Since the first caveman panned his cave-mate’s mastodon-bone drum solo, musicians and critics have had a contentious relationship surrounding album reviews, where the rocker or pop princesses’ months of hard work is sometimes torn to shreds by the sinister and unwavering claws of the critic.
Nowadays, artists have better ways than angry voicemails to vent their frustrations at a bad review thanks much to the power of social media. Often, a musician’s words turn into an e-tantrum, but sometimes they raise a valid point, like Andy Falkous from Future of the Left did against Pitchfork on his blog, or as J. Tillman did (again, against Pitchfork) for the review of his first solo LP as Father John Misty, Fear Fun. As joyous as it was to see Tillman mercilessly attack the writer, the crux of his argument — a perceived lack of musical knowledge on the writer’s behalf — was entirely valid, raising oodles of questions regarding how much, if any, musical knowledge fans and critics should have. Are classes in order before we all spin our next record? Is it the role of the musician to somehow explain their work and the process that yielded it? Is Tillman’s defense just a paper-thin excuse to shield himself from bad press?
The most fascinating question is whether understanding music theory is the job of the listeners. Is it up to the non-musicians of the world to understand the mechanics and tools that musicians utilize in order to create? Does music require the accompanying technical details to be truly celebrated? The answer to that question depends on what your goal is after you listen. For “normal” music consumers, non-critics and those looking to use music for their own personal use as they see fit, the answer is most definitive no.
Totally not an intimidating presence in the slightest.
These days, a healthy population of fans have very little time or patience. Asking them to understand Dorian modes, ii-V-I progressions, paradiddles, or other techniques could inspire or push them toward one of their other bazillion musical options. There’s a sense of ease about how many fans currently analyze music. Oftentimes, fans explore emotional content with the aim of figuring out how music makes us feel, what concepts the artist attempts to approach, or how much or how well do said constructs resonant within ourselves. There’s also a sense of mysticism about music. As a kid, I assumed No Doubt used a tube toy in “Just A Girl”. When I learned it was a synth, some of the magic died. To thrust people into unfamiliar, academic music theory after years of associating music with sunrises and first kisses, the average listener is sure to miss out on a core factor to their emotional existence.
A fan not needing to understand various aspects of theory gives us one important distinction between fans and critics. Where knowledge may be harmful to casual listeners, it’s a necessity for critics to do their jobs better. I wouldn’t want to put words into Tillman’s mouth (Lord knows my self-esteem couldn’t handle a Twitter thrashing), but I think his overall message is about understanding. If we knew what it takes to do his job, from understanding how the equipment works to the nuances of the arrangements and music theory, we’d all be able to approach music with a more solid framework. Tillman, Falkous, and other musicians are seemingly looking for perspective from their less-than-loved media counterparts and if critics start possessing more knowledge about the artist’s craft, they can approach an artist’s work on a more level playing field. No longer would it be these mystic figures handing down songs from on high to people who don’t know the difference between a MPC and an MPD, or what a humbucker is, or what a Bb7#9 chord sounds like, or what a gated snare is, and so on.
Like a chef who knows how to pick the right spice after years of experience, a critic who understands the ingredients that makes albums/songs can offer tasteful criticism worth consuming. That knowledge has to extend to a number of different areas, but each would offer clues about the album and its essential value. If I understand that a certain section of a song was, for instance, more difficult to play live, I might glean that the album’s more of a live piece, which would impact how I review it by possibly changing where I listen to it or “grading” on a curve because of said revelation.
I’d draw the line at ever having to use this monstrosity, though.
If I knew a little about the instruments being used, I might be able to get a sense of some aesthetic or vibe the musician is going for; the density or overall set-up of the instrumentation might also tell me the artist’s overall approach as well. There are literally dozens and dozens of other concepts for myself and critics to have even the most basic of knowledge of. Each one is another link in truly meaningful awareness, one that grows and sustains itself with each new piece critiqued.
Willingness to better one’s self in the journey of music is one thing, but just how practical is it? Tillman and others like him have spent countless years honing their craft, bringing it to the masses both on record and at live gigs, working and talking with likeminded individuals, all in the pursuit of learning. True musicianship takes a lifetime to master; dedicating a few arbitrary hours to glean the basics is like thinking you can K-O Floyd Mayweather, Jr. after taking a few self-defense classes. So,what can be done to meet in the middle between an artist’s desire to better engage “equals” and a critic’s inherent un-musicality?
A musician’s rendering of the average music critic.
Like so much of life’s problems, it all boils down to communication. There’s this notion in the music biz that musicians and critics are bitter enemies, that one is Tom, the other Jerry, and we’re locked in this unending battle. If anything, I’d like to look at the musician-critic relationship as competing departments at one giant corporation, working fiercely on their own components (music itself and its worth/value) to deliver one product to consumers (music that’s been contextualized). While there should always be that sense of competitiveness and slight animosity, there needs to be discussions between both entities at all times.
While Tilllman’s point was to embarrass or call-out, he was on the right track by engaging the critic. It shouldn’t be a stagnant process that sees musicians create, critics dissect with red pens, and fans integrate or disregard accordingly. There should be a rehashing or follow-up of that second step after the review is published in order to create a dialogue to perpetually give fans more to analyze for that oh-so crucial last step. Whether that’s with Twitter or specialized message boards and/or chat rooms, critics and musicians need one another.
It’s not about one teaching the other, though. Just like departments in corporations are separate, so too must musicians and critics maintain their own boundaries, focusing instead on reaching out as a way to enhance their own methods and procedures. While critics have a duty to better understand music’s intricacies, they need a way to be able to focus on their own emotional development while listening to music. Those feelings and sentiments are crucial in forming and eventually reaching meaningful and worthwhile conclusions. To teach them is to take that vital prospect away from them and ruin their basic connection to the music. Giving them the ability to learn as they see fit (from music lessons to outright ignorance and a myriad of options in between) lets them hone their craft in a truly organic fashion.
Some musicians will disregard those critics who refuse to understand certain concepts and theories in order to preserve their writing process or out of sheer ignorance. On the other hand, musicians may be more than willing to engage a critic who has demonstrated the desire to learn about music theory, instrumentation, composition, etc. Whether that kind of treatment is better or worse, fair or not is almost irrelevant as musicians nowadays arbitrarily take heed to whatever criticism they find the most “interesting.”
And when that occurs, all of music listening/consumption improves. Musicians get better “opponents” in the process, critics have more weapons to conquer the great music monster, and fans reap the bounties of a more “utopian” process. It’s that kind of dedication and work toward prosperity that unequivocally separates us from our hairy ancestors and keeps our cultural disagreements from devolving back into spear fights.