moments before the wind.

April 8, 2006

waiting in line for the ferry

Filed under: authenticity, music, reviews, writing — alimarcus @ 12:52 pm

The OED's first two definitions of "criticism" are as follows:

1. The action of criticizing, or passing judgement upon the qualities or merits of anything; esp. the passing of unfavourable judgement; fault-finding, censure.

2. The art of estimating the qualities and character of literary or artistic work; the function or work of a critic.
This exposes a common confusion about what to expect from critics, musical and otherwise. What some people simply call "judgement", others would call "positive criticism" or "negative criticism." Many people will notice that it is much easier to criticize than to plainly describe a work; it's a natural reaction to think "I like this," or "I don't like that." It is usually more of a challenge to point out specific characteristics from an objective stance. It also, people often note, requires an amount of musical vocabulary that people often lack.

The difference between OED definitions #1 and #2 is that #1 is the common public conception of the meaning of "criticism." The truth is, though, #2 is usually expected of most critics. I am discovering this as I write more and more music reviews for editors, and absorb their advice, input, and goals. What I see is happening though, is that objectivity itself, the act of merely describing, is strikingly biased as well.

Writing a review of some music that I don't think is particularly stellar is what's hardest, because what I really want to do is describe all its failures. Do the musicians involved really want to hear that? I should hope so! They should not be so quick to take just one writer at her word anyways, and besides nobody is capable of avoiding conflict. If they think they are, or if they wish they could, then their priorities are not in the right place. I think without making a conscious decision to be this way, I am a major supporter of the Socratic Method – or my version of it anyways.

It makes sense to me that there will be many more 'bad' reviews than 'good' ones. This is representative of the general quality of music out there: there is so much more bad than good. Most music is mediocre at best. I realize that I am a more critical person than most (in the sense of def. #1), and I fully believe that the relative few treasures more than make up the lack in everything else. And I also acknowledge the pleasure derived from ripping on awful music; though I can't in any way make that sound anything but malicious, it's nevertheless true. I love to bash awful music.

Some people argue that it doesn't do any good to be so negative. So many bands are struggling just to keep on it; why would somebody want to expend the extra effort just to further discourage them? Well, in the example of certain horrible bands, I would say that that is precisely my goal. I would also say that opening a discussion on a band is nothing but good for that band, because there is always someone else with a different opinion, and writing about it brings it into people's conscious thoughts. Any press is good press. Besides, if you ask me, it's the rare musician who really has what it takes to perservere, and I am not even referring to musical skill. If someone has it in them, that alone will get him where he needs to go. That's the kind of faith I have, and it's the kind of faith you need in order to keep on it.Of course, maintaining this kind of faith is what prompts me to seek it out in others. The people I have surrounded myself with are recognizably radiant in it, and the musicians I respect, whether I know them personally or not, are similarly aglow. And this is what I mean about being objective; a critic can only be objective within her own worldview. Even when I try my damndest to avoid a bias, it's only some poetic ambiguity, or distanced technical language that is a device for feigning interest. I want to add, also, that the challenge of this kind of writing is strangely enticing as well – sort of an exercise in subtlety.

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