By Joel Hartse
My favorite display of the paradoxical inner life of the music critic comes from Anthony Barr-Jeffrey, who did a series of funny and insightful blog posts for the now-defunct CCM Magazine several years ago. In one, he wrote, “I have an unusually big love for music of all styles and care about the details of music more than the average bear. I hate almost everything and I get so much stuff that I have to fight being a little jaded” (ironic emphasis mine).
Most music critics I know, myself included, hate music more than anyone else I know. When you really care about something, it’s hard to just stop at the love. Music critics also hate (and love, yes, but hate, too) most music criticism, and spend a lot of time bemoaning the state of the popular music press—the breathless vapidity of NME, the pretentiousness of Pitchfork.
One more thing we hate—and love to do—is make lists. And it’s that time again, for Best-of lists, and Best Best-of Lists and Worst Best-Of Lists (see this distressingly long list of lists at the blog Largehearted Boy, and good luck getting through it), which means it’s time for me to feel more defensive and embarrassed than usual about calling myself a music critic.
Even though I usually feel sheepish about my obsession with pop music—that I care enough to actively seek out opportunities to tell other people what I think about it, in print—during end-of-year listmaking, I feel a bit like Andy Bernard in an episode of “The Office” when he considers becoming a food critic (“these muffins taste bad,” he proclaims) or an art critic (“that painting is bad”).
How could I possibly make the snap judgment which explains why Kid A is the second-best album of the decade, while In Rainbows is the seventeenth-best? (These are hypothetical examples, although I expect they’re roughly correct. But there I go again.)
The fact is that my experience of popular music is so subjective, so based on autobiography and personality, that I am simply not qualified to say, with any degree of certainty, “this album is bad.” I do say it all the time, of course, but I do not mean for it to have any of the weight behind it which Walter Benjamin would cede the critic—“the public must always be proved wrong, yet always feel represented by the critic,” he wrote—nor the carefully balanced objectivity many readers of music criticism seem to demand.
The comments on Christianity Today’s Top 12 albums of the year 2009, which I helped assemble, are full of albums that “should be on the list.” How could they leave X off the list? (Not the band X. Or the band the XX. But anyway.) I don’t bear the commenters any ill will, but to put an album on my “best-of” or “favorite” list because it should be there is not any kind of responsibility I’m ready to shoulder.
Richard Meltzer, the old-school rock critic and philosophy dropout, writes in the Aesthetics of Rock that "rock is the only possible future for philosophy and art (and finally philosophy and art are historically interchangeable)."
The first part of that sentence is patently outrageous, of course, but the second part goes far in articulating why I stick with writing about music even as I squirm at the thought of being a critic who makes Best-of Lists: "philosophy and art are historically interchangeable." Meltzer drops another pearl of wisdom to explain this interchangability several pages later: “I have thus deemed it a necessity to describe rock ‘n’ roll by allowing my description to be itself a parallel artistic endeavor." Rock and rock criticism are, if not inseparable, driven by common underlying properties, he says. They are parallel artistic endeavors, or even parts of the same endeavor.
That endeavor, I dare to say, is making meaning, and fighting our way through the heavy foliage of our lives because we are driven by the love of beauty. This is not a metaphor I have in mind when I sit down to explain why I’m giving the new Modest Mouse record three stars out of five, but when you get down to it, I’m writing about music for the same reason Modest Mouse, or anybody, is making it—I love the way it sounds.
Even though I agree with Meltzer about the “parallel artistic endeavor,” I don’t really want to convince you that you should buy a certain band’s records, or even to explain why my #1 of the year is #1. All I really want to do is to write about rock and roll, to do it regularly, to do it with clarity and grace—to crack songs open and reveal the things they have hidden inside them.
Why? Because I love music. Even if I hate it sometimes.