Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Music reviews and reification

Occasionally, I review albums, and I knew this practice was slowly destroying my ability to appreciate music altogether but I wasn't sure why. (By the way, I think this is true of most reviewers; most cease to be music fans once they professionalize their responses to music -- the less professional the music writer, the more sincere and useful his response is likely to be. This is why generally is the best place to find music advice outide of your circle of friends.) I thought it may have been a product of the surfeit of mediocre music available that ordinarily I would have ignored, but that's not it -- that's not the only reason, at any rate. I think it has more to do with the fact that once I finish reviewing an album, I never feel like listening to it ever again, even when I've purported to really like it and insisted on how often readers will find themselves listening to it should they get it. I really think I mean those things when I write them; it's just that saying them suddenly invalidates the comments by standing in as a proxy for them. Once I announce I'll be listening to some record forever, I no longer feel the need to actually do it. Also, the act of articulating what I feel about a record ossifies it immediately; the summing up how it made me respond foreclosed the possibility of having further responses, of having those inital responses deepen or transmogrify. Fixed by my careful formulations, the record is no longer dynamic to me, andthus there's no more reason to listen to it. When I first began reviewing records, this felt like a blessing. Writing about a record seemed to complete the consumption experience, bringing to it a satisfying, productive sense of closure. Overwhelmed with music to play, it felt good to lay some options permanently to rest; it was like working through an accumulated pile of magazines, or the Sunday paper, and earning the sweet freedom of throwing sections away. But then I started to have a sense that music was becoming too disposible to me, and that the fault was not with the music itself (much as I was initially inclined to think so) but with my attitude. I was trying to use it up like it was bread going stale rather than accept it as some permanent contribution to the storehouse of human culture. Art is presumably timeless, capable of yielding new appreciative responses as the context in which one stumbles across it changes. But music-as-commodity, if the music companies have their way, is meant to be completely disposible, so you have to keep buying new product month after month after month. So here I was, thinking I was striking a blow against junk culture by decrying how ephemeral most music was and really I was just doing the record companies' bidding. (It may be that in reviewing any record you are inevitably doing their bidding; it really is true that no publicity is bad, when you think on an aggregate scale especially.)

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz sheds light on some of this in his discussion of the dorm-room-poster study. A group of students were offered a choice of posters (some fine art, some cartoons), and the students who were forced to justify their choice of poster in writing chose different posters than they would have had they simply chose on unreflecting instinct. Those who had to write chose the (theoretically) funny cartoon ones because it was easier to put in wards why they were funny; those going on instinct took the fine art posters. Schwartz concludes that the students who took the cartoons would have chosen the fine-art posters only they weren't confident about explaining their reasons why they preferred it -- they lacked the vocabulary to describe their appreciation of fine art, while it was easy to make a plausible justification of why a cartoon was funny. So if forced to articulate why we like something, we'll like more facile things; we'll like what we're already capable of articulating, rather than like that which forces us to come up with new explanations and new ways of thinking. Also, once we commit to one justification for a choice, we stick to it, and let it preclude our awareness of other reasons and factors, of criteria that might induce us to question our choice. People who chose the cartoons defended their choice but didn't actually hang them up. People who chose the art did.

Applied to record reviewing, this suggests that the most well-reviewed records will be the most easy to understand at a single listen, and that the criteria evinced, on the whole, in reviews will be the most shallow things about music. And once reviewers say these things, they'll feel locked-in to them, even though they reflect what's easy to put into words more than what they actually experience when they listen. Music that summons inchoate, contradictory, complex responses; this will either be dismissed or go unreviewed, or will be apprciated for simpler reasons. And once those simple reasons are put down, the record, for that reviewer, will be forever limited to those simple reasons, and will be far less interesting to her than the records she hasn't reviewed.

So if this is true, our conscious justifications for our tastes have more to do with our verbal skills, our critical vocabularies, than with anything in the objects we seem to prefer. This is one argument for reading sophisticated pop-music criticism (as if it exists) as opposed to the bite-sized nuggets of snappy prose in The Village Voice or Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, which sing with punchy dexterity but allow for very little sophistication of thought. (Try working in an intricate point in 150 words. The very best of them, the allusive poets of the medium, can only hint at such nuance.) But it also is an argument for never thinking about your taste, never becoming reflexive about your aesthetics, and thereby allowing them to continue to grow and to accommodate things beyond your current grasp. The suggestion is that reflexivity automatically leads to refication, that language captures something elusively alive and kills it. (I once used this argument to justify never telling a girlfriend that I loved her -- a strategy I wouldn't recommend, by the way).

But what of the notion that the unexamined life is not worth living? The road of the "inarticulate as truth" leads inevitably to dubious ideas like the innate moral sense and spontaneity being mistaken for authenticity. It leads to a Calvinistic sense of cool, that some people, the Elect, just have it, as demonstrated by their natural interest in sophisticated things, and some people don't. (Renaissance Italians such as Castiglione called this sprezzatura, the by-definition indefinable -- it's a bit of a paradox --suaveness of the effective courtier.) Those without aesthetics would be doomed never to learn them. Isn't it better to see aesthetics (and love) as not being inexpressible, as not being somehow too ineffable for words, and see it instead as something worth refining and expanding one's language for? Even if it is an unmaintainable illusion? I console myself with the thought that writing about all those records and ruining them permanently for me has made my overall responsiveness to music more sophisticated, more intricate, more articulate; they were the sacrificial lambs to the development of my music taste. I sharpened my skills on them to better treasure that which I won't speak of.

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