Why We Write

In defense of music criticism

It’s not easy being a music critic. Score an album too low and you’re labeled a cynic; too high, you’re a naïve optimist. Take the easy road out by giving it a 6 or a 7, and you’re criticized for having no backbone. Then there’s always the case of trivializing artistic intent with pompous descriptors and a plethora of adjectives. Or over-analyzing some bored kid’s work, and attributing great meaning to the music, when really it’s just a mass of fuzz and haze. You can’t win. And that’s 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 don’t like Justin Bieber, Lady GaGa or Flo Rida’s latest collaboration. But each of these “cultural lows” 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 “a little help from our friends” to succeed in this world (in respective order).

Culture is the soul of society – it’s what gives life meaning. And popular culture is just that: Popular. So when it comes to analyzing society, there’s no better place to look. The way we react to a song, the success of certain artists, the polarizing nature of an album – 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 “Mother of the Lost Generation” Gertrude Stein once said: “We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” Couple this quote with another, from the French artist Jean Cocteau: “An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.”

We are left with a fascinating paradox. Artists inject their work with a profound meaning, yet are unable to explain it. And it’s 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. It’s 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 …

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.