly the elimination of capitalism, rape, and special-interest group hatred.

For instance, in their personal favorite number, "My Pal Foot Foot," they reveal how even a little doggie must be granted equal civil rights perhaps even extending to the voting booth. Hell, they let Nancy Reagan in! They also believe that we should jettison almost completely the high-tech society which has now perched us on the lip of global suicide, and return to third world-akin closeness with the earth, elements, nature, the seasons, as in my personal favorite on this album, "It's Halloween," which emphasizes that seasonal festivals are essential to a healthy body politic.

While not every Bangs review is astonishing or insightful, I do find that he occasionally delves into the social and aural context behind the musical work with a deal of passion and personal integrity. So much so that he really reminds me of Nietzsche fantastic review of Wagner’s symphonies: No limp referencing or namedropping, no one-minute commercial sound bite. Pure ferocity and crazy infatuation.

Perhaps as an antidote to the dwindling state of music criticism, writers should not be inducted into assembly-line mechanics, reviewing album after album after album of free PR-pushed music on a daily basis. But instead, follow the route of literary criticism and write only about tunes they feel very strongly for, be it intense dislike or worship. This would undoubtedly offer some very readable and fascinating accounts of music. Yes, more women writing critically about music would also be terribly exciting. But alas, we hardly live in a world free of commercial/consumer/ideological interest, do we?

A resource page for Lester Bangs’ work. Link

"Better than the Beatles (and DNA, Too)" - review of the Shaggs by Bangs. Link


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