The Value of Great Notes Amid Distortion: Defending the Importance of Writing About Music

Music

A search for jobs in the field of music writing soon reveals that there is much commentary suggesting something dreadful. Such talk says not so much that the music critique is dying out – although there are many such critiques online – but suggests, perhaps, albeit implicitly, that the art-form (about another art-form) should already be dead. One audacious post even put it this way: “Let’s eradicate the evil of music journalism”.

At the risk of sounding like an apologist for phrenology or some other outdated theory, I would like to suggest that I am prepared to defend music criticism. Being a critic, it would be strange not to do so. To be honest, however, I am tired, uninspired, confused. I struggle sometimes to come up with reasons to compose about composition, to muse on music, or to write any form of art criticism. Is it not pointless? No. Let me give you some context before I explain my answer.

 

Contextualising writing about music: Why many think its gig is up

flicking through vinyls

There is a link between commonly accepted philosophy and some expressed views regarding criticism which affect music writing – a term I use to describe writing on music rather than the writing of music — as a whole. In modern times, many people have become arrogant, frequently assuming they know everything or something similar thereto. What do I mean? The political philosopher Francis Fukuyama talked about the “end of history”, which, according to Eliane Glaser, is the idea “that the great ideological battles between east and west were over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed. Now something has happened regarding not just political philosophy, but knowledge and truth in general.

Individuals and their friends often feel that they have triumphed when it comes to knowing all about how the world works. There is also, though, another significant group who believe that nothing can be known for certain or that there is no value in building knowledge. One could call the ideas of both groups the end of the conscious pursuit of knowledge for those that adhere to them, either because these adherents believe they possess all important knowledge, or because they believe they cannot or should not seek to acquire it. This has led to a lack of interest in reading writing about music and a disregard for those who claim to know better than others.

Related to the apparent growth of scepticism and relativism among the masses is another related trend. Lots of people say there is no right or wrong in terms of morality as well as knowledge. This has led to the promotion of pluralism, which Miriam-Webster defines in this way:

“ a situation in which people of different social classes, religions, races, etc., are together in a society but continue to have their different traditions and interests”. The same dictionary also says pluralism is “the belief that people […in those different groups] should live together in a society”.

The impact of pluralism as a tastemaker – not just morally but also in a purely musical sense – can be seen in the eclectic musical tastes of many young adults. On this writer’s iPod, for example, N.W.A. shares space with a Tribe Called Quest, Guns ‘N Roses with Nirvana, and Radiohead and Slipknot with Michael Jackson and The Eagles. This wide palette of sounds to choose from – which in themselves function as media (conveying information about themselves if nothing else) – and the oft-talked-about state of plenty when it comes to accurate (and less helpful) information about music being made available online, mean that people, while not claiming to possess all the music or writing about it that there is, have access to seemingly endless amounts of good and bad music available for little or no cost.

In such an environment, it is little wonder that music writing is less popular and less lucrative than it once was. When access to media (including music itself) is instant, there is no use, it is argued, in bothering to read something published a day or week after media is first available. With this and the proliferation of music blogs and other music-related sites, not to mention the surviving print journalism on the subject, comes an apparent devaluation of criticism and decent reviews.

Few sites, it seems, actually pay money for music writing, while even fewer pay a decent amount. This exacerbates the writer’s predicament. With all this in mind, it can be hard to remember the reasons for music writing, even though there are at least a fair number of them which spring to mind.

 

Why write about music?

someone playing the guitar

There are at least several music blogs that recognise that there is music out there that does not get the attention it deserves, and some of these have as part of their mission the idea that such music should be given more exposure. Thus new artists can be discovered. One may think that one can find all the necessary music without such a gateway, and perhaps one can, but this would be unlikely, or less efficient, without some kind of filter. Just as a thousand shouts of stupidity from the mob can drown out one reasonable voice, so can masses of bad or mediocre music obscure the good material, and, while a highlighter is not always necessary to make something outstanding, it certainly helps bring attention to that which one needs to remember.

Of course, this kind of streamlining is not going to suit everyone; some great talents may be missed, or something which is less fine promoted. However, whose filtering system would be perfect, unless one only allows oneself to listen to what one thinks is great without going into the risky unknown which is arguably a flaw itself because it is too complacent and limited? Music writing allows one to enjoy what is new and brilliant or revisit older classics without only limiting oneself to one’s own pool of musical knowledge. This is especially true as music journalists often discover brilliant talent before the average reader even has a chance to do so.

Music writing, if done well, gives the reader a greater insight into musicians and/or their work, describing it, critiquing it and/or contextualising it. Some of it can also give us additional information or speculation. Therefore, music writing is an important part of modern criticism, literature, philosophy and even art itself. Though it seeks to critique some art, it is itself an art-form deserving of recognition as art, and should be celebrated as such. Also, this is even true of brief comments on social media and elsewhere, there are of course, just as in music, superior manifestations of this form also, and these great expressions of criticism deserve attention and evaluation just as much as the music they seek to assess positively or negatively.

While one writer at Village Voice told “aspiring music writers” to “quit now”, another at the same publication said to the same group, “Don’t quit, just don’t suck” in response. If every music writer follows the negative side of this argument by hanging up their critical boots, the art-form of writing about music will definitely die.

Music writers are not all dinosaurs and do not all need to get bankrupted, rendered irrelevant or wiped out by the enormous meteor that is the internet. They are important artists who need to keep contributing to the conversation, and to do so excellently. The audience, meanwhile, need to accept that, while there may be not right or wrong when it comes to taste, there is good or bad art and people who know how to find the better material and write about it more superbly than others. Just as in sport or music, not everyone is equal in terms of skills. This truth should be respected by writers also.

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