An interview with
Ian MacDonald

By Beppe Colli
Aug. 5, 2003

In an age when subjective likes and dislikes constitute the most common dimension of critical discourse, the long Introduction and the Note To The Chronology that appear in Revolution In The Head - The Beatles' Records And The Sixties, the widely acclaimed book by Ian MacDonald (originally published in 1994, revised in 1997), represent a courageous, successful and all-too-rare attempt at examining trends that are only apparent at a "macro" level.

While there are many reasons why the recently published The People's Music - the new collection of reviews, articles and profiles by Ian MacDonald - can be considered to be required reading, the excellent essay which gives the book its title is maybe the most intellectually stimulating item - and in a way the key to the other pieces in the book.

Of course, it's not difficult to imagine some people jumping out of their chairs after reading a sentence like this: "One aspect of this book which is undeniable is its view that the best popular music done in the period under consideration was made during the sixties, when rock was at its peak both as a new, half invented art form and as a receptacle for rebellious social impulses." (the quote is from page viii of the Introduction). So - I thought - why not have a chat with the author himself?

Though he was extremely busy, Ian MacDonald kindly accepted to answer my questions, which were sent by e-mail last week.

On page 193 of your book you write that from around 1963 "Music increased in popularity - just as, in the nineties, it grew less so, giving way to other leisure activities." I have a couple of questions about this.

First, it seems to me that the current trend in music magazines is to dramatically increase the number of record reviews per issue (with its logical consequence of the "star rating" system becoming even more widespread than before). In my opinion, this supposed remedy only makes matters worse. What's your opinion about this?

It's the standard wisdom of the publishing industry that more reviews means better coverage. One of the magazines I work for recently decreased the average word-length of reviews in order to get more in. Obviously this means that the quality of comment suffers. So, yes, I agree that this makes matters worse.

Second. You write of "Music papers which, in the nineties, found themselves desperately chasing readers..." (p.193). I have this quote by Jim DeRogatis (writing about the brand-new collection of writings by Lester Bangs): "If much of rock 'n' roll is ephemeral - it's here today and gone tomorrow - what does that say about rock writing?" What's your take on this when it comes to the press - and to the increasingly common "consumer guides" (however disguised) that appear on the Internet?

I've not seen any Internet consumer guides, so I can't comment on that. As for whether the majority of rock'n'roll is ephemeral, and therefore much of the writing about it is the same, I'd say that was self-evident. Very little in the industry lasts long, especially these days. Whether the writing about it survives will depend on the quality of the writers - although it obviously helps if the music is worth writing about in the first place.

I have to say that, in an age of post-modernism and ever-increasing relativism, reading what you write (on p.196): "(...) and something which is still taboo to recognize: a decline in the quality of popular music per se." (...) "The latter fact (...) has also been rejected by many young pundits in what remains of the pop music press for a less cynical version of the same motive: a wish to avoid conceding that the pop music of their time is inferior of that of earlier periods." is quite shocking. What's your opinion of those who vehemently deny this and who, though being in their sixties - say, Robert Christgau - praise to the skies people like Eminem and Pink?

I've read very little of Christgau and didn't find that I agreed with much of it, although that's mainly a question of varying tastes. Those who vehemently deny that pop music has declined ignore, in my view, the various objective measures by which music may be judged which I discuss in the "Note to Chronology" in Revolution In The Head. This is their prerogative but it doesn't give me much confidence in their ability to distinguish between good and bad music. Jazz and classical music have both declined drastically over the last thirty years and there would be few commentators in those fields who would not agree with this. Why, then, not in the pop/rock field?

You write: "Ears today are less sensitive than they used to be. This is partly a consequence of the social transition (...) from a listening culture to a visual one." (p.207). "Standards have declined (...)" (p.209). This reminded me of some things that Chris Cutler said in an essay he wrote for the ReR Quarterly, when he compared this to the fact that people were once able to evaluate craft - to tell a well-crafted chair from a shoddily-built one (I'm quoting from memory). But this is a line of reasoning that quite often is defined as being "elitist" - just as your attitude about sequencing. Would you mind elaborating on this?

Well, sequencing is a technical process with obvious downsides, which I outline in my book. As for distinguishing between what's well-crafted and shoddily built, I'd agree with Chris Cutler. I'm very struck by how many of the new groups one sees hailed these days cannot construct a coherent piece of music, let alone write a decent song. This is, I take it, largely because people copy what's immediately to hand in order to learn their craft and over generations the standards of musicality have degenerated year by year. Many modern groups obviously THINK they're working in the same ways as their forebears from decades earlier, but they're sadly mistaken.

Recently, writing a propos of the prevailing attitude towards the new Liz Phair CD, Gina Arnold has said: "It highlights the failure of rock criticism to move beyond the whole lo-fi/highbrow paradigm, whereby good music sounds bad, and vice versa." Do you think this phenomenon really exists?

I've heard plenty of lo-fi products which have, in my view, undeservedly received high praise merely because their relative simplicity and roughness makes them sound in some way "authentic". If this, as Gina Arnold suggests, has led to a paradigm of the sort she outlines, I can well believe it.

Some of your analysis on modern society (on p.208 you use the expression "the individualization of society") reminded me of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Are you familiar with his work? And: are there any sociologists whose work you regard as having been inspirational for you?

No, I've read no sociology. My ideas along those lines are strictly my own.

At some point (on p.207) you use the expression "So bad that they are good". This immediately reminded of a scene in the movie Ghost World. Talking about the whole "irony/nostalgia" phenom: Have you seen this movie? What did you think of it?

Sorry, I've not seen this movie.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Merely that one should not be surprised that a phenomenon, such as pop music, has declined over time. It's by and large a very simple musical genre and its possibilities are necessarily limited. It's more surprising that there continue to be, in isolated instances, pieces of pop/rock music which stand up to the standards of scrutiny of earlier eras, even if they don't rank very highly in the wider scheme of things. It's inevitable that people will go on enjoying music for the foreseeable future, despite its objective decline. If one has nothing excellent by which to compare something of lower value, one won't notice that one is being short-changed. This being so, pop/rock music will continue to thrive after a fashion and new generations of listeners will continue to enjoy it. It's just a shame that what's listened to now is of such a low standard compared to that of the Sixties and Seventies.

© Beppe Colli 2003 | Aug. 5, 2003