Music, etc. by Eric D. Johnson
I’m not the kind of critic that’s going to tell you about the best songs and albums of the year, ever. There’s too much out there that I’m not going to hear. And, I’ve got kind of a fraught relationship with the idea of a song or album (or picture or whatever) having some kind of objective level of quality (like a letter grade) that both exists separate from my own enjoyment of it, but which is somehow discernible by me. I mean, I have no trouble listening to a piece of music and saying “well, this seems like it’s high quality, but it doesn’t do anything for me.” There’s plenty of great music out there that simply isn’t going to move me. I just don’t know why you’d trust me to tell you about that music since I’ve just told you it doesn’t move me. There’s a critical task here from which I instinctively shy away. I don’t see how I could convincingly tell you about the best music of the year because I can’t imagine that the actual best music of the year would be limited to music with which I can successfully engage.
At the core, this is similar to something I thought about a lot, although not necessarily productively, in graduate school. As an American Studies acolyte working in cultural studies I read many analysis of books, movies, etc. that convincingly posited complex relationships between those materials and their historical contexts and/or cultural underpinnings. But I found myself bothered by the question of what the operation at hand actually was. Were these authors (and myself and my fellow graduate students) performing diagnostic operations to reveal qualities present in these works? Or, were we doing creative work that brought those relations into being as part of our own artistic project?
I did manage to articulate this question to a couple of my mentors. One, an enthnomusicologist, shrugged and said “who cares? You should spend less time chasing your own tail.” Another, an excellent literary critic and historian said “If I understand what you’re asking correctly, it’s the former: the qualities described rest in the artifact discussed. We’re not artists.”
I can see why I got the answers I did. The ethnomusicologist was sick of the theory-laden corner of academia that he kept bumping into as my advisor. The literary critic’s finding made sense internally within the field, both as a means of directing the work towards more productive ends and as an underpinning valorization of the field itself. It’s hard enough to compete with hard sciences and business for funding as is, so imagine what it would be like if we admitted that what we were making things up. I didn’t find either of these answers very satisfactory.
This is not to say that I think critical theory is a matter of just making things up. But I do think that whether it’s Frederik Jameson writing about utopian science fiction, Lester Bangs torching the first Black Sabbath album, or me trying to come to grips with Robert Johnson’s phongraphic revival at the first Spirituals To Swing concert, there’s a creative act involved. What’s created depends both on the artifact (or event) examined and the critic doing the examination, and specifically the relation between the two. The question of whether or not the qualities described in the critical work existed a priori in the examined work seems both insoluble and, if not pointless, at least what my old teacher John Locke described as questions that did not lead to edification. How would we know? How could I, in a piece of writing that represented my engagement with a particular work or event, honestly describe qualities that existed regardless of that engagement? The results would be either self-evident or self serving.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that what you’re going to get in this blog is going to be the fruits of my relationship with songs, albums, artist histories, or whatever I decide to address. I’ll try to keep my claims small and make sure you can hear whose ears whatever I’m writing about is being filtered through. I’m parking a lot of this thinking in one entry so that I can avoid doing all of this tail-chasing in public every time I write an evaluative piece or make a list. Hopefully it will come in handy as I try to put together this year’s version of This Is Not Christmas Music, which definitely will not represent the best songs of 2020.