Writing about Music
is like
Writing about Architecture

By Beppe Colli
July 5, 2011

I have to confess that what at first appeared to me as being a quite simple case of book review - specifically, an anthology of old writings about rock music by a recently-deceased critic who had stopped writing about rock music, per se, a long time before - gradually became something quite different, and much more complicated, though very interesting to ponder. I'm obviously talking about Out Of The Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis On Rock Music - By Ellen Willis - Edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz, and my review of said book, which appeared here on May, 26.

As already argued at length in my review, I regarded the volume as quite mediocre, and not at all worthy of all the fuss I was seeing in the (Web) press. It had only been 'cause of that brouhaha, that unmistakable smell of cultural canonization that I appeared to detect in quite a few writings, that I became convinced to publish a "minority report" about the matter.

In a post on a Web blog that appeared on April 4, 2011 under the title Honoring - and Learning From - Ellen Willis, Robert Christgau announced "a conference at NYU on Saturday, April 30, devoted to Ellen's music criticism, a full day featuring a truly remarkable array of panelists and readers". Just a few days after the event, which had the title "Sex, Hope, and Rock n Roll", on May 3, the Web magazine Slate ran a reporting piece by Judy Berman titled Ellen Willis Reclaims Her Place in the Rock-Critic Canon. Which I regarded as quite funny, given the fact that there's no concept today that's so universally been made an object of ridicule - and to which nobody appears to attribute any possible shared significance whatsoever - than "canon". Which doesn't entail, of course, that those who strongly negate the mere possibility of the existence of a "canon" will regard the act of creating one's own canon - one possessing "absolute value", albeit within a "limited cultural sub-field" - as perfectly logical.

My feelings received considerable backing by a review of Willis's book by Carl Wilson (which appeared, if I understand correctly, on Back to the World.net on June 22, 2011, and which I had not read anyway at the time I wrote my review) from which I'll now quote a key passage: "Part of what was lost in Willis's voice going missing was the way she treated music not so much analytically, and certainly not categorically, but dynamically." This brief quote was enough to make me reach for the salts. But it was the following passage that really put all the cards on the table: "She had a way of talking about artist-audience relationships, specifically fan relationships, that anticipated what would come in cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s." Here, as it always does thanks to an acquired reflex, my arm propelled itself to open the drawer where I keep my braids of garlic which act as a protection device in cases like this - and I knew this time one would not suffice.

Scott Woods kindly decided to make readers of the Rock Critics website, which he founded and presently edits, aware of what I had written and argued in my review of Willis's book. Woods featured an excerpt from my review, and a link to the full text.

I believe it won't be difficult for readers to imagine my surprise when I saw that a comment by Richard Riegel had been posted on Rock Critics on June 3, 2011. Of course, Riegel is a somewhat-known US critic, a former colleague of legendary Lester Bangs at Creem magazine. My surprise was bound to increase tenfold when I noticed that, this time, lucidity had deserted Riegel, giving me just two alternatives to consider:

a) Riegel read the complete text; this gave me defining Riegel - and here I'm paraphrasing Randy Newman, of course - as somebody who "doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground" as being the only option;

b) Riegel thought that the writer in question - i.e., yours truly, i.e., me - was just small fry writing for a no-name publication, which made him choose the option of not wasting even the tiniest fraction of the little time he has yet to live on this earth reading the aforementioned review as the only reasonable alternative, something that made him post the first thing that came to his mind as an adequate reply to the brief fragment quoted by Woods.

Riegel's behaviour at the time of his polemic with Anthony DeCurtis when the latter had published (on May 13, 2000) in the online edition of US magazine Rolling Stone an article titled Busting the Cult of Lester Bangs: Rethinking the Legacy of Rock's Most Celebrated Critic had been quite different. Riegel had written a long, detailed article for Rock Critics (see: Cultivating the bustle of Anthony DeCurtis: Richard Riegel vs. Anthony DeCurtis, Oct. 2002), to which DeCurtis had replied (Anthony DeCurtis Responds to Richard Riegel, October 16, 2002), making Riegel reply again (Richard Riegel Responds to Anthony DeCurtis, October 17, 2002).

What word would Lester Bangs choose as an adequate description for somebody who behaves so differently, according to his opponent's status in the publishing word? I'll let Riegel make the choice.

The paradoxical fact is that the only intelligible thing Riegel said about what I wrote about Bangs is "Lester's passion about music, and the brilliance of his prose in explaining that passion", which doesn't run counter to what I wrote (quite the opposite, in fact): that Bangs was not a source of information as reliable and useful when he talked about the music he listened to as he was about the passion that was at the source of his listening; and that - just like it was for Willis - his "changing his mind" was a lot similar to a "conversion", something which at its very core is "irrational".

Given the fact that in cases like this losing the thread of the argument is quite easy, let's consider this quote from my review of Willis's book that's pertinent to what is discussed right now:

"Reading this book, it immediately dawned on me that, though their styles are quite diverse - also their values - Willis practices an irrational approach that is not that different from Lester Bangs's. Just check the way liking an album is experienced as a kind of "conversion", and so something which is impossible to explain. Just a for instance: "When I first heard Exile On Main St., I hated it." (...) "I now think that Exile is arguably the Stones' best work. My conversion to Goats Head Soup was less dramatic" (...) "but the process was similar". (...) "But only a month ago I was listening to Angie, a song I'd dismissed as an irritating whine, and suddenly heard it as exactly the opposite - a victory over self-pity." (p. 43)."

So I read again Mainlines, Blood Feasts And Bad Taste, the second Lester Bangs anthology which appeared in 2003. The following quote about the Rolling Stones appears on pp. 131-132:

"Exile on Main Street came out just three months ago, and I practically gave myself an ulcer and hemorrhoids, too, trying to find some way to like it. Finally I just gave up, wrote a review that was almost a total pan, and tried to forget about the whole thing. A couple weeks later, I went back to California, got a copy just to see if it might've gotten better, and it knocked me out of my chair. Now I think it's possibly the best Stones album ever." (...) "What was responsible for my dramatic turnaround on the album? I don't think it matters much."

Those wanting more are invited to read both writings about Miles Davis and his LP On The Corner: Kind Of Grim: Unraveling the Miles Perplex (1976), and Miles Davis: Music for the Living Dead (1981), appearing on pp. 162-171 and 172-177 of said volume. It's quite apparent that inside this conceptual framework one's "changing opinion" about a work is always correlated to a changing of one's perception of said work for "personal" reasons, as opposed as an opinion that changes according to a modification of one's information about properties that are intrinsic to the object. Which is too important a distinction to forget about, as we'll see in a minute.

The fact that a reader as attentive and scrupulous as Scott Woods did not fully get the main point of my writing when it comes the problem we are discussing here ("It's not entirely clear to me what Beppe's issues with Willis are, but this sentence might be a hint") makes me think I was not sufficiently clear in my exposition.

Woods wrote: "I don't know about 'irrational,' but his second point, about the almost religious fervour in each of their responses to the records they adore is pretty spot-on, though not, for me, a problem (quite the opposite)."

Lack of clarity on my part, maybe. When using the word "conversion" I refer not to the strength of one's fervour, but to the fact that it is impossible to explain in terms that can be rationally defined in relation to music. Here the obvious reference that will be useful in order to understand what this entails when it comes to "conversion" is the 1962 volume by Thomas Kuhn titled The structure of scientific revolutions, with its use of the expression "paradigm shift", an experience that can be said to resemble a "Gestaltic reorientation". And it's a reference that to me appears to be quite pertinent given the conceptual framework inside which Ellen Willis's anthology was discussed, in the US cultural forums we've talked about.

It's true that when it comes to a subjective perspective very often it appears as one is "getting" something all of a sudden, in just one moment. (Just consider how many times a piece of music one has previously considered as impenetrable and totally devoid of logic suddenly appears to be inhabited by a very precise internal logic.) But what one sometimes refers to as "intuition" is just the  result of a long internal preparatory work, the product of a maturation process that took place silently.

Woods again: "Music is 'impossible to explain,' though - at least if you limit your explanation to words alone. Indeed, that conundrum, as pointed out in various passages in Meltzer's The Aesthetics of Rock, is the futility (um, the challenge) of rock criticism. Writing about 'the music' - i.e., the notes, the chord changes, the instrumentation, etc. - gets you no closer to there than writing about any other aspect of it, because there is no there there."

These are all important points that I'll try to address in a moment.

Let's start with the issue of "changing one's mind".

Let's have three historical albums of rock music as our example. The Doors, first album of the same name (1967). This Was, first LP by Jethro Tull (1968). And the highly celebrated Led Zeppelin II (1969). At the time when I first listened to said albums I was just a bit more than a child, so it was really impossible for me to express an appreciation in terms that were more than of a subjective, instinctual type.

(Which is the main reason all "trends" that ransack the past - the most recent example at the time of this writing being "freak-folk", or "psych-folk" - appear more convincing to ignorant readers when they are communicated by people who are genuinely enthusiastic, given the fact that they are as ignorant of the past as their readers.)

It goes without saying that at that time I completely lacked any terms of comparison, any knowledge of past music idioms and predecessors of those works, not to mention any technical criteria useful to formulate a judgment. And even if it's true that the first two albums mentioned above were not recorded using the proverbial microphone suspended from the ceiling, it's obvious that the latter title adds a whole series of complex questions regarding the studio, and recording and mixing techniques.

It goes without saying that as my stock of knowledge grew, my perception and my judgment of those three albums could only change - which doesn't necessarily mean change for the worst.

But to have a different opinion than before about an album because we have a better understanding of its "components" is very different than changing one's mind because "I was depressed, and those dark sounds put me in a bad mood".

The proposition stated by Woods - "Music is 'impossible to explain'" - is obviously true. But I don't consider this perspective as "correct" (nor Woods referring to Meltzer - about "the futility (um, the challenge) of rock criticism"), since the "essentialist" perspective used by Woods when it comes to the process of understanding, even though its only purpose is to negate it "because there is no 'there' there.", is unnecessary and not relevant to the matter.

Likewise, I completely refuse the famous dictum "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" as a deeply irrational and obscurantist belief which is also harmful. Why? Because it  contributes to our getting used to not use reason correctly, and also getting lazy when it comes to correctly value truth, to critically evaluate what's argued, to see the assertion that "something is true for somebody" as being perfectly normal. "To be respectful of many different points of view" cannot mean to consider those who think that Earth is round and those who believe the Earth is flat as professing beliefs of equal worth.

Nowadays nobody considers "objective" descriptions as being worth of any consideration, but I think it's quite possible to agree that "an adequate description" that is intersubjectively verifiable is to be preferred to one that lacks those qualities - not to mention a delirium!

The following comparison is not really great, but for this time it'll have to do. We know no light bulb is 100% efficient. However, this doesn't make it impossible for use to choose between different light bulbs, though none of them are - as we all know - 100% efficient.

The issue that - due to the forces of habit and laziness - we often can't see anymore is that there are sound reasons that make assertions very different from pseudo-assertions, i.e., statements that share some formal traits of assertions. A good for instance being the class of circular assertions, which appear to offer information, but don't.

"A loud, thorny music, the logical means of expression for those who live in today's noisy modern world. It's today's music."

"A soft, acoustic music, the logical means of expression for those who live in today's noisy modern world. It's today's music."

In both sentences, the thing to be explained (incorrectly) becomes the explanation of itself. These are tautologies, whose information content equals zero.

This is obviously a very complex line of reasoning. As a caveat, readers are invited to refer to the Postmodernism Generator, a computer program that automatically produces imitations of postmodernist writing. The Postmodernism Generator website generates a random postmodernist article each time is loaded in one's computer.

Given the fact that our discussion runs the risk of becoming "too abstract", let's have a look at two examples.

The first one is an excerpt from a dialogue between Paul Zollo and Paul Simon which appeared in 1990 in SongTalk magazine. The song being discussed is the world-famous hit Still Crazy After All These Years.

SongTalk: That song has some unusual chord changes...

Paul Simon: Yeah, I was studying with a bass player and composer named Chuck Israels at the time so I was doing more interesting changes. I was studying harmony with him.

SongTalk: I read once that on that song you took every note that you hadn't used in the twelve-tone scale and constructed the bridge using those notes. True?

Paul Simon: Yeah, I used to do that. It was something that I noticed in Antonio Jobim's music. In fact, I once mentioned that to him and he said that he wasn't aware of it at all. [Laughs]

One's evaluation, value judgment, appraisal of said fact rests on one. But it's obvious that, having listened to Paul Simon's albums, anybody can say that "starting from a certain point the songs composed by Paul Simon become harmonically more complex", (here maybe one could say why), and describe the song Still Crazy After All These Years according to these coordinates.

It goes without saying that the act of filing in the same column ten albums which are harmonically similar gives readers a more important information than writing a list of "the albums depicting a divorce" which are quite diverse when it comes to music. At least, this is the criteria I use when choosing light bulbs.

A fruitful research progran could be: trying to evaluate the contribution in terms of sophisticated harmonic intervals and variety in tempo by a lot of jazz-schooled musicians (though the tag has to be quite elastic: just think of Stuff) to many chart albums of the 70s, so providing an "unifying hidden element" to disparate idioms. Which to me sounds like a meaningful, easy-to-understand task, quite differently from the one entailed by the example we're gonna see now.

Our second for instance comes straight from a roundtable which took place on US NPR, which can be accessed as text on the NPR website under the heading Nine Women In The Room: A Music Writers Roundtable (August 27, 2010).


Lara Pellegrinelli: Although, I love when artists both seem to play into those stereotypes and manage to subvert them at the same time. I like to think we're seeing more of that.

Ann Powers: Lara, agree. Gaga!


Ann Powers: Sexuality is one of my main topics, so for me it's very useful and fascinating. I am interested in how pop creates our conversation about sex in this culture.


Amanda Petrusich: But Gaga is also blonde and thin and white, so her "subversion" comes from an easier place, maybe?

Laina Dawes: Gaga is sexual but not sexually intimidating. Does that make sense?

Ann Powers: On one level yes, Amanda, but she really turns her whole thing grotesque.

I think there's nothing to add. (Maybe, "Bartender, please, I'll have what those ladies are having".)

The end, of some sort.

Investigating the various reviews of the Willis volume revealed to me... well, a can of worms would be a bit too much, but I really believe that the vast space conquered by various streams of Cultural Studies in those Universities we call Humanities have given birth to monsters of the intellect which have multiplied the absurdities of "cultural relativism" by every possible permutation of race and gender, so producing a proliferation of "local truths" whose very meaninglessness is opaque to their proponents.

I have a feeling - the actual proof I have being so scant I won't even use the word "hypothesis" - that the falling chances for music writers of getting proper retribution for their work by newspapers, magazines, and what's left of the "specialized press" made those in immediate danger of being "put to pasture" try to find shelter in those "writing depts." of those universities where a "creative" approach is still practiced.

While searching for materials pertinent to the topic at hand, I found an interview with Amanda Petrusich by Jacob Ganz which appeared on the NPR website on December 16, 2010, in the series Get To Know A Critic.

"I hope that writing books has helped me develop a more comprehensive and multi-dimensional way of thinking about music - for instance, now I think more about where a record came from, who made it, where they lived, what they were eating."

"For better or worse, I've become less interested in objective, academic criticism, and more interested in the personal parts of songwriting - what it means to the author and what it means to the listener. I used to feel like those opinions were less valid and had no place in criticism. Now I'm beginning to think that they're the only parts that matter."

What next? "The importance of gorgonzola for guitar solos played by inhabitants of rural areas" and "Shrimps and creativity according to escargot farmers in New Orleans"?

Enough, already!

Beppe Colli 2011

CloudsandClocks.net | July 5, 2011