Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)
Writing the Record by Devon Powers (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013)
( ) by Ethan Hayden (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)
AROUND THE TIME I started getting paychecks for writing about music, I tried to read the dense and difficult Aesthetics of Rock by the rock-critic-cum-philosopher Richard Meltzer. I was unable to finish the book, but a single sentence from it has both haunted and comforted me for years. Near the beginning, Meltzer writes that “the art critic can never be epistemologically capable of describing art by thinking at being but must think from and within being. I have thus deemed it a necessity to describe rock ‘n’ roll by allowing my description to be itself a parallel artistic endeavor.”
Like other aestheticians before him, Meltzer seems here to be critiquing the Kantian notion of disinterest as paramount to aesthetic judgment—the idea that to evaluate a work of art, the observer must maintain some degree of objective detachment. Today, I suppose many of us would think disinterest both impossible and undesirable; why would I not want to bring myself to my appreciation of art? How, indeed, could one not? But Meltzer goes a step further by describing writing about music as “a parallel artistic endeavor”—not an objective process of judgment done from afar, nor even a secondary, parasitic act of interpretation made possible only by a primary source, but, essentially, the same thing.
A lot of writing about music does not feel like a parallel artistic endeavor. It feels like showy self-aggrandizement. I know this because I have done a lot of it. But the best writing about music that I know does feel as revelatory and true and beautiful as the best music that I know, and writing about music, at its best, feels essential to the experience of being a music listener—or a music lover, really.
So I agree with Meltzer. And in what follows, which is a review of three books about interpreting popular music, I’d like to keep this idea in mind, and to make a more audacious claim: that making music, writing about music, and loving music are all parallel endeavors in the making of meaning, and that as manifestations of meaning-making, they are all, in a sense, the same endeavor, and that that endeavor is in fact religious, a divinely rooted impulse. My idea, odd as it may seem to advance in a review of books about pop music, is that all human meaning-making endeavors are variations on a theme. That theme is the divinely infused logos, the ineffable thing that drives humans to make art and language and music and all other forms of meaning.
Some understandings of the relationship of criticism to the arts would repudiate the idea that art, its interpretation, and its critique are somehow bound together. George Steiner’s Real Presences—a book-length essay arguing against criticism and in favor of primary texts, and artworks, as central—comes to mind. The idea is that creation comes first, commentary afterwards. Eden, then Babel. The Torah, then the Talmud. The movie, then the review.
Chronologically speaking, this is not wrong. From an evolutionary or just broadly historical perspective, it seems intuitively true that the creation of the universe precedes the emergence of language, which itself probably precedes the genesis of art as such, which surely precedes the development of any robust discourse of interpretation or criticism.
From a more mystical or theological point of view, however, it’s unnecessary to view creation, language, art, and criticism as sequential, especially if we assume that meaning is divinely infused, woven into the fabric of the universe, that the logos is always already present. It all has to do with it, as John Coltrane wrote in the liner notes to A Love Supreme.
(Permit, if you will, a digression: we make a mistake, I think, when we assume that logos simply means word, and this leads to some careless analogies. Logos is not so much about words as we know them, words like fish or the or Mexico or pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, but about an eternally existing ultimate reality. This reality can be difficult to name. It is Christ, certainly, but Christ’s eternal existence suggests an all-encompassing truth that is hard to pin down—Chinese Bibles translate this as Tao, the Way. However we define logos, it is clear there is more to meaning than mere words—sound, gesture, image, movement, and many other channels exist through which we understand and interpret the world and each other. That we can do so is a testament to incarnation, not only of God in Christ, but of a God-breathed consciousness, a divine spark of meaning and purpose, in us.)
What I want to suggest, then, is that the fact that we can make meaning at all should be seen as of a piece with our participation in the created order, an intended side effect of our being something a little lower than the angels, as it were, who can know and mean. Even (especially?) when we’re knowing and meaning about rock and roll.
In each of the three books discussed in this essay, questions of music, language, and interpretation are somehow linked. For Carl Wilson in Let’s Talk About Love, the question is why so many people love music by an artist he can’t stand (music + interpretation). For Devon Powers in Writing the Record, the question is how the idea of rock criticism emerged in the 1960s when a group of writers for the Village Voice began to ask, “How do we develop a new language for talking about music?” (language + music). For Ethan Hayden in ( ), the question is how an invented language, emptied of semantic content, can work in tandem with the semiotics of music and somehow be made to mean (language + music + interpretation). Taken together, all three books ask questions about listening to, loving, understanding, and writing about music, questions that to me suggest a larger, looming question about the very possibility of meaning.
Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love is the most feted book in Bloomsbury Academic’s 33⅓ series (formerly published by Continuum). The series, which recently published its hundredth book, comprises short books about classic pop albums, including everything from the Smiths’ Meat is Murder to Nirvana’s In Utero to the soundtrack to the Super Mario Brothers Nintendo game. These are books by and for what are usually called “music nerds,” which is why Wilson’s book came as a shock: its theme is the Celine Dion album Let’s Talk About Love, the one that includes the theme from the movie Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On.” This is not, strictly speaking, a music nerd’s album; Celine Dion makes the kind of overwrought, populist schmaltz that readers and writers of the 33⅓ series are predisposed to hate.
This, then, is the book’s genius: rather than a critical dissection of the album itself, or an academic study of its significance, Wilson makes an earnest inquiry into why so many people love Celine Dion, and why he can’t. The book’s original subtitle was A Journey to the End of Taste, while the expanded edition, issued by Bloomsbury in 2014, goes with the more on-the-nose Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. Wilson makes few apologies about hating Celine Dion, but his investigation into why others love her is refreshingly open.
Wilson looks into various aspects of Dion’s character that give her grassroots global appeal: being a non-American (she’s French-Canadian), having a working-class Catholic upbringing in a large family and a beat-the-odds success story, singing vague love songs that are accessible to non-native English speakers, and so on. He leans heavily on the notion advanced by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu that aesthetic taste, far from being driven by objective judgment or even a personal encounter with beauty, is, Wilson writes, “an array of symbolic associations we use to set ourselves apart from those whose social ranking is beneath us, and to take aim at the status we think we deserve.”
While he does not wholly agree with Bourdieu, Wilson acknowledges that his own musical prejudices are not wholly aesthetic; the social world a music critic like Wilson lives in—the hip, youngish, left-leaning political world of a Canadian urbanite who writes for Slate and the New York Times—constrains what he is able to love, and how he is able to interpret the language of an artist like Dion whose work is embraced by subcultures he isn’t a part of: immigrants, drag queens, rural radio listeners.
Interestingly, against this sociological backdrop, Wilson’s explication of others’ love for Celine Dion starts to sound something like faith, with Wilson as the kind of nonbeliever who would love to be able to be religious, but finds the whole enterprise intellectually disingenuous. He explicitly addresses this when he writes about cultural elites’ distrust of sentimentality and melodrama, wondering if he has it wrong. Wilson admires John Cage’s famous silent piece, 4’33”, for its sangfroid, its antisentimentality: “Like Cage’s silence, God’s love is unspeakable, implacable, its gaze matter-of-fact. But human love is something else: We love in excess of God’s love if we love at all. We love by heaping meaning on objective fact. If I believed in God, I might imagine this is what He created humans for, to give things more tenderness than He granted them….” Wilson begins to wonder if it isn’t truly human to exaggerate, to pile on the schmaltz until it becomes unbearable; “God or no God, it’s hubris to pretend to know the correct amount of tenderness it is ours to grant,” he concludes.
Taste—which appears to be nothing more than love, in the end—seems to be elusively subjective, even though it may be heavily influenced by social factors. Ultimately, Let’s Talk About Love is a book about caring about music, a kind of deeper love that goes beyond liking or disliking particular genres or artists. This is underscored by the handful of response essays solicited for the book’s expanded edition; most of the contributors write more about what they love (the band Television, Diana Ross, family members, disco dances) than respond directly to Wilson’s book. This, perhaps, is as it should be; writing about something you care about should beget others writing about what they care about, rather than nitpicky critiques-of-critiques. George Steiner would be pleased.
If Let’s Talk About Love is a book that deals with caring, Writing the Record is one that deals with mattering, looking into how and why pop music, and writing about music, matter to people. When serious writing about popular music was in its infancy, everything was an open question: is this about art or business? Is this criticism or fluff? Is this about music, or culture, or politics? Powers’s book, adapted from her doctoral thesis, describes how the Village Voice, a venerable institution in the alternative-weekly newspaper business, began to incorporate writing about rock music into its pages—completely separate, notably, from its sections on classical music and jazz—and how a handful of Voice writers came to create what we now think of as rock criticism.
What seemed to matter most to these writers, in Powers’s analysis, is the idea that as part of the rock and roll endeavor (remember that Meltzer quote), they were members of a new, vital movement, one that was as much cultural and political as it was artistic, which would bring about social change during the tumultuous 1960s. Powers draws on cultural theorists and historical documents from the Voice and other publications, tracing the development of pop music as an important cultural force, the reckoning of “serious” critics with populist art forms when they could no longer be ignored, and the eventual development of pop criticism in the work of Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau. These writers, and other public intellectuals of their generation (like Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag), were in large part responsible for making “low” forms of art the subject of serious thought and criticism.
From its earliest days, Powers shows, rock criticism was conflicted about what the purpose of rock and folk music—and writing about it—actually was. Rock seemed to carry with it some of the politics of the folk movement—the emphasis on authenticity, community, and grassroots politics—but by 1966, Goldstein was already lamenting the butchering of rock music by “public relations men, disc jockeys, emcees, executives, socko boffo copy boys, fabulous blondes, prophets, frauds, fakes” and others involved in what Powers calls “hype”—the appropriation of underground music by mass media for commercial purposes. By 1970, the idea of rock music as a unified social movement was dead, and the Voice critics lamented its fragmentation and commercialization. Even as they continued to write about rock music with, Powers writes, the “assumption that rock music listening should be a revolutionary experience politically, personally, emotionally, and intellectually,” critics used their platforms to proclaim that rock was dead.
The absence of the word “spiritually” from Powers’s list, incidentally, should not be taken to mean that there is not a great deal of faith in the act of writing about music, even for the Village Voice. Many of the early rock critics seem to have been animated by a kind of utopian impulse, a longing for a left-wing eschaton, and seem to have been disappointed by its non-arrival; nevertheless, they continued to document rock music and culture. And while I know nothing about the particular Jewishness of critics like Goldstein, Kael, and Ellen Willis, another Voice rock critic, I am reminded of what the contemporary rock critic Douglas Wolk once told me: at his college radio station, a common practice was to put a plain white sticker on a record and write something about it. People would add other comments and eventually “have these long, almost Talmudic conversations,” he said, about rock albums. The lesson Wolk learned: if you were serious about music, you wrote about it. This sort of commentary, I think, is part of the impulse I described earlier: the desire to know, to understand, to make meaning.
While Powers’s analysis tends to focus on the macro- and micro-politics the Voice writers were embedded in, her final chapter, “Mattering,” gets at something deeper. While Robert Christgau gave his album-review column the only partly tongue-in-cheek title Consumer Guide, he also referred to the essential core of rock writing as “the Mattering.” It is clear that music has an enormous amount of influence in people’s lives, socially, culturally, and even spiritually; religious music fits that bill most obviously, but as Jeff Keuss argued in his book Your Neighbor’s Hymnal, popular music, too, fills an almost liturgical need in many people’s lives. Powers concludes her chapter definitively: “the ability to listen, write, and read together—with music as our muse, our riddle, our antagonist—deserves unwavering faith and resolute defense.” This is, in part, she argues, because cultural vitality is at stake. Perhaps on an altogether higher level, our very sense of who we are and why anything matters is at stake.
Ethan Hayden’s book ( ), about the album of the same name (well, “name”) by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, though the shortest of those discussed here, is the most dense. Drawing on a variety of scholarly sources on music, language, and semiotics, he attempts to parse the band’s ethereal third album, which is sung entirely in a made-up language known as Vonlenska, or Hopelandic (mostly short syllables like yu, fy, sy, lo, and so). It is a book, among other things, about “filling in gaps, about interpreting things we can’t possibly understand, but feel very deeply that we do,” and about “language, about languages we don’t understand, about languages that aren’t meant to be understood,” Hayden writes.
Sigur Ros is one of the most prominent post-rock bands of the last decade, using rock instrumentation to create music that is at times more neoclassical than pop. The band’s aesthetic is redolent with grandeur and awe: songs slowly build, over the course of five to ten minutes, from minimalist riffs to triumphant crescendos. Their influence can be seen in contemporary rock music—even a pop band like Coldplay owes something to Sigur Ros—and in contemporary evangelical religious music (a number of Christian post-rock bands I interviewed for an article some years ago described Sigur Ros as both a musical and spiritual influence). One of the hallmarks of their sound is Jón Þór Birgisson’s otherworldly falsetto, which often functions more like an instrument than a voice.
Hayden explores what it means for ( ) to be an album intentionally devoid of linguistic meaning which many listeners nevertheless experience as meaningful. The book’s four main chapters, “Nonsense,” “Voice,” “Space,” and “Hope” deal with different aspects of the album’s sounds and what they mean. He describes a variety of invented languages, from xenoglossia (imagined alien language) to echolalia (imitations of language) to glossolalia (speaking in tongues), noting that languages that lack an inherent semantic structure, like Sigur Ros’s Hopelandic, paradoxically mean nothing but can mean anything; the listener is invited to fill in the gaps. Hayden argues that Hopelandic “refuses to mean,” thus relying primarily on the sound of Birgisson’s voice to make it what it is.
What is it, exactly? Why do so many people seem moved by a meaningless language? In his introduction, Hayden claims that he does not intend to interpret the album, and in fact concludes the book by suggesting that the songs have “no real purpose at all,” that he would rather “let nothingness be nothingness” than encourage “people solipsisitcally meditating on their own individual meanings.”
I understand what he means—again, preferring the creation to the commentary—but the cat is already out of the bag when you manage to write, as Hayden did, 144 pages about this nothingness. And as Hayden would admit, Sigur Ros’s music is not nothing. Regardless of its alleged semantic emptiness, this primary act of creation, this making, is still what prods a critic to take notes on what he or she sees or hears, to explain it to others. By writing about “nonsensical” music, a critic takes part in the construction of meaning—a meaning which doesn’t have to be semantic, by the way; Hayden uses Julia Kristeva’s distinction between the symbolic (language) and the semiotic (the expression of “instinctual drives”) to suggest that there are meanings somehow before, or beyond, or beneath language. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Hayden doesn’t present his work as a definitive statement of what the album is “about.” Don’t many of us intuit a sort of ur-meaning beyond our own symbolic capabilities, assuming our attempts to speak or sing or write fall short of a more perfect expression of something we can’t quite name? Might that not be the mystery that a “meaningless” musical language embraces?
Language may, of course, be the best tool we have to try to get at the ineffable qualities Hayden investigates about nonsense—and Wilson about love, and Powers about criticism—or indeed to get at any understanding of ourselves and our universe, which is why so many books have been written not only about music, but about all kinds of human symbolic behavior.
Perhaps it is like this: the ground we see before us is covered in pristine snow. To make anything, music or art or literature or a sound or a gesture, is to make a mark in the snow. To react and interpret, to say something about what you’ve seen, is to make more tracks. They begin to blur together in a kind of conversation. We’re all going somewhere, following each other, or making our own paths.
The metaphor is overwrought, I’m afraid, but here is the central question about meaning: Why is there snow—the raw materials for meaning-making, I mean—at all? What abstruse purpose does the force that sustains the universe have in making us, as the great rhetorician Kenneth Burke claimed, a “symbol-using, symbol-making, symbol-misusing animal?” I can’t claim to know the specifics of how the human endeavor to mean relates to the larger purposes of God. But it seems to me that we come from meaning, we are made from meaning, and we are desperate to continue to make and remake it from the materials we’ve been given—our voices, our hands, our minds.
The books I’ve mentioned here are fascinating volumes about (in part) what it means to write about music, but more than that, they are underwritten by the belief that it is somehow a worthwhile endeavor to make meaning out of meaning. This itself, as George Steiner argues, again in Real Presences, is “a wager on a relationship between word and world…which is insured by the transcendent.” I don’t think we’ll ever stop writing about music, or about art, or about writing, because we seem, in the end, to have faith that all this meaning does, well, Mean Something.