Why Music Criticism Is Important, By Zer0 Books' Tariq Goddard
, April 20th, 2010 08:57
In a response to last week's piece on Nick Kent's new book, zer0 Books editor Tariq Goddard argues that music journalism is a vocation worth pursuing
It is odd to defend a discipline I don't practise on a site like this, but the idea that music journalism may be a misdirected passion, or simply a waste of time needs challenging. In one crucial way, it is easier to be an artist than a critic: artists at least deal with their own self-expression, a critic has to hedge their bets and build a career based on speculation, making a similar emotional investment to the artist without the consolation of having unburdened their soul. Neither vocation is to be taken lightly and it is the interdependency between the two spheres that raises the suspicion that if there is something wrong with music writing then there might be something lacking in music itself. Artists and critics have a mutually complimentary relationship, even if it may not always seem that way, so that an attack on one is a warning to the other. To cast doubt on whether music can stand up to and benefit from passionate inquiry, or if great writing can make you enjoy music more, is a round about way of belittling the importance of music itself.
Of course, music cannot stand comparison to the collapse of empires, child malnourishment or environmental Armageddon, and musicians are not generals, philosophers or scientists. Music writing has certainly excelled at losing perspective, bathing in self-regard and casually misusing epithets like "genius" and "greatness" without losing sleep over the generosity of the application. Nor does it help that the once talented Nick Kent has produced a book so bad that it's hard to believe he actually wrote it, or could have forgotten how to write so completely, which is precisely why his is a useless case to universalise from. Because contrary to appearances, music writing actually lacks confidence as a genre. Steve Jelbert correctly points out in his review that publishers don't take music writing seriously but a greater problem is that nor do all music journalists. In the past music writing has often recoiled from treating its telos as an end in itself, seeking to undermine the basis of what it sets out to do by either using journalism as a route to some more "respectable" profession (tabloid columnist, Talk Sport Disc Jockey, television talking head or lower middle brow novelist to give but a few examples) or by disparaging the importance of what its doing by moving to more "grown up" subject matter. In this sense music writing is almost ashamed of itself (Jelbert's piece verges on the masochistic), which explains why the roll call of great music journalists is a little thinner than it ought to be, though nothing like as thin as John Harris has argued.
To properly excel music criticism has to operate in a way that reflects its subject matter and attempt to be as vital as it, daring to take itself seriously enough to qualify as art in its own right. It's this failure to mimic music's inner dynamic that leads to rock biographies losing their way as they ape conventional biography, attempting to impose an orderly frame that music resists. Little wonder that Dylan's chronicles should be so unusual, concentrating vividly on two seemingly unconnected "middle" periods of his life, remaining true to his musical concerns as he eschews chronology and linear narrative.
Though there is a measure of truth in the assertion that it's hard to have quality music writing when there isn't enough good music to inspire it (though this website is a good counter to that), a greater problem is to do with the medium, or to put it another way, writers conform to form. A weekly paper or magazine will necessarily bend towards the ephemeral, while increasingly smaller amounts of reviewing space tend to put more pressure on reviewers to opt for the pithy soundbite over a proper engagement with the work. With zer0 books we have tried to consciously go the other way, encouraging writers to approach music from any direction they like and at length, so long as the end result is nothing like what already exists in mainstream media. Although the music covered isn't always new, the approach is, with subjects ranging from Italian Marxist Progressive Rock of the 70s, to Billie Holiday and Modern Classical, passionate analysis instead of the reverential self-restraint found in the rock monthlies. The writers range from those who have been eminent in the field (Ian Penman, Chris Roberts, David Stubbs, Neil Kulkarni) to rising stars of the blog sphere (Mark Fisher) and newer talents (Joseph Stannard, Adam Harper).
The point, then, isn't that music has somehow taken us in, convinced us that it is more valuable than it really is and that it's now time to set childish things aside and write biographies of James Joyce or Hitler. Or even that "it might be that music isn't very important or that the people who make it aren't that interesting", rather, that as music writing grows out of its infancy and abandons a local perspective, it requires an ambition worthy of all it could be.