Monday Musings: Shall I Compare Thee To A Fashionable Obscurity?

The critic represents his homeboy's label.

I’ve been wondering, if everybody listens to their own bespoke version of musical culture, with their own preferred historical narrative, is there really any point in describing the latest band I’ve gotten into as ‘a bit like Sun Records era Elvis, with a dash of Berlin era Bowie, and an approach to haberdashery directly influenced by Jamiroquai’? Because, let’s face it, many people won’t share my points of reference, and will be unable to interpret such an eminently precise and sensible description.

I probably need to make myself a little clearer (and less facetious): if I try to describe some music by means of a comparison to some other performer or work, how useful an exercise is that? Obviously the better known the object of the comparison is, the more likely my reader will be to be familiar with their sound, and therefore the more likely they will be to grasp my meaning. Most people know what The Beatles sound like, so you’d be on pretty solid ground there; similarly with, say, Michael Jackson, or Radiohead (although, weirdly, I personally have no idea what Radiohead sound like). So the lesser known the point of comparison, the less likely it is to assist the reader in getting an idea of the sound of the subject. And I’m starting to wonder, what with listening habits becoming less monolithic, and more heterogenous, is the ubiquitous practice in music writing, of name-checking other acts at some length, of much real use any more?

Sound is not paraphrasable, and to describe it requires reference to other sounds, whether that is to general classes of sound (references to texture or instrumentation), to stylistic features (references to genres or movements), or to comparable performers. The making of comparisons is, in some sense, what writing reviews is all about, and it would be foolish to attempt to express judgements about a work or author based entirely on first principles, as that would leave you with everything to say, and also very little. But in practice, when I hear a distinct parallel between two sounds, my point of reference tends to be something so specific and obscure that it will communicate precisely nothing to the majority of my readers. I am also reluctant to start playing that game, as there is always bound to be some obvious comparison with an act so famous that it will seem a little odd that I haven’t heard of it; however, I am a little odd, and long ago gave up any attempt to stay abreast of the changing tides of fame and fortune in popular music (since the effort is rarely rewarded with any new sounds worth the bother). For these reasons I tend to stick to textural and stylistic descriptors.

Just because I make a particular choice does not mean I would wish to impose that on everybody else, however; in fact, as a reader, a review that makes several precise and apposite comparisons to acts that I am familiar with gives me a very good idea what to expect, if the reviewer is worth their salt. This is a rare event however. The big obstacle here is what might be called the post-modern condition: there is a growing lack of any stable, widely shared cultural anchors on which to hang a securely founded comparison. Cultural production and consumption have both become progressively fragmented, for reasons both of structural stylistic development (the exhaustion of experimentalism), and the complexification of social discourse (a shrinking world). Fragmentation has been with us a long time (the conditions of post-modernity largely being coterminous with, rather than subsequent to, those of modernity), but it is accelerating as the internet permits progressively smaller niches of taste to be addressed by progressively more specialised producers.

In short then, cultural touchstones are less than reliable, but the above discussion treats the making of comparisons as though it were a transparent, scientific and ideologically neutral process. This is obviously not the case (the only ideologically neutral processes I’ve heard of are purely physical ones). Clearly, to say that comparisons are ideological is an empty truism: like all cultural practices it is a complex intersection of multiple discourses, too varied and interrelated to be understood in their entirety, with meanings that can’t be made subject to the kind of objectivity that leaves its goggles at the door. Personally, I have a particular ideological reason for avoiding detailed comparison-making, which I may as well own up to now.

I don’t like hearing that something is ‘like Talking Heads’ because I feel that it validates and confirms the powerful and corrosive discourse that says Talking Heads are more valuable than other acts simply because they happen to be famous. Now, as discussed above, it’s obvious that saying a band ‘sounds like a toned down Monochus Diabolos’ is pointless, because only people from Sudbury (near where I live) have heard of the nexus of punk-metal awesomeness that is Monochus Diabolos; but to keep making recourse to the aesthetic standards of that small (and relatively conventional) subset of creative artists that has achieved global fame both valorizes fame as equivalent to artistic merit, and impoverishes the artistic vocabulary of the culture that subscribes to that canon. My agenda is to encourage listeners to seek out the unusual, the local, the creative and the bizarre, not to eat off a plate served up by a global industry; I feel that if I reinforce the notion that there is a canon of important creative innovators, who all happen (by sheer coincidence, or as an inevitable consequence of their musical genius) to be famous, my agenda is not well served. The idea of the canon is a complex one, and I’ve written about it elsewhere, so I won’t get into it in too much detail here; but I would argue that the widespread practice of making comparisons to famous artists serves to bolster the myth that the music industry is a meritocracy, which in turn undermines artistic innovation.

The other important ideological function of comparative touchstones is that a familiarity with the right ones can be used as the token of a socially valued competence; this is particularly important in determining membership in subcultures. For example, young Johnny says he’s a punk, but turns out not to have heard any Dead Kennedys records; all the cool punks in the pub laugh at him, and he goes away red-faced to listen to more records until he’s knowledgeable enough to be taken seriously. This is an important means of distinguishing the casual listeners, the wannabes and the fakes from the ‘real’ fans in many (or all) specialist interest areas of music; this is not a necessarily snobbish mechanism, inasmuch as the committed fan of a style has a justified interest in knowing whether they are talking to a kindred spirit, or to someone who is just humouring them, or trying to be cool. There can be a powerful identification between the obscure and the hip, however, which largely serves to limit membership of the ‘club’ to those who have undergone the correct initiation, and invested an important sum of cultural capital in the correct cultural products.

Much music writing is directed at a more or less specialist audience, and consequently peppered with comparisons to artists who will be familiar to the the intended reader, but whose presence will serve as a bar to the uninitiated. The trendiest will name-check obscure indie bands of interest only to the committed hipster (since their music is likely to be unremittingly dull), but the flip-side of this is a reasonable assumption that the readers of, say, a regular review column dealing with West African music, will be familiar with some of that fields historical ‘big names’. The point I would like to make is that in both cases, the reference to other artists to describe music to the potential listener serves a social as well as an aesthetic function, and that it is worth reminding yourself occasionally that it is an ideological practice that can’t avoid encoding and normalising certain assumptions, about music, and about society.

So is it meaningful, in our complicated, fragmented, fucked up society, to describe artistic activities in terms of their similarities to the work of other artists? Well of course it is a practice that carries meanings of various sorts, and it can be a useful tool in the hands of the right writer, but it is something I prefer to avoid doing, and it’s something I feel that should always be taken well salted.


  1. Interesting Oli. And it occurs to me that popular music journalism/criticism uses comparatives far more often than the other arts. Read any review of a play, ballet or art exhibition and it’s possible that you might find some comparisons, but it seems to have become imperative that music reviews compare and describe the material under review by comparison.

    I think as well as the points you make, it’s also a cultural quirk of music writing. Aspiring music writers in the past copied the reviewers in the halcyon days of music magazines when they were much more influential than they are now. In the same way as Jonny the punk is shamed for not having knowledge of the Dead Kennedys, Jonny the aspiring music journalist would be shamed for his lack of knowledge and/or ability to codify the music by comparison and the result is that comparison becomes an idiomatic aspect of ‘authentic’ music journalism.

    In the same way that cows are always the animals that are used when talking about how quick predators can reduce prey to a skeleton, somebody who looks young is always referred to as being ‘about 12’, comparative descriptions of pop music are also a meme in the sub-culture of music writing.

    Incidentally, my favourite bit of comparative description in music comes from Miles Davis who, on hearing a Kenny Garrett recording phoned to tell him “You sound like you’re wearing Sonny Stitt’s dirty drawers”!

  2. Very good points Barry, thanks for commenting. I think it certainly is part of music-journo culture to do that, and it’s a way for them to show off their knowledge, but I also think they have to do it, because most of them don’t know how to describe music. I’m not talking about technical knowledge, but just what you learn to do in a listening exercise at school, using musical and descriptive terms to talk about what you’ve just heard…

    I love the Kenny Garrett story; it’s a memorable one, which is why I remember precisely where you first heard it… (in my car on the way to a gig, reading the liner notes to my CD of Mike Clark and Paul Jackson’s ‘The Funk Stops Here’)

  3. I think you’re probably right. All this ‘Leonard Cohen meets the Beach Boys meets The Sex Pistols’ type of ‘description’ always struck me as both lazy and lacking.

    And is that really where I first heard that story? I honestly had no idea – that’s a very cool coincidence!

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