dancing about architecture.
Over at Daily Meh, Simen wrote a fascinating post about music writing and criticism. The post sparked my neurons and for the most part I agree. But on a philosophical level, I don’t. I think capital letter Art is whatever you put into it. Simen seems to believe that Art has an inherent “beauty” or essence. It’s a “chicken or the egg” problem. It’s not that I don’t think that music is a little more than a commodity, but most music, specially popular music, can be explained. Here’s a part from the post that tickled my brain:
I really don’t know how to capture in a text the essence or feeling of a work of art that isn’t text. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be tried, I’m just saying we may have to accept that it’s something we can only ever achieve in the limit. Permit me my own slightly dreamy metaphor: we’re like flies, and the essence of a work of art — by which I don’t mean any metaphysical mumbo jumbo, but simply the part of the artwork we appreciate the most and the part that is uniquely expressible in the artwork’s chosen medium — is a lightbulb. We can only circle closer and closer. If we get too close, we get burned; if we look directly into the light, we get blinded. Our attempts are nothing but descriptions of perilous journeys around and around the essence, and these roundtrips would need infinite time to fully capture the whole, so in practice we’ll never get there.
Popular music doesn’t need a lecture. There’s nothing more oxymoronic than the rationalization of emotions. You don’t need to read an essay on Lada Gaga’s overuse of “popo” and “papa” syllables on choruses to understand that it’s just silly fun. However, music is not a medium that exists in isolation. Most art forms overlap with others and music is as much visual as auditory. It’s not just a piece of organized (or disorganized) sound. Excepting instrumental musical, music is also textual. There are lyrics that are as expository as any story or as “stream of wordy” as a haiku poem. What I’m trying to get at with this is that sure, it’s like “dancing about architecture”, but only in the sense that you’re never going to transpose the actual hearing experience. But I wouldn’t say that it’s a hopeless pursuit. There’s a lot that can be understood in music and objectively agreed upon. Not everything is a holy moment. (<–Highly recommended video) If the essence of something can’t be explained, then it probably has no essence.
Of course there’s good music writing and bad music writing. The Beatles would be as popular today even without the criticism and zillions of cultural essays, but their mythos wouldn’t be as big. Some genre’s of music like Jazz, Avant-Guarde, or Noise, wouldn’t be at the place they are today if it wasn’t for music criticism. (*Though I think that people that write a 1000 word essay on Merzbow are probably insane.)
So yes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but when someone is passionate enough and manages to transfer that experience and enthusiasm to words, maybe they deserve to dance a little.