Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Random Notes

This isn't an essay as much as a series of accumulated observations on the subject of music criticism. Many of these statements are offered as unsubstantiated assertions, and can be easily disputed / disregarded as you desire.

The bulk of rock music criticism is defined by the unproductive conflict of two diametrically opposed schools of thought. On the one hand, we inherit the prejudices of an imposing generation of critics who came of age at the dawn of the rock era (>cough< Greil Marcus >cough<) and who exercise a strict definition of rock music that excludes anything recorded after approximately 1972 from the canon. Under this model, every subsequent development is dismissed as errata or apocrypha, the musical equivalent of fan fiction. Additionally, most rock music can be judged on its relationship to a very parochial idea of American roots music, or the very early British interpolation thereof.

On the other, we have the current bleeding-edge model of music as fashion, a mode that persists in the process of constantly colonizing new sounds and leaving behind each successive development before they can be allowed to reach maturation. Bands are allowed perhaps ten minutes in which to appear, crystallize, and whither into dust.

Both of these generalizations are essentially unfalsifiable stereotypes, but few people would dispute the existence of these types in some iteration.

No art form is more defined by its relation to affect and emotional response than pop music. Even professional music criticism as often as not falls back on symptomatic descriptions of emotional response.

The alternative to this brand of affective reaction is to regard music almost exclusively through the dimension of performance, a model that necessarily underemphasizes the formal aspects of music. This does not necessarily have to exist in opposition to affective readings, and indeed, in practice this type of performative rhetoric often depends on an active engagement with the affective vocabulary as well.

Most - but not all - pop music criticism operates from a position of almost no familiarity with conventional music theory. Pop music criticism that does incorporate theory seems oppressively wonky in a way that technical critiques of classical or jazz usually do not.

It is very likely that we will live to see the death of rock music as a popular genre. This does not mean that rock & roll will die, but that it will undergo the same transformation that jazz experienced during the early years of rock. It will become the province of older, mostly white, mostly well-off aesthetes who have the time and inclination to keep a boutique genre alive through active curatorial interest.

I am not convinced that this is a bad idea. It has already begun, for the most part: widely popular rock bands are increasingly rare, and most of the movement in interesting and critically-acclaimed rock music already occurs at a significant remove from the pop market. Aficionados of "good" rock music are already likely as not to be economically well-off and educated: when music becomes fashion, only the fashionable will be inclined to follow.

The embrace of rock music as an affection of hipster culture has done as much as anything to drive the music away from popular audiences. The success of the Strokes in the early years of the preceding decade was the first concrete indication that music culture was changing: the widespread popularity of a group seemingly custom-designed to be appreciated exclusively either by educated rock critics or fashion-forward twenty-somethings was a harbinger of the decadence that defined the decade's music culture.

The decadent movement of the aughts reiterated the sincerity of previous forms of pop expression through a lens of ironic distance. Irony as an adjective is often misused and even more often misunderstood. It is not necessary that irony be smirking or satirical, merely reflexively self-referential. The prophylactic distance implied by irony does not necessarily imply a pejorative value judgment, and is often unintentional. It is simply a function of a musical culture built almost entirely on appropriation. Rock is built on theft, and the earliest rock & rollers all understood the irony of their positions. It was only after the sixties that irony was lost, however temporarily, eventually to be reconquered by the punks.

Hip-hop is built atop successive layers of irony in the same way a brick building is built on layers of masonry.

The color-line tension that engulfed blues and jazz as these forms made the transition from popular art forms to curatorial art forms seems to be replicating itself in contemporary rock as well, albeit in a strangely mutated form. The further removed from the mass audience rock recedes, the more anxiety surfaces over the genre's ambiguous relationship to contemporary black culture. (See: any piece of writing by Sasha Frere-Jones.)

Eventually, when rock enters its terminal decline as a popular form and begins its afterlife as a curatorial genre, the form will have to recreate its own theoretical discourse. Again, as with blues and jazz, the decline of popularity will bring with it inversely proportional attention from predominantly white academics and historians.

There is always the possibility that rock will rejuvenate itself and become once again a popular art form. I do not necessarily believe that this is unlikely, but for the moment it does not appear as if it will happen anytime soon.

Will rock have to die before an intelligent critical culture arises around the genre? An examination of the field shows that it is only in the last fifteen or so years that academics have begun to write about rock in any significant numbers. The field is growing, but as with comic studies the field has yet to cohere in any meaningfully centralized fashion beyond a number of very enthusiastic, decentralized writers working in a scattershot fashion.

The way I listen to music has become increasingly curatorial. I notice in my listening habits an increased tendency - or at least a strong desire - to undermine or deemphasize emotional experience in music in favor of formal novelty and historical significance. I am frustrated, perhaps unjustifiably, with the shape of popular music criticism, which is largely defined by fashion and fannish enthusiasm. But even just vocalizing this complaint seems bizarre and the articulation thereof reflects an attitude towards music that is probably diametrically opposed to the way most people experience the medium.

There is a tendency within me to pull in the direction of Clement Greenberg in my tastes. There's something about minimalism that seems to be - for me - the consequence of the natural progression of aesthetics. A truly minimal sound is the apotheosis of sound. The problem is that, of course, once you achieve minimalism there's nowhere to go but up.

Minimalism as a genre in visual art eventually destabilized itself, sprouting tendrils before tentatively returning to representation in the fifties and then transforming into full-blown pop by the sixties. Minimalism in music led to some very nice work being done on the Kompakt label and a few other affiliated movements but really, where do you go from there? At some point in the last few years I realized that Richie Hawtin had already pushed the envelope of minimalism as far as it can go with DE9 / Transitions - which was released six years ago. It is possible to still be minimal, and good work is still done with less, but over the last few years much of the movement in techno has been a push backwards from sparseness and into a new engagement with illustrative sound. I think the Field is probably the paradigmatic artist of the last five years as far as that movement is concerned, and I look forward to his new album with great interest.

But as I say this I also realize that my own personal listening habits are nowhere near as Apollonian as I would like to believe, or that I would like others to believe. We're all guilty of nostalgia and we're all guilty of lapsing into purely habituated affective response. Otherwise, how else would I explain something like driving around in my car all summer listening to Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" on repeat? There's a hypocrisy implicit in any kind of proscriptive aesthetic program, especially in reference to music. The emotional immediacy of music is a phenomena that often exists beyond the realm of consciousness. Sometimes we are moved despite ourselves by frankly inferior examples of form.

The strength of great pop music lies in its ability to traverse the space between formal ingenuity and emotional novelty. Pop music is an extremely regimented genre, built almost wholly on the interplay of a relatively small number of melodic, harmonic, and lyrical effects welded to the grid-like precision of the 4/4 backbeat. The ability of musicians to consistently transcend this essential limitation of form is endlessly fascinating.

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