Critical Insight

“…the message is about not what works musically now, for a certain demographic, for a short while, but about what might work for everyone for all time.” –Rick Moody, I Dared Criticize Taylor Swift

“…by rendering their traditional job of arbitration obsolete, it frees critics to find other ways of contemplating music.” – Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste

Recently Josh published a review of Kanye West’s newest album, dismantling its supposed greatness while rearticulating why it should be great and why its lack is unacceptable. In doing so, Josh has connected himself to an ever-building line of critics such as Rick Moody and Carl Wilson who have dared attempt to knock gods off the mantle this year.

In each piece, the cultural breakdown has been thoughtful, elegant, and respectful. Admittedly (by himself as well as me) Rick Moody’s is on the lowest arm of that last descriptor as he has nothing but scorn for Taylor Swift.

“Come on. Let’s call this work what it is. It is music that is of minor interest. Because it’s predictable compositionally; because it’s predictable emotionally; because it markets itself to a demographic with all the subtlety that those Camel Joe cartoons once marketed to children; because the sounds are either by session hacks or are machined, and thus the sounds are free of the thrill of players playing together; because the lyricist complains a lot; because the veneer of the contemporary now makes everything on the top 40 sound like a car commercial; and because, for all its vaunted honesty, the Taylor Swift oeuvre doesn’t tell a complex human truth. It tells a well-traveled, often self-involved, often narcissistic truth.”*

And in addition, he has nothing but hatred for the critics who have ponied up to the fountain and drunk the elixir.

There are two layers to how music is evaluated in the world. There is how music is used, and there is how music sits within the history of music…it’s the job of the critic to sort through the collision of contemporary music with the history of the form and to assess music based on more enduring values, which are, it’s true, partly subjective, but which also come to rest on an understanding of what music has been (a critic is a person who has been listening carefully for a long time)… the critical community, if it doesn’t call her out, gives her a pass simply because she moves units. Or so it seems to me. Which not only does us a disservice, it does her a disservice. Because how is she supposed to get better? By playing Joni Mitchell in the biopic?*

Yet, even in scorn these conversations are about up-building. They are attempting to highlight why artists should not get a pass just because they have reached a certain status we put them; that, if anything, with experience, money, acclaim, and time, artists should be scrutinized more heavily for what they are not attempting. “It might be cathartic to reject over-familiar pictures of the world, when the artists seem like they’re getting close to the bone but never truly scrape it. There is so much more out there to hear and so little life to do it.”**

While Josh’s piece steadfastly argued his points and produced an intense piece going against the common denominator without waver, both Rick Moody and Carl Wilson presented their thoughts and then responded to the fallout with a bit of timidity, reluctant defense, working to explain themselves against the backlash of fans and other critics; though admittedly neither Moody nor Wilson sway from their perceptions (and Wilson’s caveat appeal is admitting to seeing the value in The National even though he doesn’t like them himself).

To this I ask why? Why do they feel it necessary to perform in such a why? Why do we expect them to make an apology of sorts?

In an age of production/consumption unlike anything in a previous century why should there not be an acceptance for those who thoughtfully argue against the fold when the fold isn’t working? Admittedly I am one to traditionally not write about something I do not like. I would rather highlight merits versus tearing down. But when the tearing down leads to a furthering of conversation instead of the deadfall of advance praise that seems to have not actually engaged with the material being reviewed, I will take the tearing down.

“In grim economic times, large entertainment providers become more risk averse, which means that they issue more conservative music. And because there is less innovative music, the masses of listeners themselves become more accustomed to more conservative and less interesting music. And the critics, in turn, begin to review more conservative music, and like the proverbial frog in the saucepan, the critical community sometimes comes to accommodate a musical drift into the formulaic and the mundane.”*

Rick Moody is right. Though one can also make a counter argument that in difficult times we discover the most richly experimental attempts at rearranging the world and it is in fact the good times that lead to an overall mundanity. Just look at the latter part of the ’90s as many perceived to have lived decently well in a United States shaped by the policies of Clinton. From this time of general decency we get more music worth vomiting over than one may shake a stick at. And maybe now is the only time to truly compare and/or indeed topple that personal decree—or maybe we have reached such a moment that the high and low water marks are more separated than ever and to discuss this topic is to discuss the high, that being what execs are willing to finance and not the personal projects furnished by Kickstarter and Bandcamp alike.

Or maybe we have just reached such a position that to expect anything more is an ill order. I do think we have reached a different point, the internet flat-lining the environment and taking my age in a windfall of Google searches.

 “The National makes me feel that rock music, like much of American literature and visual art before it, has died and gone to graduate school. The band delivers certifiable Quality-with-a-capital-Q, a perfect product of the English and music departments—the way that Lady Gaga is a perfect product of the semiotics department and an MBA program, though I definitely prefer Lady Gaga. At my most extreme, I’d even claim that the National reflects the way social and economic stratification are narrowing the space for cultural free agency and rewarding artists who straightforwardly serve either the libido of the mass market or the neurotic narcissism of the privileged classes.”**

Knowledge is power, and yet with knowledge also comes the responsibility of maintaining childish ambition and perception. Art (and in that I summarize film, music, writing, painting, photography, and every other thing we could bracket under the ideal), in its greatest moments, can be bullet-pointed after like a map, but the motivation and soul that spawned its travel cannot be understood or spreadsheet set. The timeless creations, little inoculations to living, never lose their weight, never give up the ghost that cracks the veneer of consumption. Experiencing long after birth still breaks the world apart, exercises what is missing in whatever age is current. To question the quality of those riding the high wave is to expect greatness for the position, it’s to expect status be earned. When the stars of charts and magazines fail to give us a return for our capital, and not in any superficial way, but in a way that challenges and gives credence to their existence, it is necessary to break the construct apart and determine where and why it all went wrong and what should be done to rectify it.

*Rick Moody

**Carl Wilson

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