I’ve been wondering about the way that I choose what music to write about, what the reasons for those choices are, and what the consequences of them might be. I feel I’ve been fairly rigorous in examining the way I think and write about specific pieces of music in detail, and I’ve gone to the effort of engaging with (relatively) current schools of thought in critical theory in order to inform my thinking. But this basic question, related both to my personal tastes and to the utility of my blogging, has remained something of a black box. I decided to have a poke around and see what I could break…
Every human being is a unique individual, and inherently valuable; what’s precious about them, moreover, is somehow connected to their uniqueness, their particularity. Trees, on the other hand… well, one’s much the same as another. Agree or disagree with these statements, there are certainly a lot of people who subscribe to both, but today I’m rambling aimlessly on in my inimitable style about aesthetics, and I get the impression that commonplace aesthetic responses reverse those positions.
I’m decidedly omnivorous in my musical tastes; if you read my blog regularly, you know this. If not, a quick glance at the genres of the music I’ve reviewed in the past few months should confirm it pretty rapidly. Taste, however, is a matter of discrimination, of distinguishing one thing from another, and if I deny myself the use of genre as a basis for taste, I’m refusing what is probably the most widespread single criterion for forming musical value judgements.
Every so often the liberal press likes to get up a nice bit of moral panic about ragga/ rap/ whatever singers’ appalling attitudes towards women, or exhorting their listeners to shoot gays; usually the right wing press likes to join in as well, as it’s a good excuse for them to trot out their ongoing concerns about black people, with their primitive passions and oversized penises (well, they don’t say that out loud any more, but the subtext is still there). So there’s that, but we need a few more examples. There’s a well known song in Britain which expresses a desire for Marshall Wade to ‘…like a torrent rush/ rebellious Scots to crush’
I often mention in the reviews I write, that I locate musical meaning in the experience of listening. This is in contrast to linguistic meanings, which are located somewhere other than the sound of the language, which points you at ideas to which it is only arbitrarily connected. This can be a difficult thing to grasp: this is what it sounds like, one might say, but what does it mean? If it means anything, then it must be something further, or deeper, than just its sound: otherwise, the word ‘meaning’ doesn’t really mean anything, does it? Or even if we concede that it does, surely a form of art that means only what it sounds like, is self-referential, abstract and navel-gazing?
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.
Every so often in the history of music, something big happens. Beethoven comes along and suddenly everyone views artists (not just in music) in a new, heroic light. Punk explodes like a thermonuclear device, and suddenly popular music is a politicised site of struggle and revolution. Miles Davis releases Kind Of Blue and suddenly jazz harmony is revolutionised. As you can imagine, if you read me regularly, I’m not about to take these events at face value: there’s a great deal of mythologising to be unpicked around these, and other, moments.
There’s a broad classification of musical types that has some common currency, in artistic, marketing and academic circles. I want to briefly consider what it is, where it draws the lines between musics, whether it holds water, and what use it might be to those of us that think about music for whatever reason. There’s two additional widespread categories I could add to art, folk and popular music: jazz and world music. When I was training to teach music, my knowledge of music was assessed through a questionnaire which classified music on this basis…
My thinking in various areas has been converging in recent months. For a while this weekly series of essays was alternating between pieces on the music industry, and pieces on music criticism: it’s getting steadily harder for me to maintain that distinction. For one thing, my valuations of music are not entirely independent of my position on various aspects of musical production: recordings that contain audible signs of artistic integrity tend to sound better to me than those that sound as though they were made with the market in mind.
Myths are everywhere, wrapped around common currency ideas, giving shape to our cultural narratives, and putting filters on the lenses of our minds. There’s a ‘myth’ about myths: it says that a myth is wrong. The term ‘urban myth’ perpetuates this usage, but that kind of a myth, the erroneous legend, is just a part of a broader class of ideological structure. King Arthur is a myth: a powerful narrative and conceptual complex, structured around the locus of a figure that may or may not have existed.
There are some really skilled musicians around with very little to say: there are also some players with a very rudimentary technique who are able to stretch it into work of huge creative ambition. There are many more whose artistic strategies are too dependent on their technical aptitude to permit them to range very widely, or to produce much variety throughout their career, and on the other hand, there are those whose artistic vision outstrips their technical capacity to realise it.
Music fans very often want to know something about the author of their favourite sounds. It is a widespread assumption that details of an artist’s biography or personality can provide an insight into their art: while this may or may not be the case, it is undeniable that the idea of the artist, as it exists in the mind of the listener/ viewer/ reader, has a significant effect on the way that they interpret the work. Artists may adopt a variety of strategies to make the author a greater or lesser presence in the work, to make it more or less impersonal.
How often does someone say ‘you must listen to/ read/ watch cultural artifact X’? How often is it assumed that you are familiar with a particular album, or does someone express shock that you are unfamiliar with another? This week’s topic concerns the cultural canon, and the idea of a mainstream. Certain artworks or artists can uncontroversially be described as canonical: in popular music, Elvis, The Beatles, Madonna and a number of others are likely to have made an impact on more or less everybody’s awareness.