Dance About Architecture Like Nobody's Watching

I don’t read music reviews anymore. It’s not because I think the state of music criticism has declined or any straw man polemic thing like that. It’s just that other people’s “objective” description of songs and albums no longer interest me. I’m sure a lot of them are well written, full of expert observations and deep, encyclopedic references. I just don’t care about them anymore.

I used to care when I was a teenager with limited sources of money. And by “limited,” I mean around 300 bucks per week. Money was also the only way to acquire music back then, which meant albums were nearly plutonium-level scarce. My allowance was enough for one cassette tape purchase per week (which cost 80 pesos during the early 90s, and 100 pesos during the mid-to-late 90s), or at times two tapes, if my threshold for hunger somehow exceeded the norm. There was very little room for error. I couldn’t just give 4 Non Blondes a whirl via torrent and delete it after 5 songs of awfulness – I was stuck with that tape and the grief of losing 80 precious bucks forever.

That is why music reviews mattered. It mattered because 15-year-olds like me couldn’t afford to blow money on dust-accumulating paper weight (my only source of music reviews then was the fanzine-cum-song-hits Rock ‘N Rhythm, which covered anything from Def Leppard to Shelleyan Orphan, and was right about 64% of the time). It mattered because music actually cost money – real money that was finite and therefore had to be budgeted wisely.

Music criticism has always been, to varying degrees, an act of self-indulgence. But in the pre-internet era, it also had a practical purpose, serving as a consumer guide for people who had limited means of buying music. Now that functionality is gone. I concede that there may still be people out there who (a) always pay for music and never use streaming services and (b) who still read reviews to determine which albums to buy. But I doubt that the existence of these people is what motivates today’s music critics. I also don’t think critics today seriously believe that they can somehow influence an artist’s work, that if they call Slow Club’s new record “hammy,” the group would consciously try for more restraint on the next one. I would like to believe that the best critics (or at least the most self-respecting ones) expect the best musicians to not care about what they write.

All we are left with then is self-indulgence. It’s the sole reason why music criticism exists today. People write music reviews not because they want to guide the ever-dwindling percentage of people who lack free or cheap access to music – they write them so they could describe the music better than anyone else can. It’s now become some sort of a sport. People actually read reviews now just to see if a writer agrees with them or not. The entire generation of people who came of age with the Internet already in full-access mode experience music criticism exclusively this way. They don’t need reviews to guide them – they just need someone to agree or disagree with. They need to stay afloat on a sea of opinions.

In and of itself, self-indulgence isn’t wrong. I don’t find music reviews uninteresting because they’re self-indulgent – I find them uninteresting because they’re not self-indulgent enough.

A truly honest album review will always be written in the first person, whether in voice or in spirit. It never aspires to be objective. Music, more than any other artform, is personal. It is a living thing. It seeps into our consciousness like oxygen in blood, or a virus, sliding through our veins and taking over our entire system. It mimics our memories until it becomes our memories, folded neatly into melodies, and choruses, and hooks. A critic can't "review" a personal experience. If I wanted to know what the new St. Vincent record sounds like, I’ll just go ahead and listen to it. There are many easy ways to do so: via Youtube, Spotify, or torrent. But there is only one way to describe how the virus infects you.

When Elvis Costello said "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," he was illustrating the futility of the entire endeavor. One artform cannot possibly capture the essence of the other. But dancing about architecture is possible. Of course it is. Architecture - especially great, transcendent architecture - is always about something else, in the same way that no transcendent art is about itself. The way to circumvent the imagined impossibility is to ignore the cold minutiae involved in building houses and just dance about the dreams and failures that reside in them. Yet, it seems like the critical establishment is moving towards the opposite direction, diving headlong into the contradiction.

Music theory became a hot topic earlier this year, with a couple of pieces – one by Ted Gioia in The Daily Beast and another by Owen Pallet in Slate – advocating for more technical analysis in music criticism. While I find the music theory approach fascinating, I don’t see how it has anything to do with the problematic state of music criticism. All it offers is another way to “objectively” describe music – more scholarly and formal, they argued, and therefore more “correct.” But the only meaningful way to write about music today is to write about how it makes one feel, not how it sounds. Whether through poetry or music theory verbiage, the language doesn’t really matter. The architecture of music, however complex and opaque, makes our hearts dance. It's the dancing I'm more interested in.

My favorite music essay of 2014 so far is by music and basketball writer Steve McPherson. It’s not even about music. It’s about his memories of his dead mother and how they still haunt him. It’s also about how all his important memories are marked by songs. It’s a family portrait painted with music.

This is what I wish more music critics would do. I know that what McPherson wrote isn't a music critique and that's precisely my point. Music criticism is limiting, which is tragic because the richness of music should never ever be constrained. I wish websites like Pitchfork, the Quietus, and NME would somehow let go of their addiction to the new, to ignore social media’s impulse of doing things first, and let the albums live inside them for weeks, months, even a year. No music reviewer gets to the music first anyway. Everyone will have heard the newest release in a matter of minutes, and any attempt to beat them to it will only result in a meaningless piece of writing. Stop telling us what we’re already hearing. Tell us what you’re hearing. Tell us what all those “pentatonics” and “synchopations” mean to you outside the realm of music itself. Tell us what they say about the human condition.

I know this may sound hyperbolic and a tad dramatic, but I’ve loved music all my life. The world I know can never be hyperbolic and dramatic enough.




I write essays on pop culture and sports for various publications, yet remain an outsider, forever marooned in this blog I call home.

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