The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Baker's Dozen

13 Reasons Why I Can't Pick My 13 Favourite Records, By Drew Daniel
The Quietus , September 25th, 2014 06:41

When we asked Drew Daniel of Matmos and The Soft Pink Truth for his Baker's Dozen, he refused - and with good reasons. Thirteen of them, to be precise. Here Daniel presents them in an essay titled A Rant Against The Quantification Of Aesthetics. All photographs courtesy of Drew Daniel

Drewwpal_copy_1411641659_resize_460x400

Concluding Reason Thirteen: It Encourages The Use Of Numbers To Rate And Rank Music, And That Is A Bad Thing.
Straight up, as a musician, I don't like the placement of quantifiable numbers onto the experience of art. It would be comforting if it were merely meaningless, but it's actively harmful, insofar as it reifies what is ineffably subjective (a fancy pants way of saying that it treats prejudice and opinion as if they had some concrete, fact-like obviousness). It lends a false cultural weight and definitive force to passing critical moods and infatuations, rewarding consensus records that are easy to love that press the same old pleasure receptors, while starving out the ambitious, the recalcitrant and the odd. While a smart, seasoned critic's numeric rankings have a lot more behind them than random caprice (and probably don't represent the pure sadism that paranoid artists whine about), the conceptual problem of why one metric could ever stand in for the wild profusion of ways to understand art remains, as does the very simple core problem: listening is subjective.

One person's 8.2 is another person's "light 7" is another person's zero stars is another person's animated gif-loop of a urinating primate. Such gestures of quantification reach their reductio ad absurdum in the preposterous - and, yes, deeply male - construct of the so-called "ladder theory" of human sexuality, in which some people are a 6 out of 10 and others are a perfect 10 and others are lost in the unacceptable abyss below zero. (If you are ignorant of ladder theory and its tragic relationship to the deranged perpetrator of the Isla Vista shootings, my apologies for directing you to a dark, dark corner of the internet). If we don't find this an acceptable way to understand the mystery of desire, love and sexuality, why do we find it an acceptable way to talk about art, music and culture? The rage for order that we witness in these attempts to quantify and measure the unmeasurable would be pathetic were it not for their stark economic effects in the real world in which commodities jostle against each other in a zero-sum game for the contents of wallets. As everyone in that game realises, a "Best New Music" means that commodity X will now sell Z copies and commodity Y, lovingly described in the review but lacking the crucial numeric marketing angle, won't. Which is very nice for the lucky few, and tough luck for everyone else. Rather like capitalism.

I write this as someone who has had a pretty startlingly easy time from critics and music journalists (perhaps because I make records that are easy to write about; god help you if you're an abstract formalist). If you're a critic or music writer, you have my sympathy and solidarity for the simple reason that I am also one of you. I wrote about music in my punk zine at 16 before I ever made music. Many musicians also write about music and I'm one of those amphibians, so I don't like stepping forward and "speaking as an artist" as if I wasn't also a music writer too. I love writing about music, and know how hard it is to do that in a way that feels honest and satisfying, and what a thankless task it can sometimes be, as the anonymous online troll horde endlessly crap on you in the comments section no matter what you say, and lord knows it doesn't pay much, if anything, anymore. But... [deep breath] If you're a critic or music writer who claims to love music but who regularly assigns a numeric value to artworks, please take a quiet moment to consider the effects of what you are doing upon the human beings who are the creators of those works, and ask yourself if you really believe in the quantification of art, or simply do it because that's the prevailing practice, and a good way to get clicks and attention. If you do really, honestly believe in it, ask yourself why you believe in it. I would love to know.

Now, a thought experiment: How would you respond to your life being given a numeric ranking? Is that what your salary is? Is that what your Twitter follower count is? An index of your importance? An index of your value? If you quickly shoot back, "Of course not, that can't be quantified", well, now you know how artists feel when you paint these numbers on our backs. If I said "From my perspective as a tenured academic and published author, I give your life as a freelance music journalist a 6.5 out of 10", it would sound smug and gross. Only an asshole would say that. Why would you feel better about the inherent disconnect between the complexity of a life and the singularity of a number if the number was just a little higher? Are we talking about the pain of low numbers or the problem with numbers as such? Numbers are incredibly useful sometimes, but they are a bad substitute for a thick description of what something does, how it functions, how it feels to be alive within it.

It would be fair enough, if easy, to disregard such carping as base hypocrisy, since I have skin in the game, and at some level want you to buy my record rather than someone else's (even worse hypocrisy: I grade student essays for a living!). But it's also that, as an artist, I truly don't find the question, "What's a better record, X or Y?" to be a meaningful question. So, in conclusion, let me repeat Reason Eight once more, with feeling: Each artwork proposes its own terms of judgment, sets its own goals, defines its own world, proposes anew its own set of relationships to what precedes it, implies a distinct way of being in the world. Yes, I'm saying that every record really is its own special fucking snowflake. Even the "worst" (by whatever rubric) record in the world proposes its goals, its relationships, its way of being. Believing that, I can't endorse comparative assessment as a quantifiable activity. Art objects can be described, endlessly, in their complex specificity, and described, endlessly, in the wide historical and cultural range of their effects as they move in time and across territory. But they can't be mapped onto curves or arcs of achievement relative to each other, or tracked and assessed in terms of their aesthetic success or failure, without begging certain basic questions about the grounding of such aesthetic judgments in the first place. Those questions might yield to sustained critical argument, but they can't be resolved by making, sharing or reading lists. And they aren't demonstrated by tagging numbers onto artistic achievement either.

Which is why we should give up the practice of presenting lists and numbered rankings as if they offered shortcuts to understanding entire selves or entire genres, and stop writing soft-serve quickie primers that can stand in for personal engagement and research and first hand experience. Which is why we as artists should stop writing lists for websites when we are asked to do so, and instead do something else, or, failing that, encourage listeners to embark on their own journeys into the archive, and report back about one-on-one encounters with the treasures that they find. We should stop these phoney "Desert Island Disc" scenarios of imaginary scarcity. We should stop waging these "battles for the top of the heap" between art objects. We should stop thinking that one thing being good in its particular way means that another thing cannot also be good in its own, different, just-as-particular way. Stop playing favourites. Stop writing listicles.

Giving up on that activity doesn't mean giving up on loving and hating, advocating and critiquing. It means rethinking our engrained critical habits, and trying to unlearn certain calcified postures, and trying to imagine what a descriptive critical practice might sound like if we didn't treat the scene of listening as a sinking ship scenario in which seats on the canonical lifeboat were limited in advance to 13, or 50, or 100. At the end of the critical countdowns, it's my hope that we won't find a zero that flattens out the difference between love and hate, or even between love and like, but, instead, a turbulent, unruly and, yes, infinite sea of human effort. That's my "favourite" thing about music: encountering in the moment each artwork, however humble, already dignified by the sheer distinction of being incomparably human and thus, irreducibly, itself.


If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.