When I was younger, I thought it would be totally awesome to be a music critic by trade. The culture with which I surrounded myself–films like Almost Famous, books like High Fidelity and Fargo Rock City, and magazines like Paste–seemed to agree with me, too. Who wouldn’t love receiving CDs in the mail and getting paid to convince the masses that your taste was better than theirs? Plus, sometimes, you got to meet musicians and pick their brains about this wonderful, mysterious craft you and they have embraced in completely different ways. How is that anything but cool?
As I made my way through college and out into the real world of freelance writing, something shifted. After a brief stint writing for CCM Magazine and getting a fair amount of hate mail for a negative review of a generic Bible-thumping Linkin Park rip off, my view changed. I began to see Almost Famous as an escapist fantasy of sorts, and Chuck Klosterman as one of maybe six rock critics who was gainfully employed and stable. (At least, stable enough to write about freebasing in his rental Taurus.) Music criticism was based on a premise that started to seem false.
What it came down to, and continues to come down to, I suppose, are three opinions I now consider true.
For one thing, music is indefinable. Music is ethereal, and everybody, more or less, experiences it differently. I can hear an Arcade Fire song and think of Popsicles, skinning my knee at the local playground, and laughing about it; you can hear it and it dredges up your very worst memories of childhood, being kicked around by the neighborhood kids and ignored by your older siblings. Although the art of film shifts and grows and changes, and storytelling becomes less linear, every film has a gist if you look for it, and every viewer will see that. With a song, that’s simply not the case. A line of dialog like “Here’s looking at you, kid” or “You complete me” is only meant to convey a single meaning. But a lyric like “We’re just a million little gods causing rain storms, turning every good thing to rust”? I’ve heard “Wake Up” countless times, and I’m still not quite sure what that means to me, let alone the guys who wrote it.
For another, music is an aural experience that everyone hears differently. While I might be concentrating on the way Win Butler’s voice breaks as he hits that final note, you might instead focus on the orchestration and which chords he struck on the guitar. I never thought seriously about studying a music, and have never considered myself any kind of musician. This means my experience listening to a song will be drastically different from what I imagine my older brother, a trained musician, feels and, in a sense, tunes into. In comparison, my ears are unsophisticated. I’m OK with that, and I’m sure he’s OK with that, but we’re not going to hear a song the same way, and we’re certainly not going to describe it the same way when we’re talking to someone else, whether it’s our spouse or a faceless audience.
Thirdly, musicians don’t intend to give anything away. Even when Thom Yorke says that “Black Star” is about afternoon sex and Bob Dylan explains that there was no explanation behind the switch from acoustic to electric, they’re not telling us everything. No matter how upfront or honest they may be, there seems to be an unspoken agreement among musicians that their listeners can think what they want to think, critics be damned. On the other side of the coin, filmmakers and television showrunners, are willing to hold our collective hand through interviews and audio commentaries and direct explanations of what that already on the nose piece of dialogue really meant. I don’t think either of these is a bad thing. A musician keeps their secrets, a director stays in the foreground, and that seems sensible to me.
But none of that makes it possible for me to write about music. When I write these pieces, I want to convey some sense of familiarity, even expertise, on individual media artifacts. I do not feel well equipped to do this with songs or albums or artists’ entire catalogs, nor do I think I ever will.
All that said, I saw the Arcade Fire perform last weekend. I don’t have anything more to offer than “It was the best concert I’ve ever been to.” Want 600 glowing words on Boy Meets World? Done. Want the same for The Suburbs? No, I think 8 suits me just fine.