Why We Write

In defense of music criticism

Itís not easy being a music critic. Score an album too low and youíre labeled a cynic; too high, youíre a naÔve optimist. Take the easy road out by giving it a 6 or a 7, and youíre criticized for having no backbone. Then thereís always the case of trivializing artistic intent with pompous descriptors and a plethora of adjectives. Or over-analyzing some bored kidís work, and attributing great meaning to the music, when really itís just a mass of fuzz and haze. You canít win. And thatís not to mention the pains and difficulties of ranking an album.

So why do we feel the need to write and read about music? Why do we deconstruct an album devoid of artistic meaning? Because everything does in fact have a greater meaning. Nothing in pop culture is meaningless; not even meaningless music.

Personally, no, I donít like Justin Bieber, Lady GaGa or Flo Ridaís latest collaboration. But each of these ďcultural lowsĒ highlight certain aspects of society, that 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 ďa little help from our friendsĒ to succeed in this world (in respective order).

Culture is the soul of society Ė itís what gives life meaning. And popular culture is just that: Popular. So when it comes to analyzing society, thereís no better place to look. The way we react to a song, the success of certain artists, the polarizing nature of an album Ė these things matter. They matter a lot more than most people give them credit for.

This is why we write: To acknowledge the cultural meaning of music, and its wider social impacts. The great author, poet, and ďMother of the Lost GenerationĒ Gertrude Stein once said: ďWe all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artistís job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.Ē Couple this quote with another, from the French artist Jean Cocteau: ďAn artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.Ē

We are left with a fascinating paradox. Artists inject their work with a profound meaning, yet are unable to explain it. And itís this elusive meaning that you search for in every album, in every film, book or piece of art. 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. Itís totally 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 we write: To identify the profundity of musical meaning. We are neither hunters nor gatherers. We are not consumers. We are thinkers. We will never know the meaning of life. But we will spend our whole lives trying to figure it all out, in our own unique way Ö

Some people find meaning in the existential musings of Socrates or Nietzsche. Others swear their PHIL101 reading list is more than enough for them to understand the most fundamental questions about human existence. Some of us 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, and far less pretentious than all those Philosophy students.
This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2012.
Posted 7:07pm Sunday 1st April 2012 by Lukas Clark-Memler.