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The Function of Criticism Today - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
The Function of Criticism Today
After attending this year's Pop Conference in Seattle, I sat down to write about the experience. But what began as a review soon metamorphosed into a feature in which I tried to put that experience in historical perspective, comparing it to what happened in the first few years of the conference. 12,000 words later, I had 10,000 words to cut. So I pleaded for an extra 1,000. And then I ended up wrangling almost 2,000 more, leaving me with a piece that was, as I told a friend, both too long and too short. Awkwardly sized though it is, however, I am reasonably satisfied with it. At the very least, I made progress towards realizing the vision I have of a work that will tackle the crisis of contemporary cultural criticism head on:
Music remains popular, one of the most important means of making sustainable interpersonal connections. But that social function no longer requires the purchasing of many records. This is not to imply that music culture has transcended consumerism. Money still changes hands, obviously. The difference is that its destination has changed. Whereas music lovers’ primary expense used to be “software,” such as LPs, tapes, CDs and the magazines that cover the field, they are now likely to spend more on the technology needed to manage their collection.

The crisis of music criticism is the direct result of this transformation. It used to be that record reviews served primarily as a form of financial planning. When you only have enough cash to buy one album a week, being sure that you’re making the best choice is crucial. Things are different now. Although music criticism is still an important resource for those who seek guidance in building their collections, the need for it is less pressing. A sizable percentage of contemporary music lovers know how to “test drive” music without having to pay for it. And they also have a wealth of internet resources with which to gauge the opinions of other consumers.

The advice this demographic requires is more diffuse in nature. In an era when the term “content” has come to stand in for specific media, what they seek in music criticism, often without realizing it, is the means of sorting the culture potentially available to them so that is serves a purpose beyond mechanically filling out their collection.. In a sense, time is the new money. Most music lovers have less of it to spend on culture than their predecessors did. For them, the value of music criticism is proportional to the time it prevents them from wasting.

That's a task for which the participants in the Pop Conference are perfectly suited. And it's what coming to the conference teaches them how to do even better. Maybe that's why the tensions manifested during its first year have melted into an easygoing, but engaged solidarity. Even for those possessed of the anti-intellectual bias typified by Jennifer Maerz's piece, the time to complain that studying popular music robs us of its pleasures is over. "It's easy to jab at EMP for being nerdy," wrote Eric Grandy in a favorable review of this year's event, also for The Stranger, but at least during the Pop Conference it is world-class nerdy."

The expertise that confers that aura of nerdiness can serve as a superb personal organizer, helping to sort through the vast amount of music at our disposal more efficiently than all the algorithms that purport to mirror our taste preferences back to us. Because you can only move to the beat when you've found the beat to move you, a task that scrolling through playlists can make extraordinarily tedious. In other words, what once may have seemed beside the point, a detour weakening the force of the pop narcotic's fix, now looks like the best way to reconnect the body with the power of music.
I love the conference and the people who attend it. Even though I acknowledge their nerdiness -- not to mention my own -- I recognize that it is the product of a passion too strong to discipline. The move to intellectualize bodily pleasures, whether music or otherwise, is typically regarded as an attempt to secure mastery over them. I think that's why some have taken such strong issue with events like the Pop Conference in the past, presuming that they derive from a ressentiment captured in the slogan, "Those who can, fuck; those who can't, teach others about fucking." Yet while this attitude has held undeniable appeal, even for those who feel negatively interpellated by it, its proponents overlooked a crucial fact: the mind need not be the body's antagonist. Although the expression "mind fuck" often has negative connotations, some folks feel otherwise. The fucking they seek refuses to distinguish between mind and body.

Those are the sort of people who come to the Pop Conference. As Chuck Klosterman writes in his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, discussing a panel from the conference's first year in which indie musicians from the Pacific Northwest showed disdain for the conference -- I discuss the experience at length in my own piece -- "Who needs to hear that your life's work is irrelevant? I prefer to imagine all of America's rock geeks breaking bread together, talking about Silkworm songs and Clinic B-sides and forgotten Guided By Voices shows and -- maybe for the first time in their lives -- feeling completely and utterly normal."

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Comments
masoo From: masoo Date: May 5th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
It's a very strong essay, Charlie. One thing about the above. At the end, you link to and discuss Maerz' piece of junk from 2002, in the present tense ("take strong issue"). But your essay does a fine job of showing how outdated her slam job has become. The advances in the Conference that you describe in your essay are perhaps the reason I'd put Maerz in the past tense.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: May 5th, 2009 11:07 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks for reading and for the nice compliment! You're absolutely write about the tense. I wrote the entry very quickly. Change made.
flw From: flw Date: May 5th, 2009 05:53 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Well, this is right up my alley.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: May 5th, 2009 11:00 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm glad for that, Ron. I have enormous respect for your thinking.T
flw From: flw Date: May 6th, 2009 04:20 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Really hits where I live

I think I could stand to read the "long" version as well!

Are you up on the Jay-Z scandal?

Though... I have heard many people speak of the "resurgence" of vinyl. I just think it's a fetish the same as it has been since the medium has become irrelevant. Vinyl is just in a seventy year phase.
From: veggieducksalad Date: May 5th, 2009 09:00 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

I still think the tastemaking function matters

Hi Charlie,

Very interesting piece. Makes me want to go to the conference even though I need more conferences to attend like I need a hole in the head.

I think criticism is less centralized than it once was (and less rooted in specific outlets, pitchfork notwithstanding) thanks to zines and the internet, but the boom in music's availability just overwhelms most people. Which is why, for instance, the most file-shared music tends to be mass market stuff (even if it's not a perfect mirror of the music that is sold). So critics still play something of a role--it's not financial planning so much as time planning. I know there is a vast wealth of amazing independent music in the world, but I have a harder and harder time finding it, not the least because fewer and fewer of my friends are paying attention.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: May 5th, 2009 11:07 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: I still think the tastemaking function matters

Great to hear from you!

It's almost not like a traditional conference at this point, given how seamless the experience of being there feels. At least, that's my perception. But I have friends in Seattle who are connected to the independent and experimental music scenes there, which helps.

I completely agree with your point about the value of criticism today. I was trying to make it in the course of my argument, though I may have tempered my conclusion too much:
In a sense, time is the new money. Most music lovers have less of it to spend on culture than their predecessors did. For them, the value of music criticism is proportional to the time it prevents them from wasting.
Of course, time and money are inextricably bound up with each other in any capitalist economy. The difference today, I think, is that the space between them is easier to perceive in the cultural realm. The time we spend sorting our private collections is time we aren't spending at work that pays, obviously. But we don't perceive the loss of time as a loss of pay, necessarily.
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