Monday Musings: What’s The Use Of Critical Theory?

Posted on May 16, 2011


The critic is hung over.

I pay a certain amount of attention to critical theory, which is to say, I think about the ins and outs of what I do, as someone who makes statements in one medium that are responses to someone else’s statements in another. I also mean that I read what some other people have said on the subject, although not in a very organised way. I’m certainly not an expert on the critical theory of music, but I do think it’s important.

The critical theory of a field is more than just a theorisation of critical practice, in the way that say, music theory is a description of musical practice. It is also of necessity, a theorisation of the subject. Which might seem a bit strange in my case, since music already has music theory to account for it.

Some light is shed by a comparison with the visual arts. Art theory is the critical theory of art; the visual arts’ equivalents of music theory are things like colour theory, or indeed the expositions likely to be found in books with titles like ‘How To Draw Manga Vehicles And Mecha’. In other words, art theory and music theory, as the terms are usually used, describe different things: the first theorises meaning, and the second theorises technique. This difference exists because traditional musicology looked for the meaning of classical works (the only music worth theorising) in a close technical analysis of the harmony and melody, while art critics have tended to look at the narrative or conceptual content of works.

Art theory is common currency: artists use it to describe their work, and reviewers in non-specialist publications use its terms in their writing. No funding application would succeed without some kind of theory-speak, however cursory or incoherent. There is an appreciation that self-examination and analysis are important parts of artistic practice. The contrast is stark: in the world of music, most practitioners and critics have never even considered that there is a critical theory of music, much less consciously applied one to their activities.

I don’t usually presume to tell my readers what a piece of music means, since I believe that musical meaning is in the experience of listening, but I often talk extensively (particularly with regard to avant-garde or experimental work) about how it means, and where it means. These sorts of issues, irrespective of what you might want to say, or whether you consider them to be important or interesting, are ill-served by the language of traditional music theory. If you want to say anything more interesting than ‘I liked this’ and ‘I didn’t like that’ you are going to need some kind of theorisation of meaning and value in music, which for a critic, also amounts to a theorisation of their own practice.

I would also argue that theorising what you do is a prerequisite to competence in any field: composers need music theory to work effectively; ceramicists need to understand the behaviours of different materials at specific firing temperatures; experimental physicists need theory to explain their results; even carpenters need an abstract understanding of the relationship between the things they do and the results they achieve. It’s easy to test if someone has theorised their practice: ask them to explain what they’re doing. You may not understand their response, but if they’re able to talk about it, they have a theory. Theory is not an abstruse intellectual concept, it’s simply a word for the complex of ideas that enables us to say what we are doing, and why and how we are doing it.

What I’m not saying is that all critics should use difficult technical terms in their work, or spend their word count explicating high fallutin’ ideas: what readers want is to know whether they will like something or not, but to adequately describe music the critic needs to be able to understand and interpret it to some degree. If they can do that, they’ll have some way of talking about it; and if they can do it well, they will almost certainly have spent some time thinking seriously about how they do their thing.

Sadly, there are an awful lot of ‘music writers’ around who are not making use of any critical theory, because they are not actually writing about the music. There are a lot of ways to approach this task, and I don’t wish to claim any special status for my methods: spinning a good tale about your personal response to the music can be as valid as any pretended objectivity (we all occupy a subject position, even when blethering on as self-importantly as I am now). I self-consciously employ critical theory to get at the meanings of conceptually difficult work, but just checking your thinking when writing a straightforward valuation of a recording in a mainstream genre amounts to the same thing. The point I’d like to make, is that critical theory is a reality, a part of what critics do, and if they want to be good at their work, they should think about it.

How ironic that the majors should turn to open source software. Meanwhile, I hope as many people as possible will turn to open source music.

It’s a shame that such a hugely important figure in popular music history plans to retire from performing but I can understand why: what he has to do to go to work must be incredibly demanding, and he has certainly earned his rest.

If these remasters are good it will be very interesting to hear the difference. On the other hand, am I willing to pay some very wealthy people for having done some work a long time ago? No. I appeal to everyone not to spend money on this stuff.

Kevin Spacey is an idiot and the law is an ass. If you put your name out there, and happily reap the rewards of fame (whatever they may be), you have absolutely no right to object when people bandy said monicker about.

I almost feel a bit sorry for MySpace. Meanwhile, other platforms exist which are founded on a genuine desire to empower musicians, and on business models that are fair and unintrusive.

The majors love blaming technologies for destroying their business model: and in fact, they’re right. The world has changed, and they should stop whining: $105 million from Limewire is peanuts, and prosecuting technologists is a really short term business model. They should try selling something useful, or maybe providing a service that people want. Something shockingly innovative like that.