22 August 2009

Fear of Music (Again)

Haven't you heard? Music is dead, a cadaver quivering coldly on the edge of the rave. Music writers, the poor dears, say nothing of note. In the hot, sweaty summer of 2009, this has been the concern of many heavyweight thinkers. Take Mark Fisher's requiem for dance music in the New Statesman, John Harris's elegy for music journalism in the Saturday Guardian, the Drowned in Sound series Music Journalism: RIP? or Simon Reynolds's criticisms of club culture in the Wire and on his own blog. Enough is enough. It is time to tackle these quibbles, look up, and take action.
Jude Rogers writing here. It’s possible that the entire thing is a prank: note the close proximity of the words ‘heavyweight thinker’ to the name John Harris.

I was far more depressed reading Rogers’ piece than I was when reading any of the quibblers she’s trying to call time on. Yoking together such a disparate body of opinion and writing it all off as moaning is absurd, but given the word count, I suppose straw men were necessary in order to get her own theory in. But it gets weirder. A David Byrne installation and some impromptu folk-singing session remind Rogers that
music is our tool to work with, and we can do with it what we wish, if we engage with it. Critics often forget this. They ignore the glimpses of light that the modern world offers, and prefer to bask in the nostalgia of their formative experiences.
There are all kinds of slippages going on here. Who is the ‘we‘? Critics? Listeners? Everyone? (A royal plural?) It seems to be in flux. This working and engaging, is it making one‘s own music or a different kind of criticism? . . . So far as it applies to the errant writers previously named and shamed, Rogers’ argument must be that if they just worked harder at liking things, they would find that they could like absolutely anything. Music being a simple ’tool’, you can make of it what you will (‘You only get out what you put in!’). And that would be better because it wouldn’t get Jude Rogers down so much.

Rogers has more to say about these critics wrongheaded enough to engage in critical thinking:
Just because they, like me, are no longer fearlessly young, and not experiencing movements and the draw of musicians for the first time, they shouldn't forget that other people are. What's more, they do little to get up and change things, and instead prefer to get themselves, and us, down.
What these writers actually ‘did’ was to word their critiques and publish them, unlike Rogers who has . . . written a critique and published it. Why the assumption that the aim of those pieces was not to inspire any action or change any minds but just to, you know, ruin people’s day?

You could put the complaints down to an unconscious animus against criticism. You know, the attitude that says music is music, do we have to talk/think about it? But these two words apply to very unstable categories and there’s a free exchange between them; music is implicitly an act of criticism, and critics can drive musical change, by feeding ideas back into that process, whether they’re Kode9 or Paul Morley. The true sentimentalization of the past happening here is the idea that we must side blindly with the kids, following the self-evidently false assumption that music is always in rude health, that those diagnosing it as palsied or amnesiac or sedated are just old people, and they’re ruining it for the yoot. All musical years are not equal; some are a lot fucking better than others. ('I’d be the first to say that DMZ is no Metalheadz! Or that I wish I’d been there for Bukem' as one buffoon empiricist, oddly, admits.) The thing being wished for here, is not some pure direct access to music as such, but simply the warm amniotic glow of feeling that everything is OK. It’s not just a fear of music that might be bad, and the burden of having to decide if it is, because that is inextricable from any experience of music. In its terror of actually having to think, critique and evaluate rather than apply fingers to ears and go lalala, and in its fear of finding out what music actually is, Rogers’ argument is not just a fear of criticism. It’s a fear of music itself.

This determination to think oneself into a state of deaf complacency is like a parody of critical engagement by way of positive-feedback techniques misappropriated from CBT. It's the kind of thing that leads you to swallow whatever you’re offered. The kind of thinking that leads you to realize, like Jude Rogers, only in 2009 that Blur and Britpop c. ’96 were over-rated, or that Tony Blair wasn’t the socially progressive messiah he presented himself as.

I don’t want to sleepwalk through the next fifteen years of music, culture and politics, and I don’t have to. Because critical thinking is our tool to work with, and we can get things done with it if we engage it. People often forget this. They ignore the glimpses of light that criticism offers, and prefer to bask in the safe sentimentality of their formative experiences.


Anonymous said...

A Reader Responds:

Bo Selecta!

bullfeeney said...

Good piece. And I enjoy the blog overall. The Guardian article is depressingly reminiscent of one of those interventions in a political argument when someone says, "stop, stop it all of you, I don't care about left wing or right wing, why can't people just get along with each other." A sentiment whose sheer simple mindedness makes it unimpeachable for a few seconds. It's a bit like that Blair argument, forget all the ideology, let's just get together and do what's right. Because what's the point in actually having intelligence if it must be subsumed under the worship of whatever is popular at the time. Follow the logic and we'd all have worshipped Northside, Candy Flip, Flowered Up etc. around the time of the Madchester thing before thrilling to Sleeper, Gene and Elastica in those glorious Brit Pop days. It's an echo of all those interviews when Noel Gallagher does that, 'I don't care about all that poncey art school shite, I just want to play rock and roll,' number. And, as the child of folkie parents, I think there are few more depressing spectacles than a Sidmouth style singalong which is often as artificial as anything dreamt up by Louis Walsh, secondary school teachers pretending that they're poachers and sailors etc. Like I said, good blog. Fair play to you.

Sam Davies said...

Thanks bullfeeney - you remind me of a really important aspect to this that I left out of the original post. Namely, the Drowned in Sound series was all about the falling sales in the music press. One of the major reasons for this fall is the fact that as consumer guides most are useless. You know that any reasonably well-backed indie band - Razorlight et al - will get a glowing 4/5, because editorially the magazine daren't scare off major label advertizing money. The forced positivity, the oppressive salesmanship at work in this hype for whatever's out that week / month, the disconnect from any critical reality, it all ends up turning readers away.

Bobby said...

Jude Rogers - the thinking man's Jo Whiley?

Sam Davies said...

Bobby: *cannot compute*

sarah toa said...

Is this post a music citic's critic's critique?

Sam Davies said...

Yeah I guess it is... but only in that any discussion of criticism becomes a critique of a critique of a critique ad infinitum.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, you stick it to her. Enthusiasm is SO anti-intellectual isn't it? I only hang out with clever people. You can tell they're clever because they wear black, and relentlessly snipe away at how phoney everything popular is like a bunch of Holden Caulfields trapped in the act of auto-analingus. And you can tell I'm clever because I hang around with people just like me. And we critique and critique and critique all the god given day long. What fun we have.