I’m currently sitting in the back of the ‘Learning Labs’ room at the EMP, where Oliver Wang has walked in with a half-eaten chicken Caesar salad. (A feverish Jody Rosen, who writes Slate’s Music Box column, followed behind him.) A few hours ago, I watched a panel here called “Dancing About Architecture,” moderated by Michael J. Kramer.
Ostensibly, the talk was about that famous quip about the utility of music criticism: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
What followed were presentations ranging the gamut from the painful: Mark Sinker, former editor of The Wire (which apparently has nothing to do with the TV series), apologized for not finishing his paper. But did he apologize for writing a speech that consisted nearly entirely of quotes, paraphrased quotes, and apologies for not explaining Nietzsche, as was promised by his abstract.
Randall Roberts spoke on “Birth of the Snark: Creem Magazine’s “Rock & Roll News” section, 1971-1976.” He noted that in the early ‘90s, while working in a record store, he bought a stack of old Creems; crafting these into a PowerPoint presentation formed the basis of his multimedia presentation. Lastly, NYU grad student Devon Powers (whose dissertation is examining he first few decades of music criticism at the Village Voice), spoke on that question burning in everyone’s mind: “Is Rock Criticism Part of Intellectual History?” In a clever, self-fulfilling twist, she noted that speaking of it as such in an intellectual setting made it so.
(Update: The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones, who's wearing a lilac shirt, just walked in; he seems very nice.)
It wasn’t until the end of the set of presentations, during the Q&A session, that a few of the real questions came about. Isn’t the internet helping squash the role of the music critics? It used to be a profession held by a select few with access to the creation of mass media. Now, Google can get you 1,000 reviews of the new Arcade Fire in seconds. What many of these online reviews, Roberts noted, is context. While they may describe what the music sounds like, there’s no sense of where the musicians stand historically, where they come from, and what other bands they’re related to. Journalism’s immediacy gives it a much more widely-felt relevance, but the time that academia’s publishing process affords gives it a longer view, a greater sense of context. Besides: most rock critics spend all their time attempting to be entertaining; academics just want to sound smart. What’s the place of either? And, more importantly, which is better?
A silence befell the crowd. “Neither,” said Sinker. “That in-between space is where life actually is.”
And just like that, my energy level and desire to do something after this took a nice big spike up. As they say in space, mission accomplished.