Poet Marianne Moore threw out the first pitch at the opening of the 1968 baseball season at Yankee Stadium. From her poem “Baseball and Writing”:
Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
how it will go
or what you will do;
a fever in the victim—
pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.
To be a food critic you have to understand a great deal about the composition of a dish and how it is prepared. You must be able to think and speak intelligentl
I teach high school kids, and invariably some form of the question of literary terminology comes up. I tell my students that these terms are great to know, and a few of them are vital, but that it’s more important to me (and, in my opinion, their development as thinkers and writers) that they could talk about how a text functions or command the skill themselves. I care less that one of my students can identify a simile more than I care that they can discuss how it works or why the author might use it.
Thus, by my logic, music criticism is more than just being able to identify a chord structure. Sure, this can unlock something and serve as a greater pathway to new understanding or clarifying one’s thoughts, but by saying “this is a IV chord” or “this is a suspended chord” does little critical work. It’s arguably worse than the dreaded “X sounds like Y mixed with Z” criticism that people try to cloak their lack of ideas in a bunch of references. It’s banality masquerading as profound insight.
The author of the link piece tries to prove his point by pointing out the more complex chordal progression in “Blitzkrieg Bop” compared with some Arcade Fire song. OK, cool point, but go somewhere with it! Why are you taking the time to point this out to me? The author even goes to great lengths to avoid discussing “aesthetic value” - isn’t harmony aesthetic in part (in addition to being structural, and intimately related to a song’s rhythmic qualities)? Telling me that the bridge throws in a II chord tells me less than someone talking about how the drums sound during the break, or the way Joey Ramone exhorts his listener with his short, punctuated shouts. The chord progression doesn’t describe how the Ramones make this song sound primal and effortless (and I know this because I arranged this for my college pep band a decade ago - I could make it primal but could not make it effortless. Perhaps there’s something in the performance captured in that recording that’s worth discussing?)
Instead, the author falls back on the laziest of all critical practices: the “look at this!!!!!1!” mode. He makes some assumptions about Kanye’s influences (without even doing the cursory Wikipedia search that would have revealed that the sample comes from a dancehall track, which doesn’t prohibit his hypothesis, but it certainly needs to be accounted for, not to mention the fact that Kanye didn’t write the track alone) and his criticism goes as far as saying “it works.” No kidding!
And all of this flaunting of theory 101 does little for the audience. He targets Pitchfork (because apparently it’s 2004 still) and wonders why they don’t talk about chord changes without wondering if the audience needs it. I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve read Pitchfork (and a ton of other sites) for over a decade, and I followed both the chordal progressions and the note about triads at the bottom. I’ve read criticism that used theory as an entry point for profound insight, but I’d roll my eyes if every record review stayed as shallow as chord progressions. At least talk about timbre, or texture, or something that looking up a guitar tab wouldn’t have told me.
So it’s cool that this guy wants more jargon*** in his criticism because I’m glad when writers have an original idea or a unique perspective. Good criticism communicates an idea and engages with its subject, and like my 9th graders discussing Shakespeare tomorrow, if you can’t answer the “why” or “how” behind identifying the term, then I’m going to call on someone else.
*** in case the author of said post reads this and thinks that “jargon” is a loaded term, I’m going to explain it for him. “Jargon” means “special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.” To the audience of the reviews he’s singled out, he’s asking for more jargon. See, I can be condescending in a footnote too, dude!
Jarvis Cocker - Tonite
Oh and all the culture vultures/ And all the snot-nosed kids/ And all the so-called artists, wannabes and never-dids/ You claim you’re not involved/ but you’re in up to your neck/ The night belongs to lovers/ so show some respect