“When the critic has said everything in his power about a literary text, he has still said nothing; for the very existence of literature implies that it cannot be replaced by non-literature.” Tzvetan Todorov
“Fuck y’all, all ya’ll / if ya’ll don’t like me, blow me” Dr. Dre
In The Simpsons Episode 229 (“Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner”), Homer’s ability to speak eloquently and evocatively about food—from his own gluttonous experience—earns him a position as a restaurant critic. His early enthusiastic reviews attract the gratitude of the restaurateurs and the scorn of fellow critics who see his approach as too easy and, I suspect, unsophisticated and popularizing.
Under the spell of the evil critics’ cabal, Homer becomes an all too easily recognizable caricature of a critic who barely deigns to judge his material and whose blistering reviews can be explained only by how elevated and sophisticated his taste has become. Of course, Homer can’t have it both ways—he cannot be the food-loving hero of the people and the gastronomic esthete. The restaurateurs conspire to poison him.
What does this have to do with music? It flirts with several issues at the center of criticism—issues that make the act of reviewing or judging music, for me, nearly paralyzing. What is the relationship between the critic and the object of criticism? Is it love for the form/genre? Is there a profit/commodification link between the two?
These questions are not restricted to food and music—indeed, anyone who has followed the 20th century crises in literary criticism will recognize some of the same issues. Why does a critic make judgments? Is it to understand the specific instance of a genre or the genre as a whole? Or, more problematically, how can we tell when the review stops being (primarily) about the object of criticism and instead is really about the critic?
In reverse order. Criticism almost always reveals more about the judge than the judged. And this isn’t a bad thing. For instance, each generation’s reaction to Shakespeare communicates the values, emphases, and historical contexts of that time. On the other hand, a great deal of criticism suffers from personality cults. Too many critics write for the purpose of glorifying the critic by revealing through the sensitivity of the critic’s judgments and the dexterity of his/her writing the superiority of the critic over the creator of the object, other critics, and, of course, the reader.
Why does a critic make judgments? For the bad critic, it is, as I have implied, to advertise his/her own excellence. For the good critic, I think, it is in an attempt to understand better not just the specific object of criticism but also the general field or genre that gives that object context—by which I mean that it is through the practice of criticism that we slowly define art forms, come to understand them, and through these understandings participate, in some small part, in their creation and reception. Practicing criticism is the ‘examined’ way to enjoy an art form (and this, I think, is worthwhile for the professional and amateur alike).
How does a critic relate to the object? To be a good critic, one must have something at stake in the act of judgment—an affinity for the form in general, an appreciation for the specific iteration, a desire to contribute to the art when one cannot be (because of skill) or is not (in this regard) the artist. The worst motive, for me, is one of profit. This is where Homer Simpson meets the bad critic—certain readers enjoy the insider’s pose of reading the damning and superior critic; by affiliating with the harsher judgment of the sophisticate—and by absorbing the clever and destructive prose—we hope to claim for ourselves some measure of sophistication. Therefore, we pay a premium for this type of exclusive criticism.
But the relationship between the critic and the object is really like a series of mirrors set next to each other at slightly changing angles. The product, which can mostly be enjoyed by external observers, is always shifting as the two sides are redefined in each other’s terms. The act of judgment teaches us as much about the critic as the object of criticism.
This entire discussion, as tortured and hateful as it is, has been a long preface to a short justification. On this blog, the Younger J and I often review albums (and live shows). Before doing so (or, in reality, after writing a few) it is necessary to justify reviewing albums that are 25+ years old. See, typically, album reviews could exist for commodity’s sake—they let you know if you might want to purchase an album. Because we treat music primarily as a commodity, the art form itself has become disposable—albums are released, they are reviewed, some singles are released, the end.
But, as the Younger J and I insist, if pop music is to be considered an art form it must be amenable to the same type of treatment as other art forms. An album shouldn’t be reviewed just for the sake of wishy-washy consumers who might want to buy it. No, it should be reviewed for its own sake; an enduring piece of art should be re-engaged with each generation to teach us more about the art and more about ourselves.
And, since these essays are also personal (and, I fear, solipsistic), the act of reviewing will also teach me (and the Brother!) more about me. By interrogating our favorite pieces of music, by attempting to relate them to ideal forms, by endeavoring to articulate what it is that attracts us to them, we will, in theory at least, understand what we like about music. And we may even come up with answers we don’t like.
Kai su, adelphe? Did I blather on too long for this one and make less sense than the word count is worth? Why review? Why judge? Why not like everything? Perhaps that would be better—as Lenny puts it in episode 229 “I never knew everything was so good!”