Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What Music Writing Really Needs

Ted Gioia recently wrote a piece on the state of music journalism in 2014; it has been making the rounds, so you’ve probably seen it already.
I’ve admired Gioia’s work ever since I read his The Imperfect Art and West Coast Jazz, both of which I came across as a graduate student. West Coast Jazz in particular was an important book for me, given that I read it shortly after abandoning the east coast, and while I was trying to set myself up in Los Angeles. It was incredibly gratifying to hear someone say out loud (in my head, at least) that New York is not the only place where good jazz exists, or can exist.
Gioia’s latest essay--which bears the provocative title “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting”--is more of a complaint than a deconstruction. In Gioia’s view (as if one couldn’t tell from the title), modern “music criticism” is failing both audiences and musicians. The problem is critics’ lack of what Gioia calls “technical knowledge”--by which he seems to mean, first, a direct discussion of how a performance is executed, preferably informed by the critic’s own experience as a musician; and second, references to things like “song structure, harmony, or arrangement techniques” (that is, expressions of music theory). 
Gioia never identifies which publications or writers he is reacting to, but we can guess--when he says “one can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music,” he probably isn’t talking about The Wire. And it would be foolish to deny that the big glossy periodicals like Rolling Stone have descended pretty far into becoming, basically, fashion magazines--though that’s not news, I don’t think; it’s been happening for years.
Still, it’s not as if there is no meat on the bones here. And yet--something in Gioia’s article doesn’t quite ring true. In part, it’s that the strain of discourse he addresses is not and never has been “critical,” per se. What he is actually focusing on, I think, is the modern incarnation not so much of record or concert reviews, but of the cult of celebrity--the passionate adulation of stars that stretches all the way back to nineteenth century musicians like Niccolò Paganini and Jenny Lind and Franz Liszt. “Lifestyle reporting,” in this sense, is not the sudden blossoming of lowest-common-denominator excess, but a deeply-ingrained cultural habit, and one that has always served a different function than criticism, even when it has been informed by tendencies from high art (such as the hagiography of genius).
Which is not to say Gioia is wrong in claiming that there is a problem. I agree that something is missing from popular writing about music--or a lot of it, anyway. I’m just not sure that what’s missing is “technical knowledge.” Or maybe, more exactly, I’m not sure that what’s missing is technical knowledge only. After all, a harmonic progression, or a song structure, or a time feel, is never inherently meaningful. Each of these technical aspects of a musical work takes its significance from the way it is deployed in a culture--both from how it relates to the technical expressions of other musicians, and from how it is socially valued. The blues scale, for instance, could not be understood as an important detail of blues music--it would not be worth writing about in the first place--if it didn’t speak to something about the lived experience of the people who listened to and enjoyed the blues.
To put that another way: it’s not enough to decry the absence of theory in popular music discourse. The real problem is the inability, or the unwillingness, to connect theory and praxis. Go ahead and write about that blues scale if you like--or that harmonic progression, or that song structure, or that time signature--but if you do, make sure you follow through and make a connection to your readers’ daily lives. A critic’s job, if I may be so bold, should be to bridge the chasm between the abstract and the concrete--not to celebrate theory for its own sake. That was Harry Connick, Jr.’s mistake in bringing up--one is almost tempted to say brandishing--the subject of pentatonic scales on American Idol. He didn’t make much of an attempt to explain why he thought they were undesirable in that context. Indeed, if they were good enough to be what he called “classic go-tos” for R&B, gospel, and jazz musicians, why on earth should they be avoided by aspiring singers? And what is it about pentatonic scales that makes them so attractive in the first place? (See Bobby McFerrin for a much better example--though it’s not music criticism per se--of how one can connect a technical idea to a lived experience, with respect to exactly this question.) 

The same problem hampers Owen Pallett's valiant analysis of a Katy Perry song, in an essay that he offers in response to Gioia. Pallett remarks that Perry's

voice is the sun and the song is in orbit around it . . . The insistence of the tonic in the melody keeps your ears' eyes fixed on the destination, but the song never arrives there. Weightlessness is achieved. Great work, songwriters!
Huh? Delayed resolution is one of the oldest clichĂ©s of music analysis. But why should "weightlessness" be important for listeners? That's a vague concept masquerading as an insight. Why should we care?    

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on HCJ or Pallett. In music, there is frustratingly little precedent for finding the connections between theory and praxis (or technical concerns and their social context). Someone, in one of the many social media threads on this (don’t remember who, sorry), pointed out that it is not unusual to see popular writing on film, or photography, or fine art, or television, make use of technical terms and concepts in order to drive an analysis home. That’s true, I think, but it’s not because visual culture is somehow fundamentally more accessible. The problem is that music--thanks in part to musicology’s historical obsession with scores, and performance departments’ (more understandable) obsession with professionalization--lacks a robust reception theory. The cluster of disciplines that deal primarily with visual culture (media studies, film studies, and the like) have simply had a huge head start when it comes to thinking about audience. (And whatever your feelings on academia, those disciplines have influenced the way their subjects are discussed in the broader culture.) 
Music, in contrast, is often discussed as if it happens in a vacuum. Ben Ratliff made the point recently in a blog post on his new project, a “book about listening to music” (which I am very much looking forward to). In talking about his research, Ratliff noted (the emphasis is mine): 
I have spent a lot of time with the books in my house that come to grips with listening as process and reaction and ritual, the real-time experience of it, how music might change our listening and how our listening might change music. I am always looking for books like this. There aren’t that many.

Sad but true. And crucially important. We know precious little about how we listen, or about the complex relationship between how we listen and what we consider “music” to be. And so we can talk or write about theory and technique until we’re blue in the face--I for one think even untrained readers can handle it!--but those things will never really be relevant, let alone be useful to a listener’s experience, until we begin to understand them in situ.