I don’t tend to commemorate death-dates but during a sleepless moment – beyond medication and meditation – I started thinking about Lester Bangs, who died on this day most-of-my-life ago. Timing is everything, even posthumously. Reading his “How to Be a Rock Critic” is one of my return-to pieces when I start to get cranky with criticism. He writes with such irreverence, but, like this post, wouldn’t be writing even a parody without some semblance of devotion to his chosen field.
I sometimes wonder what my syllabus would include if I were to teach music criticism. First, philosophic argument. Second, grammar. Third, who, what, when, where, why. Fourth, make everyone in the class do a creative presentation and have the class critique it. Fifth, the difference between journalism and journaling. Sixth (possibly seventh), talk about music (or art or whatever).
If I were ever to teach such a course, I’d assign one book: Mo Willems’ “Listen to My Trumpet.” A patient Elephant is subjected to an enthusiastic Piggie’s trumpet performance. When asked his opinion, Elephant unwillingly offers truths before offering his real viewpoint. But, once the opinion is honestly shared, Elephant receives more information about the performance that changes his reaction and expectations. Willems perfectly annunciates the critic’s frustrations and role. If we could all be so lucky.
It is a tough and thankless beat, sometimes, what Tim Page described (in an informal talk with the Musicology Dept. of UMKC last March) as “scurrying home to a hermetic existence,” with continuously glaring can’t-please-everybody-all-of-the-time moments. But if you’re doing criticism for a pat on the back, then you’re in the wrong business, bub.
And while I take no personal joy in pointing out moments of weakness in concept or presentation, I’m not a press agent or a cheerleader and I see my role through ridiculous layers and filters.
‘Cause it’s about truth, overall. Truth is good. Truth is oddly fickle. Truth is subjective. The truth will set you free – but first it will piss you off. It’s not just about judgment on a performance or situation. It’s not just reporting events and trying to get the names spelled correctly; it’s looking at the culture, the environment of here and then and now and later, trying to understand the intent, the context, the technique, the production, the hook, the angle, the purpose, the history, the ability of the performers, the expectations, the purpose within the community, within the past of the piece, the future of the piece, the readership, authorship, editorialship and whittling it down into 400-600 words.
Criticism is at best a combination of storytelling and facts (another Page concept – damn, that guy is good). And, while it requires a certain amount of reportage, it should primarily be a teaching tool. That being said, it should be interesting and, as stated before, as truthful as the writer is able to make it. I know I learn something new every time I attend a performance or write a piece and my goal is to have that transition to the reader.
Being aware of one’s biases is another key factor. Consider Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination interviews when there was such a hullabaloo when she admitted to having biases. Everyone has biases, of course, but it’s the unexamined, unacknowledged ones that are the hidden mines, trapping both the artist and the critic in an unfair situation, disadvantaged to the bias itself.
Another Page lesson, paraphrased: Learn everything there is to know about a work, then keep it in a side of your brain. Go out and get lost in the moods. What do you think? Bring a personal side to it. “The point of writing about music is to say something new.”
Flipside of this lesson, though, is not to show-off to the reader or to subvert the event in support of one’s own goals. The whole point to everything we do should be to raise the level of commentary by demanding the highest possible performance and reacting at the highest level of consciouness.
My husband and I attended a lecture by Meg Onli at the Spencer Art Museum on KU’s campus last week. She’s a recipient of the Warhol Foundation’s 2012 Arts Writers Grant Program. Critical philosophy is sorta my bag and I love, love, love hearing people talk about their influences and direction and path and focus.
One aspect she brought up was the concept of Slow Blogging, citing blogger Todd Sieling’s manifesto. It seems antithesis to the very nature of the internet, but what’s the point of writing something half-
assed-constructed when a day or seven or fifty could make it better, good even? We’ve forgotten how to navel-gaze in this society, to think deeply. Sauce needs time to simmer. If everything is immediate, nothing is substantial, it all falls down.
Reading “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr discusses my version of apocalyptic end-times – that the internet and computers are changing how our brains function and it’s not necessarily an evolutionary step up. I myself have a more difficult time physically writing – with a pen and paper – than I used to because I just can’t write as fast as I can type and what if I lose all these brilliant thoughts. What if by taking the time to write, really write, the thoughts are better formed and don’t require as much editing in the first place?
Yeah, well, I’m a kettle.
Okay, I lied. I’m already revising that syllabus to include Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist.” Here he fleshes out his critical philosophy in an artistic form – the playwright presents his philosophy in dialogue. Why shouldn’t we treat what we do with same seriousness of purpose as the artists and artistic work we comment on? Why can’t criticism be an ekphrasic response to the experience of a work, something beyond journalism and beyond academia?
Back to Bangs: dude wrote on a typewriter or with a pad of paper, very likely under the influence of one substance or another, and still a generation later his opinions and prose style are studied, emulated, considered. (Most of what is worth reading in the history of Things To Read was written before personal computers or even typewriters existed.) And maybe a generation doesn’t seem that long ago in the world of criticism or music or arts or writing but when you think that he was commenting on what was considered a here-and-gone genre anyway – heck, half of everybody seemed to die one way or the other, including Bangs – and it holds up, well, that’s something to ponder when I’m staring at the ceiling thinking about syntax and poetic descriptions.