Friday, May 22, 2009

To hell with critics

When it comes to critical observations, I think it's important to point out that no one's personal choices are any better than anyone else's. Everyone has their own reasons for aesthetic response to the world around them. Those who insist on being gatekeepers are liars. They are no better than politicians. I have spent my life reviewing musical performances and I know for sure that my opinions are worthless. At least I'm willing to admit it. If my words can illuminate something I've heard to the point where someone else understands why I was so moved then I have done a good job.


Alex Rawls said...

One of the most interesting takes I heard on this question came from the late New Orleans artist John Scott, who said that people often mistake like and dislike for good and bad - that people deem the stuff they like as good and the stuff they don't as bad.

I believe we choose music according to what we value, even if that leads people to like bad music. Some metal and punk fans value velocity to such an extreme that anything hard and fast makes the cut, and I know some people who believe that most singer/songwriters are speaking straight from the heart, and they like them for that reason. Jimmy Buffett's career can be explained by the way he inhabits the Florida Getaway fantasy.

Then again, I've never thought of criticism as directly useful in terms of leading readers to buy or not buy an album. Readers may be looking for guidance, but anyone who tells a mass readership what they will or won't like is lying. But I don't think what we do is worthless. Giving people a sense of an album is a way to give them a form of guidance, and putting some thoughts into the world so that they're slightly more thoughtful consumers than they work before reading the review seems very valuable to me.

John Swenson said...

My point is that my opinion on its own is worthless, or to put a finer point on it worth no more or less than anyone else's opinion. The more reviews I write the more convinced of this I become. My ability to explain what I like or dislike about something is another story, but experience has taught me that no matter how well I express myself it's not going to change the mind of someone whose opinion differs from mine. Just because I like or dislike something doesn't change its value to someone who has a different aesthetic response. Pronouncing judgment based on my personal taste is pretentious and shortsighted. Also, I resist the demand to boil all aesthetic experience down to a top 10 or top 5 list, or to one to five stars. There are a lot of people in the business of arts criticism who make their living doing exactly that. A long, long time ago I knew people who weren't afraid to argue against this point of view but they're all gone now and since I've been marginalized to the world of the digital soapbox I have nothing to lose by telling the truth as I see it. The game of tastemaker and gatekeeper is a game I really want no part of. Thanks for your response, by the way.

Alex Rawls said...

When people talk about guilty pleasures, they're acknowledging the difference between like/dislike and good/bad whether they realize it or not. They've hit that instance where their likes and sense of "good" music conflict, and they assign the song in question to the "guilty pleasure" category.

I can't agree entirely with your stance on reviewing and the value of our opinions. If we know more and thought more about any given subject, then our opinion is likely at least a little more valuable than someone else's. That doesn't mean readers will take it that way - there I agree with you entirely - but I'm not sure that's a reason to denigrate what we do.

I do sometimes wonder if I'm really any better at separating like and good, though, and if I'm just flattering myself to think I do. Usually the answer I come with is that I do, and it's not just coincidence that I like most of the music I review positively; it's the breadth of my interests and thoughts on music speaking. And I don't like them all with equal passion. Some music that I review positively I enjoy for the duration of the review process, after which I'm fairly certain I won't listen to it again because it doesn't do the things I value most.