Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Re-presenting representing music [how this PC feels right now]
~ Caveat for the harried and hurried: I know this is a long post: I’m not going to split it up, break it down, or sloganise it. I want you to please try to read, read slowly, even re-read. Or not read. This is integral. ~
For many years there have been murmured suspicions of something like a male menstrual cycle; for my part I know there are long ebbs-and-flows in my modes and moods, and I’ve learned to respect them. If something is giving me the shits, it’s usually (in retrospect) for good reason. The only sane and sensible thing to do is pull back, withdraw all affect, regroup, then make a decision to either incubate or jettison whatever it was.
Right now, writing about music has become one of these cyclical things. I want to state from the get go that the major reason for this – for me, personally – has been a competing list of other priorities and activities, all taking up headspace, each making an increasingly unavoidable claim on my time. After spending all day juggling the many balls of the Masters of the University (and believe me, in large part, it is mostly all complete balls), the last thing I feel like doing is analyzing, evaluating, and agonizing over music.
Of course this is not true, I’m just being precious and jaded about something I love, something I still love. Nonetheless, I am constantly dogged by a suspicion that music ‘criticism’, or just ‘being a music hack’, is something that has to be thoroughly re-thought in light of the present conjunction of factors: technologies, media, sounds, people, passions, etc…. in fact, I have three suspicions....
The first is that descriptive previews (as distinguished from critical reviews) are now thoroughly unnecessary. Writing for Rolling Stone in ’79, or NME in ’93, describing the up-and-coming, was a valuable endeavour (as well as being an act of audience shaping and, arguably, cultural gatekeeping). Music was relatively scarce, and most people hadn’t had the chance to hear the next big thing before it was grew and ripened to become ‘it’. In 2009, being descriptive amounts to guarding the already well-picked carcass of the (still officially unreleased) work from the vultures and trolls of the online forums.
This brings me to the second point, which is about how descriptive previews interact with their online audience, typically ‘forums’. I spend time (a lot of time, maybe too much time… I’ll come to this next) thinking about what I’m saying, trying to do justice to the release, then all the respondents want to do is shoot you down, they who already know the 'truth' of the release (their opinion, their mates’ opinions). Why have me say something different, just so they can vulturise it and review my review (the forum metareview, which places itself above scrutiny by placing the review[er] under scrutiny)? .... I'm so thoroughly, utterly sick of this. The online agora, such as it is, has become something I don't want to engage with at all or give anything to at all, for the simple reason that there is no engagement or debate: just contradiction, biting – nasty little shots across the bow, or (to mix metaphors) little anonymous text turds left on your interface doorstep.
I’m thinking here about RA in particular, but I don’t lay any of this at their feet. Todd and RA have done more than almost anyone to facilitate intelligent, interesting discussions about music on a free, open space, and have given a lot of people (myself included) an invaluable platform to put ideas out there. I sincerely thank them for it – and so should you! RA is an incredibly powerful connective, communicative tool... But! The question this immediately begs is simply how/why the overall quality of engagement with this platform is so low, so thoughtless, so, well, mean. A large minority within the apparent readership, and the way they read, is a big issue for me – actually, it’s close to being a dealbreaker. Again, the key factor is time. It takes months, years to write an album; it takes careful hour(s) to write a review; it takes 10s of seconds to read a review (it would seem), then single digits to say something thoughtless and nasty about it, just because you disagree… no, not disagree, because this would imply one haa a counter-interpretation. Mostly it’s just flat contradiction.
Overall, with regards people's online reading practice, the intense impression I have is that many people scan websites for reviews of new releases they’ve already heard based on the starring of the review: if it gets a high or low review, then, and only then, they click, and if the review doesn’t confirm their belief, if they even slightly disagree with the reviewer’s assessment (without reading closely to find the nuance and the connected chain of meanings in the flow of the words), then they reserve for themselves the sovereign right to unload. It got to the point where part of the reason I was missing deadline was that I was agonising myself into a ball trying to nail a review, because, unlike the way it was in print media, I knew the person who wrote the album was going to see it, read it, and, in some cases, take it to heart. This gets even harder when the work itself is thoroughly ambiguous and ambivalent… or you don’t care that much. But in any case, to agonise over an interpretation, then have to field (or simply ignore) attacks from thoughtless morons who know they know better (and we are ALL thoughtless morons who know they know better) is wearying, unrewarding, and ultimately untenable. The only way to psychologically survive in that environment is to become callous toward artists and contemptuous towards the audience… which was where I was headed…
...On the surface you might imagine this to be a good thing: the audience’s revenge, etc. True in theory, perhaps, and it would be true in practice - if only these wonderful online forums, these supposed havens of equality of voice and engagement, were not treated as they are – the hypertext toilet for a whole bunch of shit that people would never dare say to your face. I know I’m at risk of sounding precious here (I concede I am being a bit precious, in fact), so to be clear – I welcome agonism, disagreement. But it has to be respectful and engaged. What we get all too often online these days is a pale version of this, and I don’t want to play. Bad asssemblage, boring conversation, with Morrisey in my ear singing 'there is no debate, no debate, no debate....' and I haven’t got time. And, to return to the first point, we’ve all heard the album already anyway, right? Or we can find it with a click if we’re interested. I mean, it’s not like recorded music is scarce or precious anymore, is it?
What is precious though is time (and here we come to point the third): the expectation of reviews is that they’re written according to the dictates of publicity bubble manufacture, as anyone who's been grumbled at for reviewing a six week old record, or received a 'how very dare you' email from a PR company for saying something that wasn't on the publicity sheet.... In effect, as a busy reviewer, this typically means not only having to nail out an interpretation that does some justice to the artist’s work, but having to do so without having what is (in my view) sufficient time to allow sentiments to settle. Some of my favourite albums were bloody hard work: if I had only heard Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain of Slint’s Spiderland once, on shitty promo-quality mp3, rather than living with them to and from high school every day for months, I never would have really come to understand what’s so great about both works. My New Years’ Resolution commitment to some kind of listening discipline has been great for me, but it’s also meant my clearing folder of new music is running into the 100s of titles. It’s also meant having to ignore almost every piece of publicity and hype that bombards my inbox: once again, I just haven’t got time. I’m too busy trying to listen properly (I flatter myself, once again)… actually, this week I’m still getting further into Shed’s Shedding the Past.
Time, finally, also becomes precious because of a dearth-making glut. The glut is that, in 2009, there really is more recording than creativity going around… creativity takes the slow time of boredom, incubation and inspiration…. recording works in realtime… and with zip compression, one-click hosting, broadband transmission, and USB hard-drive storage, the time of three hundred years’ creativity is sitting on my desktop. Meanwhile, the dearth: I’ve still only got 24 hours in a given day, and somehow, we’re expected to listen to it all. That, just by itself, would be a full-time job.
There is no ‘solution’ (contrary to what the ICT industry would have you believe): technology is a pharmakon, a poisonous remedy. There is also no fixity and closure, though we’re constantly trying to attain some degree of it in our lives. We have to, if we’re to be able to function without breaking down. Unlike computers, we're not closed, logical systems - we're open and entangled matters (and we should try to live up to this). But given all the above, 'the way I feel right now' makes things seem to be necessary. The first is a constant work of presentation: Chris’ ‘set up’ posts are perfect in this regard. The second is a reflective work of analysis, the slow breakdown of the datasea into something resembling sense and meaning. I flatter myself (I know I’ve been doing that a lot with this post, I apologise) by thinking that last year’s End of Year wraps for RA were a good attempt to do just that, and I will, Todd willing, be doing it again this year. I think you will find that, if you read it slowly (please?), there’s some wisdom there, especially in Phillip Sherburne’s thoughts. The third needful thing is a positive, thoughtful engagement from you guys, who are not only some passive audience but also always actively the co-creators of this blog. So far, at least as far as all you SSGs are concerned, this goes without saying: and I thank all of you for your commitment to the potential of this weird media landscape we find ourselves in. And now, back to the music.
~ Getting to this point made me think: well, that's where I'm at, but is it representative of much? I wonder what somebody who's fist-deep in the RAviewing right now would think of all this? So I asked him to reply.... stay tuned for part two, next week. In the mean time, what say you? ~