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Free Admission:
Coming to Terms with Writing about Music

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Dusted's Ben Tausig takes a look at the role of music criticism and its potential (and ceiling) as a tool and a companion. The options for discovering different kinds of music journalism and criticism today are abundant, even saturated, but how much of it is a good read? And what makes it so? Comment on this piece at Dusted's forum.

Free Admission:
Coming to Terms with Writing about Music

Music is culturally relevant sound, where societies establish relevance. They do so by selectively transforming dumb aural phenomena into suggestive communication. Music = sound + meaning. For human beings, this process is catalyzed by musical events; events which function to present, disseminate, or exchange music. Concatenations of such events over time are the process by which sound becomes music, and music becomes meaningful .

The act of writing about music is a proposition to articulate a conduit between people and the musical events that they have not experienced firsthand, or of which they have an incomplete cognizance. The scrupulous writer is one compelled to make more than a casual commitment to detection of, appreciation for, and participation in music and its attendant cultures.

Music demands and informs so much of whatever atmosphere it touches that it can best be understood, through the limited lens of intellect (which is the highest card that cultural critics hold, and it’s maybe a Jack or a Ten at best), as the axis on which certain events rotate. Examples of musical events are 1) performances, 2) recordings, 3) neighborhoods, and 4) collections. Musical events are the real and hypothetical contexts where music gains meaning over time, and where it spits out reconstituted meanings based on what’s been fed in.

The major limitation of music writing is that it can only burrow as deeply as a good explanation of these contexts will allow. The challenge of being a music writer is that, communicating strictly through language, one can only describe music circuitously, by contextual taxonomy and historical narrative on the one hand and montage, metaphor, and poetic artifice on the other. Popular music writing is therefore sophistry, an equivocation. It has little to do with music.

A music writer can explain histories of events, such as the lineage of a genre or the story of a city, and she can discuss the properties and arrangements of sound, but the shape of her craft prohibits her from discussing music. She can explain the parts but not the whole. She can define hydrogen and oxygen but she cannot tell you in any number of volumes how water tastes, much less how cold water tastes on a hot day. Musical discussions require the vital presence of sound, not a representation or incidental inclusion thereof. Music is a musical discussion, and nothing else is.

Frequently the purpose of writing on music is to fill as many cultural roles as music engages senses. The music writer works as a salesperson, librarian, curator, and philosopher. This plethora of social functions is a compensation for the limitations of the trade. Music writing lacks the constitution to engage the intellect and the senses at once, a combination which is satisfyingly realized by music all the time. But it admires its eclectic subject and so strives to emulate, in parallel, that grand variety. Ambitious music writing can succeed, even fly, but the fate of this particular kind of ambition is inevitably failure.

Even great music writing tends to be (and cannot always deliberately escape being) a salespitch, but is redeemed to some degree when actively advancing the notion that the art under discussion is something other than a commodity. It is in fact, in its essence, something else entirely. How to do this? There are limitless ways. The better question is how not to do this; such is the more exhaustible topic, and illuminates the sad destiny of the music writer who lacks the wisdom of realizing the essential limitations he faces. Many critical outlets fail by mapping the value of music on a relative scale (i.e. rating a record with a number between 1-10, or giving it a letter grade). This common methodology renders any discussion subservient to the broader, refractory “truth” of music fitting one of a limited number of categories. On the other hand, a well-reasoned essay on its own permits the same kinds of interpretive ambiguity which art requires for the sake of its own health and perpetuation. A writer with particular designs dives headfirst into the maelstrom of selling, cataloguing, curating, and philosophizing, perhaps sensing free concert tickets. He is an aggressive social capitalist, more than ready to perform the necessary chores to sit in the highest seat, ever in the pockets of record labels. The record labels are satisfied to have willing opinion leaders at their beck and call. Interpretation in the manner of Such magazines and writers are the death of music at the hands of social and economic profiteers.

Certain music writers, like Greg Tate and Kodwo Eshun, explain music through poetry. Tate is a poet in sympathy: His intention is to speak the language of the people who produce and consume the music he writes about. Eshun’s is a poetics borne of frustration. Traditional music writing in the U. S. and Britain privileges rock ‘n’ roll as blindly as it privileges the rigid conventions of written language, and its staidness demands a violent antithesis of wandering thoughts and esoteric neologisms. Neither brings music writing any closer to discussing music directly, though both are worthwhile for being entertaining and earnest.

The Wire is a more grounded manifestation of the same approach (Eshun sometimes writes for The Wire). Reading it requires a mental dictionary of experience and familiarity with the content. For those knowledgeable enough to comprehend the issues at stake, it’s a smart approach. But can a comprehensive knowledge of music history bring us any closer to music than sales and trend-oriented buzzwords can? No. Historical references as the building blocks of an esoteric language simply become themselves a complicated set of buzzwords. The Wire is a good tool for people who begin as experts. It represents a nearly perfect approach, but for a decidedly niche audience.

Music writing seeking to be music cannot be; such is a goal that will never be realized. Rather, music writing should allow some space for its own brilliance, for important moments of insight. When music writing uses its own brilliance as a means of honestly assessing music, and producing the most utilizable conduit for the reader, then music writing can truly be said to speak “about” music.

Music writing should be to music what poetry is to life/death/nature, an exercise in language which succeeds when its brilliance transcends innate limitations and the fact that it stands in eternal reverence to a fixed subject. Good music writing – an interdisciplinary convergence of clever insight, poetry, and rational discourse – can function as art on its own, art with the clear mandate of communication, which cannot cross the boundaries of a fixed subject matter but which mysteriously seems as though it’s saying more. So the best music writing hides its own secrets in plain view.

By Ben Tausig

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