Happy 2010!
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 1, 2010

Year after year, I'm more and more convinced that nothing is more harmful to my piece of mind than the uncontrolled proliferation of all those lists featuring the "Best Whatever of the year" that pop up practically everywhere. A phenomenon that's really hateful for being as predictable as it's inevitable, just like the changing of the seasons. The origins of this bizarre social custom are not a mystery any more, not since the day scholars of all things remote unanimously agreed that only folks from a land perennially immersed in a thick fog, tired of spending their time transmitting the legends of the Loch Ness monster by word of mouth, could consider writing lists as a source of amusement and, later, as a field where they could prove their worth. It would be easy to think I'm painting this problem as being a lot more serious than it really is. But now that this peculiar type of English disease has invaded a large part of the Western World, revealing itself as being perfectly fit to reproduce itself even in a land once thought to be unfavourable, i.e., the United States, the time has come to ask ourselves this question: Why?

I seem to recall this sequence: Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Sounds; Smash Hits; The Face; Q; Uncut, Mojo; The Word. Sure, the object doesn't stay the same, as readers can easily see even from a quick examination of these couples: Who is best - Beatles or Stones? Page or Blackmore? Pistols or Clash? Oasis or Blur? Winehouse or Allen? One has to notice that even those magazines whose real forte is splitting hairs (a good for instance being The Wire), as soon as they become victims of the "list disease" start considering splitting hairs just as a starting point of a travelogue whose natural limit can be consider as being nonexistent.

I would not be happy for readers to consider me as being in opposition to lists just for the sake of it. Quite the contrary, I think that knowing how many copies the most talked-about albums, movies, and books sold to be quite useful - even if I suspect that nowadays the thing a Top Ten list resembles the most is something like The first five causes of death in the western world (which is a list worth knowing about for sure, just maybe not during the Holiday Season). It would be different if large newspapers such as the Guardian, The New York Times, or La Repubblica ran lists such as The Ten Best albums, books, and movies you missed this year; but one could say, there must be a reason why they missed them, since it's not that people are physically banned from watching, say, Lorna's Silence, or from buying online a movie that didn't really have a theatrical release, such as, say, Wendy & Lucy.

The "list" that for quite a long time I considered to be representative of the cultural framework of the United States was the survey that for a long time was helmed by US critic Robert Christgau for the Village Voice, whose intended goal was to determine the "critical consensus" of a given year. A notion that today can be said to be debatable (and whose contemporary feasibility is quite problematic indeed, and not only for financial reasons: How many critics today listen to the same albums?) but that's more similar to a list such as Five Piano Jazz Albums bearing the influence of Paul Hindemith (in alphabetical order) than to ones like My favourite tracks at 4.34 pm or This Year's Best Ten Albums According to Us, one for each big advertiser of our magazine. Then there are those lists like the ones appearing in US monthly Down Beat that attempt (the impossible task) to combine quality and money (in such a tiny, miserable market as the one revolving around jazz, one's ranking in a poll can have serious monetary implications when it comes to concerts, and especially so if the promoter receives public funding, or is a public entity itself, particularly in Europe).

My surfing the Web had never been as dangerous as last December: in fact, I had completely forgotten that this was the last year of a decade, a fact made more serious by my lack of familiarity with the word Noughties (and the fact that at first I mistook this word for Naughties didn't help). So, there was no escape, from Noughties Icons to The Best Ten Films Of The Noughties.

My favourite pastime during the Holiday Season is surfing the Web to see how much (or how little) attention was granted to those albums that to me sound as being the most interesting and original (which doesn't necessarily translate in their being the most successful artistically) of the year. While doing a Google I happened to find two Italian reviews that quite resembled each another. Since by the look of it it didn't appear as being the case of one writer copying the other, I looked for the English press release of said record, and I found that the text looked like the source of both reviews.

A personal memoir. A long time ago I received a few re-releases of old albums by a UK group, together with a press release of such an high quality that it exited my admiration. You can imagine my surprise when, a couple of months later, I read an "in-depth article" about those same re-releases that revealed to be nothing more than a translation of what I had received. The episode came back to me about two months ago, when I happened to read, in the guise of an article, what was just a translation of a press release about some old, glorious live tracks being re-released that totally by chance I had read just a few days before while accessing Steve Hoffman's Forum.

The question concerning reviews that for the most part derive from a press release has always been of much interest to me, but one that I had not much of an idea about, since in order to make a reliable opinion about this one has to compare a large quantity of items: reviews, and press releases; and while it's obvious that in order to read reviews getting some magazines is all it takes, when it comes to press releases things are not so simple.

But things have changed. For reasons of economy, many albums (most of them being jazz albums, though this is by no means only confined to jazz albums) don't have liner notes, or accompanying papers, anymore, many labels and distributors preferring to have the material on their Website, for writers and readers to freely access. Even in cases when the piece of paper is still sent alongside the promotional copy, it doesn't say more than what's already available online. So statistics are getting interesting. (A knowledge of featured musicians' past achievements resembling an encyclopedia coupled with an immaturity of judgment or a "walking in the dark" when it comes to describing the music are a dead giveaway that something is really, really wrong.)

I'm really sorry when it comes to the disappearance of the liner notes, which besides being a source of income for jazz critics made it possible for fans to access a qualified opinion (and a source of information). What I find peculiar is not that it's the record company's opinion that gets transmitted, but that it's passed to readers as it were the writer's opinion. And of course, with word counts getting more and more severe every day, there's no real space to feature a "critical" part.

This is not a "moral" judgment (even if I'm aware that my position implies a moral judgment), so arguing along the tried-and-tested lines of "it's always been this way" would be a waste of time. It can be said that the proliferation of releases, and the multiplication of the "press" organs, including the Web, coupled with the use of an unqualified workforce paid little money makes it impossible for a single work to receive the amount of quality time it needs to be reviewed in the right way. So, in a way, having an article at one's disposal that one can copy at will appears to be the only available solution. This must be done under wraps, however, like a cheat getting his cards when no one is looking, at least until a degree of honest objectivity is seen as an indispensable ingredient of any review.

Readers who want to follow a parallel route to this topic are advised to read Chapter IV of a very fine book by Richard Sennett titled The Corrosion Of Character. This chapter deals with the way bakers in a Boston bakery saw their role, and much more, change in a quarter of a century.

A different way to think about this (but one that doesn't prohibit reading Sennett's book) is to read a lot of old reviews. My favourite site is Rock's BackPages (one has to pay/subscribe), and I warmly suggest readers consult the archives of The New York Times (some things are free, others are not), and also the Rolling Stone archives (Wikipedia being a useful source of information directing to many interesting reviews).

Contrary to the point of view of those who argue that there's a different opinion for each man, it's quite easy to see what makes a critic differs from a moron, and it's not a matter of thinking alike. Just consider Paul Nelson's review of Coney Island Baby by Lou Reed (having originally appeared in Rolling Stone, the review is now featured in the booklet of the recently re-released edition of said album - this time sounding really horrible!), and the one written by Greil Marcus about Lodger by David Bowie (also from Rolling Stone magazine). It's immediately apparent that both critics dealt with the problem at hand making use of their interpretative skills, with the end result (i.e., the reviews) being coherent and, so, understandable, while adopting their own highly individual point of view. And it's precisely their being understandable and coherent that makes it possible for us to disagree with their point of view.

In my opinion, the cultural framework chosen by Marcus is definitely not the best when it comes to the interpretation of a work like Lodger. Which doesn't make his review of no use for us - quite the contrary, in fact! Nowadays, the real danger is the rapid increase of reviews deriving from the same Press Release, however cleverly disguised their origin: well beyond the "love for sale" argument, it's the sameness of the reviews when it comes to matters of interpretation that's the real point. 'Cause it's the proliferation of different points of view - of the clear, logical, coherent variety - that is the first precondition of any public discourse.

Beppe Colli 2010

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 1, 2010