“Rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read…”
– Frank Zappa
It’s not easy being a music critic. You’re under constant pressure from record labels, PR companies and managers. Your email inbox is a nefarious labyrinth of MySpace hopefuls and ‘The Next Big Thing.’ And that’s not to mention the pains and difficulties of allocating a rank score to an album.
Score an album too low and you’re labeled a cynic; too high and you’re a naïve optimist. Take the easy road out by giving it a six or a seven, and you’re criticized for having no backbone. Then there’s always the case of trivializing artistic intent with pompous descriptors and a plethora of adjectives. Or over-analyzing some bored kid’s work, and attributing great meaning to the music, when really it’s just a mass of fuzz and haze. You can’t win.
So why do it?
Why do I write about music? Why do I deconstruct an album devoid of artistic meaning? I do it because everything does in fact have a greater meaning. Nothing in pop culture is meaningless; not even meaningless music.
No, I don’t like Justin Bieber, Lady GaGa or Flo Rida’s latest collaboration. But each of these cultural-lows highlight certain aspects of society, which in turn, allow us to better understand what it means to be human. We come to realize that one does not require natural talent to become a success, that all females crave a particular Amazonian freedom, and that we all need ‘a little help from our friends’ to succeed in this world, (in respective order).
The wonderful thing about pop culture is that it tells us so much more about the average consumer than the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Rorschach Inkblot ever could. Nielsen Ratings and iTunes Charts can be just as accurate in determining social trends as surveys or forecast graphs.
Culture is the soul of society – it is what gives life meaning. And popular culture is just that: Popular. Thus, when it comes to analyzing society, what better place to look. The way we react to a song, the success of certain artists, the polarizing nature of an album – these things matter. They matter a lot more than most people give them credit.
This is why I write: to acknowledge the meaning of music and its wider social impacts that so many people are completely oblivious to.
Music criticism can generally be divided into two groups: condemnation of the latest trend, or proclamation of the next messiah. The very nature of the profession is sensationalized – something is either great or awful. The good seems to get lost in the backwaters of the blogosphere… Or simply ignored. How often do you see an album given a 5 out of 10? Everything is either a 3 or an 8. (Though it is important to note that 1’s and 10’s are extremely rare, as very few records are absolutely terrible or completely perfect).
Music criticism is not about separating the bad from the good, it’s about distinguishing the good from the great. We all know when an album is terrible. But which records are truly worth your time?
It’s estimated that there are approximately 400 billion stars in our galaxy. But only about 2000 are visible to the naked eye. Apply this model to the music industry and you have a fair idea of just how much goes unnoticed. It is truly tragic how much music we miss in our lives; how much we simply are unaware of. And even more tragic still, is the fact that most of the music that we do come into contact with is made by machines, with the sole intention of commercial gain. But every so often an artist comes along and dazzles; an album unites a generation; a song spawns an uprising. The revolution will not be televised, but it sure as hell will have a soundtrack.
This is why I write: to give exposure to music that deserves it, and to ensure that quality recordings reach the widest possible audience
The great author, poet and mother of the Lost Generation, Gertrude Stein once said: “We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”
Couple this quote with another, from the French artist Jean Cocteau: “An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.”
We are left with a fascinating paradox: artists inject their work with a profound meaning, yet are unable to explain it. And it is this elusive meaning that I search for in every album I hear; in every film I watch, book I read, or art I admire. The ultimate goal of existence, is to understand the meaning of existence; to figure out what it means to be human. We are all plagued with the existential problem of functioning normally as a coherent being in the wholly ambiguous physical universe we occupy. It is normal to be frustrated by the absence of meaning. But if you look closely, if you pay attention and keep an open mind, we find ourselves sucked, with a great rush of blood, into a vortex of association. Pop culture does not exist as a vacuum. Everything is uniformly connected. Everything has meaning.
This is why I write: to identify the profundity of musical meaning.
We are neither hunters nor gatherers. We are not consumers. We are thinkers. An unyielding philosopher lives within us all. Don’t be mistaken: to think is to live. We will never know the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. But we will spend our whole lives trying to figure it all out.
Some people choose Dickens or Shakespeare to help them find meaning. Some turn to religion…
Others study the existential musings of Socrates or Nietzsche.
I just so happen to prefer examining the meaning of life through the context of music: through Arcade Fire to ZZ Top; through hip-hop to hipsters; through Top 10 hits to lo-fi home recordings; through the current zeitgeist to the remnants of the past.
Which to me, is no less rational than finding meaning in the works of a long-dead Grecian or a clinically-depressed German.