Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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."
Tags: autobiography, clips, music, travel, writing

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