by carl wilson

Dialogue of a Scene

An interview with yours truly, conducted by Katarina Collins (Pyramid Culture, Barcelona Pavilion, ex-Republic of Safety, maker of the "Torontopia" documentary film) has just gone up on the website of the spry and assiduous Indiepolitik.org. It's mostly on Toronto-specific themes, but also about criticism, participation versus observation and why widespread secret dreams of rock stardom are toxic to music communities. The photo, by the way, isn't meant to be coy - it's a picture from a masquerade party that happened to be the only shot of me I had on my computer.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, March 14 at 9:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (28)

 

COMMENTS

http://cake-toicing.blogspot.com/

Posted by cake-toicing on April 10, 2006 11:14 AM

 

 

> even if you do have an idea that's well-illustrated by some obscure piece of crap, if it's a worthwhile idea surely there's a better illustration.

Touche, good point.

And I do actually have some sympathy for the idea that it's mean to pick on the obscure & untalented. Part of me just feels that ignoring them is mean in its own way (though still probably the better option in most cases).

Posted by DW. on March 16, 2006 12:17 AM

 

 

I don't have a problem with constructive criticism of unknowns. It's the out-and-out slam of the unknown and untalented that just seems like gratuitous humiliation - even if you do have an idea that's well-illustrated by some obscure piece of crap, if it's a worthwhile idea surely there's a better illustration.

Posted by zoilus on March 15, 2006 11:43 PM

 

 

> It's fine to say something ain't no good, but if you're going to argue that something is valueless, or actually destructive, I think it needs to serve a broader point: Valueless by what measure, and what is valuable about that measure?

Well, yeah, exactly. And it's often the negative judgments that most get these questions out into the open, which can only be good for the larger discussion. Even reviews that aren't overtly big-picture or conceptual can still implicitly raise these issues, I'd argue.

If they're done well, anyway. Believe me, I'm no fan of the one-sentence review (except for maybe "shit sandwich" in Spinal Tap) nor of the furious thousand-word splutter.

But I am a believer in the greater value of making The Case Against. There's a school of thought out there (especially in the book world, maybe less so in music) that any negative reviews at all are unnecessarily cruel, or just plain unnecessary. "The only proper response to bad art is silence" goes the line.

But as a friend of mine once suggested: Doesn't silence then ITSELF become a kind of judgment? And worse, it's a judgment that you don't actually have to defend.

(Note, Carl, that I'm not trying to align you with the position described above. I realize I'm off on a tangent here.)

> And even that, I think, is kind of absurd if you're attacking something nobody has ever heard of and likely never will. I get a hundred useless records a week in the mail, so if I'm going to write about one of them, I need some substantial reason.

I'm always torn about this line of reasoning, too. On the one hand, I agree, there's no point in attacking something nobody's going to encounter anyway. (Though it still might be worthwhile if there is some broader point to be made, as you suggest.)

Where I get uncomfortable is with the idea that often goes hand-in-hand, which is that it's somehow MEAN to criticize up & coming obscurities. (Again, not saying that this is what you're saying.) I mean, if I were a musician or a writer and I released something into the world, I'd like to at the very least hear -- from anybody -- WHY it wasn't worth doing, rather than just sit and face the void of critical silence.

Granted, giving constructive pointers to individual artists isn't the purpose of criticism and nor should it be. Which means this has been a long-winded way of completing the circle and concluding that I more or less agree with you. Oh well.

Posted by DW on March 15, 2006 10:42 PM

 

 

Also, Graham, great comments. You get full points on the participant-observer question. But I think if you read most of those other critics I listed (even Greenberg, when he was writing rather than, say, hitting people) they also had/have the "veneer" of which you speak, and are all subtle and bring historical perspective very much to bear and so forth. So I don't think Jones/Baraka is so different.

Posted by zoilus on March 15, 2006 9:20 PM

 

 

(I am not missing the funny. Just asking, why this joke?)

Posted by zoilus on March 15, 2006 9:17 PM

 

 

So the prime directive is that criticism has to be pointless?

Posted by zoilus on March 15, 2006 9:16 PM

 

 

The Prime Directive: "As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes the introduction of superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation."

Posted by AH on March 15, 2006 7:35 PM

 

 

I hate to jump into this so late as many people have already said what I was going to say, and said it probably much better than I. I think though that LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka is a different sort of critic than the ones that you list and sort of sticks out. In Baraka's case, everyone seems to go back to Blues People (which is thee great book on the subject, despite its myriad flaws) but Black Music (which is the one that collects his actual criticism, rather than the sociological tome of BP) is the book to look at. He's a much more subtle and, yes, objective critic than what we might think of, though he is a champion of sorts of free jazz but also objectively working though (sometimes quite positively) white and pop expressions of black music. I won't bore anyone with more Baraka but he's a bit dear to my heart still after I read his entire corpus of poetry (and most of his criticism) last year for a project i worked on...his work with Albert Ayler/SonnY murray is actually a GOOD example of a critic making music too!

In any case, the participant-critic thing: all critics are fans in some way, the point is not to stick to one or the other position or even to find a balance but to cross them in a manner that makes it possible to make a judgment. The validity of the judment is not based on its proximity to the judged but to the value and thoroughness of it. That said, sometimes people are never going to agree with you and you'll have to agree to disagree.

about the objectivity that I mentioned with Baraka (a weird adjective to use for Amiri since he's soooo subjective most of the time), it's not objectivity itself that I'm speaking about (that is impossible) but a veneer, a reflection of objectivity that i think i'm discussing.

i have more (and more coherence) on this topic on my site...

Posted by Graham on March 15, 2006 6:59 PM

 

 

By the way, John: I think Albini was musician before he was a writer, though he wrote for fanzines and Forced Exposure pretty early on. But his musical practice has always been as much criticism as it is anything else, a profile that's more common now than it was then. (Big Black = Bad Band prototype. Rapeman, even more so. Shellac, not so much.)

Posted by zoilus on March 15, 2006 6:29 PM

 

 

DW - By dismissive, yes, I meant summarily dismissive. Like the three-word record review. That's fine if you are addressing something so widely known that you can make an entire argument in an epigram. But otherwise is just narcissism. (At least it's more elegant than the thousand-word insult festival.) It's fine to say something ain't no good, but if you're going to argue that something is valueless, or actually destructive, I think it needs to serve a broader point: Valueless by what measure, and what is valuable about that measure? And even that, I think, is kind of absurd if you're attacking something nobody has ever heard of and likely never will. I get a hundred useless records a week in the mail, so if I'm going to write about one of them, I need some substantial reason. (In other words - scepticism, absolutely, and cynicism, never.)

AH, I get your point better now. Certainly if participant-critics were the only category, you wouldn't get a rounded picture. But I think some critics being "identified" with some movements is as productive as it is limiting.

Eg., Greg Tate of the Village Voice, for instance, was heavily identified in the late Eighties with the Black Rock Coalition, among other concerns. Anyone who wrote about bands such as Living Colour had to deal with what Tate said about them. His personal involvement may have influenced his thinking (as well, of course, as the other way around). He didn't have the last word - those bands didn't so much succeed in the long run. But he had the first word, and made those bands more significant than they might otherwise have been, putting issues (such as race in rock) more permanently on the agenda. Which gave added purpose to his work.

But not the only purpose. Tate wasn't so lost in that cause that he couldn't write perceptively about hip-hop, jazz and politics, generally without reference to Black Rock, and be taken seriously. It seems to me you're still assuming that the participant-observer (a term I'm using pretty loosely here) is unable or unwilling to think about anything else, or even to make an effort to communicate well with strangers, and this seems like a two-dimensional portrait.

I guess I don't get what your Prime Directive is. If it's critical rigour and intellectual honesty, then we agree. But sometimes it sounds a lot like "objectivity" as a stand-in for those qualities, and I don't think there's a coherent argument for objectivity's existence. Feeling excluded can produce just as powerful a bias as feeling included, to give one example.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying one should be only a participant-observer, and certainly not in only one artistic community. (Unless it's of some extraordinary world-historical importance.) And you shouldn't be participating so intensely that what you're discussing is actually your own work. (That's another genre, not exactly criticism.)

If you don't define it willfully so narrowly as to make it silly, many of the great critics ever fall into this category - championing particular artists and/or aesthetic positions, etc., which overlap with but aren't equivalent to social groupings. Did you read the interview? I was talking about people such as Clement Greenberg on abstract expressionism, Marjorie Perloff on language poetry, Leroi Jones on jazz/blues, Jonas Mekas on underground cinema in the sixties (though he morphed into a full-fledged participant, he's still the writer of record) - or, going further back, say, John Ruskin.

None of these people's positions are 100 per cent right, or complete without those who followed, but I don't believe any critic ever is. My concern is that the "professionalization" of the field is beginning to write such people out of history. Which makes history a helluva lot less interesting. Critics can play many games from many positions, and what matters, as DW says, is whether they are able to make a case that sticks, and write well doing it.

Someone like James Woods, who's a great critic, even partly qualifies, in a negative-image way. He positions himself against a certain contemporary literary current ["maximalism"], championing certain writers over others according to an engaged agenda. His opinions are informed and considered, but he's not trying to approach each one with any journalistic tabula rasa - or as the last eternal word on anything, which I think is the critic's equivalent delusion to "rock star."

Posted by zoilus on March 15, 2006 5:47 PM

 

 

> I would think it would be *more* valuable for a writer/critic to have *some sort* of emotional attachment/response to the subject matter, rather than just delivering a dry, informational, 100% objective report of "just the facts."

But if you take the aerial-view of the subject matter as simply "music and art," the writer presumably (or hopefully, anyway) WOULD have a built-in emotional attachment or frame of reference.

Though I'm not trying to suggest that a writer should be parachuted in, look around & make a few notes, and then file some cursory report. Certainly, they should have an understanding of whatever it is they're covering (the specifics as well as the general). Seems like the question people are grappling with here is where "understanding" and "participation" overlap, or should.

Posted by DW on March 15, 2006 5:07 PM

 

 

But it's music, art, culture we're talking about here, not science. I don't think that in this arena we need to abandon the experiment, just because the experimenter "broke the seals" on the test subjects, as it were.

I would think it would be *more* valuable for a writer/critic to have *some sort* of emotional attachment/response to the subject matter, rather than just delivering a dry, informational, 100% objective report of "just the facts."

Posted by ryan on March 15, 2006 4:54 PM

 

 

What strikes me as problematic is the point at which a critic becomes identified with a movement -- a theorizer, a nurturer of a movement. It's an important function, which can help unite a community, keep it on track, even provide it with a track -- and I'm sure a critic can remain "critical" even from within a community s/he has helped form. But I think such criticism is probably more useful to the community itself than to the readership, who would get a more balanced perspective from an outsider who had, say, read the works by the participant-observer, interviewed the bands, and then written about them without breaking (to introduce some Star Trek terminology) the Prime Directive. (Good music will stand up to outside criticism, of course, and it's important that it does, though it may only be looked at and may only be so good because of the work of the participant-observer.)

Posted by AH on March 15, 2006 4:33 PM

 

 

> One can't write for the man from Mars, so sometimes one uses words such as "jazz" and "punk" without stopping to define them.

I remember once reading an angry (and very funny) Christopher Hitchens quote about some copyeditor changing "Tolstoy" to "the 19th-century Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy."

Anyway, in AH's defence, I suspect his line of argument is actually close to Guy's, IE whether a commentator who's too close to a "scene" or its participants might find his/her natural skepticism or candour inhibited.

As for whether "skepticism" is a worthy critical default position, we could probably argue all day. But me, I like some skepticism, as long as it's not overwhelming or reflexive.

Similarly...

> but I don't get the point of writing dismissively anyway. (Why not ignore the work, if it's beneath notice?)

If by "dismissively" you mean carelessly and superficially, then hear hear. But "dismissively" might also mean a thoughful and perceptive consideration of why a certain artist/mode/whatever just ain't no good. Which can be very illuminating, thought-provoking, worthwhile, etc., whether you agree or not.

This is only barely relevant here, if at all, but there's a James Wood quote I love, a retort to the age-old question of what gives you the right to pronounce on the worth of someone else's work. I'm paraphrasing here, but essentially he says that depending on how persuasive and effective and well-informed your arguments are, you either give yourself the right, or -- the key qualifier -- you don't.

Posted by DW on March 15, 2006 4:14 PM

 

 

AH - The "curiosity" I was calling underrated is the reader's, not the critic's. Most publications pander to their imagined readers, whereas I think many/most readers are more open-minded. The challenge is often to strike a balance between informing the reader who's a newcomer to a subject while simultaneously engaging one who is very familiar with it. But writers on politics, for instance, do this every day.

Frankly, at this point I don't understand what you're talking about. When I describe the critic as participant-observer and potentially champion of a particular scene or movement, what it implies to me is that this critic will attempt to theorize the work, document and intervene in the debates that unite and divide its practitioners, contextualize it in that community's history, and try to draw attention to notable developments. It has nothing to do with writing in some clubby way. Is there anyone here advocating that? It seems like a strawman: Are you mixing up criticism and Internet chat rooms?

Except in some specialized forums (including chat rooms), one writes "for oneself and others," as Gertrude Stein put it. It's for neither insiders nor outsiders nor "the general public" (which I agree is fictitious). I certainly hope my work will be comprehensible to any intelligent person. But as DW smartly says, sometimes they will have to make deductions from internal clues. One can't write for the man from Mars, so sometimes one uses words such as "jazz" and "punk" without stopping to define them. (Though not always.) It sounds to me like you're talking about bad writing, irrespective of critical position. In any discussion of methodology, it goes without stating that it has to be well done.

Guy's question about whether a participant critic can also criticize and condemn is a much more serious one. But in my experience the answer is yes. In fact strangers tend to be more thin-skinned: Artists take criticism better if they understand where the writer is coming from. They may agree or disagree, but they know you're not just being an asshole. What you cannot do so easily in a participant-observer position is be dismissive, but I don't get the point of writing dismissively anyway. (Why not ignore the work, if it's beneath notice?)

Posted by zoilus on March 15, 2006 3:29 PM

 

 

Acting & music are the big money tables, but only certain sorts of acting and music. Unfortunately, all music remotely associated with big money music is assumed to be hoping for the big money. Not necessarily the case. (Not saying you assume this, Carl; speaking generally.) Which leads to all sorts of weirdnesses: an incredibly tiny number of "pop" musicians make middle class livings from their music; a few make tons of dough, most make next to nothing. Since the culture as a whole seems to think that everybody in the game is in the "hoping for big money" game, institutional support is nil. (Slightly better in Canada than here in the States, and you've been a big proponent of arts funding, which is cool.) In other arts, there are ancillary professions -- classical instrument teaching, poetry or drama or acting or fiction teaching. Not so in "pop"; or, extremely limited.

Not complaining here; associating with institutions entails weirdnesses of its own. And not casting aspersions on people who do make the big money. (I've played many games of softball with one of Seattle rock's millionaires; he's a nice guy; I like his band too.) Just pointing out the weird cultural space that putatively popular music inhabits.

The other ancillary to this interests me more: Pop music and acting have the fewest number of theorist/practitioners of any art. When I see smugness in critville (and I don't see it in you, Carl), it's in the assumption that musicians is dumb; I see this smugness quite a lot. Why more musicians don't wade into the critwars has a few sources, I think: What's the advantage in pissing off the gatekeepers, which engaging in critwar always entails? (See Albini, Steve; I don't know his history, but I'd be curious to know whether his trajectory was Truffeau-esque, starting as a critic, moving into practicing the art; my guess is he didn't start beating up on critics until he was established as an artist and his feistiness added to his reputation, which doesn't mean his feistiness is insincere.) And, I think, musicians buy into the mystic-art myth that lots of rockcrits have been all too into pushing (see Marcus, Greil). I agree that there's a strong element of mystery to how art works, but that doesn't mean we can't cogitate on it; I cogitate on it all the time.

Posted by john on March 15, 2006 3:07 PM

 

 

Naturally you have to experience what you're experiencing in order to write about it. So curiosity is a must. But the experience of an event as a member of the community putting it on versus as a curious member of the general public seem rather different. I guess the latter might end up presuming to speak for the general public from which s/he's drawn, and that might be annoying, but it's more valuable as journalism than speaking from within the scene under discussion. Especially if the audience really is the "general public." (Which is, I would say, a useful fiction).

Posted by AH on March 15, 2006 1:46 PM

 

 

> Far more often, the smug assumption in the rock press is that the readership shares the author's worldview and all want the same thing out of art, no framework required. This seems far more offensive to the diversity and intelligence of the readers.

I mostly agree with this, but I'd hairsplit one thing: that assuming a certain knowledge of a given milieu on the reader's part isn't necessarily the same thing as assuming a shared worldview or aesthetic ideal. And that the second thing doesn't even have to automatically flow from the first. (Though certainly in some cases it very well might.)

As a reader, I don't find it alienating, exactly, to feel that a piece of writing is aimed at people more knowledgable than me. It can actually be energizing, inspiring me to learn more, if I'm given at least enough context to spark my interest in the first place.

> And I would say that I sometimes fall into this, not in print but on Zoilus, assuming too easily that readers have read my previous posts on, say, Destroyer or Final Fantasy, and that I can just continue on from there with the next chapter in the story.

But -- just to, uh, defend you from yourself -- surely you can assume some familiarity and continuity on the part of your online readers? ALL writing is done with some kind of audience in mind, after all, and since you call the shots on your own site, there's no need to pitch things to an overly generalist level. (I can see where you'd worry about alienating readers who aren't up to speed, but as above, I'd argue that in general you intrigue many more than you alienate.)

Anyway, I imagine one nice thing about writing here instead of in the Globe is not having to always follow "Destroyer" with "(the nom de plume of Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Dan Bejar)" or whatever. And that's a ncie thing about reading your site too.

Posted by DW on March 15, 2006 1:33 PM

 

 

One last thing: While of course every artist wants to be successful, not every artist wants to be a celebrity. In all the arts outside of film and music (the big-money tables), I think artists have a more incremental and cumulative idea of how success will develop, and what it will look like when it comes - less overnight access to swimming pools and supermodels, more critical acclaim, financial security and occasional adventures. Which I think does lead to an appreciation for the local and smaller scale context for your work. Though of course the celebrity dream infects everybody to some extent in this culture, the rock star and movie star versions seem especially prone to chewing talent up and spitting it out.

Posted by zoilus on March 15, 2006 12:40 PM

 

 

... Which, by the way, in no way justifies a "good ol' Blue Radio has done it again" attitude, which Guy is right to criticize. And I would say that I sometimes fall into this, not in print but on Zoilus, assuming too easily that readers have read my previous posts on, say, Destroyer or Final Fantasy, and that I can just continue on from there with the next chapter in the story. (While linking to the previous ones.) On the other hand, in a more or less continuously updated medium such as a blog, reintroducing a subject each time also seems stupid. I haven't resolved this one for myself yet.

Posted by zoilus on March 15, 2006 12:35 PM

 

 

The critical-distance question could be explored in more detail, but presuming that a (partially) explanatory role is accompanied by smug disrespect for the readership seems totally unwarranted. Far more often, the smug assumption in the rock press is that the readership shares the author's worldview and all want the same thing out of art, no framework required. This seems far more offensive to the diversity and intelligence of the readers. You don't write as an "insider," you write as a fellow human who is excited to report something they've experienced and thinks others might be excited to learn about too. Curiosity is always underrated.

Posted by zoilus on March 15, 2006 12:32 PM

 

 

I'm with Guy on his note about critical distance. Writing about a scene from within that scene seems to leave you a limited set of options: (a) mutiny, always unpopular, (b) advertising, always suspect, or (c) explicating, which is worse than elitist, and is smugly predicated on its position of insiderness vis a vis its uninformed readership.

Posted by AH on March 15, 2006 12:23 PM

 

 

Thanks to you both for an excellent and inspiring articulation of the ideas recently circulating here. From my outside-TO perspective, the themes you address have been in serious need of elevation beyond obscure slogans, social posturing and art-school inside jokes. Now it's all starting to make sense.

Just one note, though. "Widespread secret dreams of rock stardom" may well be toxic, but they're also inevitable. I don't believe for one second that there's a single artist anywhere who doesn't want to be successful. And the ones who complain the loudest about this are the ones who crave stardom the most! (or have already acheived a version of it in their community).

Posted by malstain on March 15, 2006 12:01 PM

 

 

She and Kate McGee recently left the band, yeah. It wasn't long ago, and I don't think anybody made any big announcements about it.

Great interview, Carl! Thanks again for doing it.

Posted by Matt on March 15, 2006 9:47 AM

 

 

ex-Republic of Safety? did i miss something?!

Posted by makeda on March 15, 2006 9:33 AM

 

 

You hinted at the very intresting topic: Should indie rock be only for those 18 to 32?
Steve Kado calls the music i Listen to now as "Grandad rock" and maybe he has a point. I certainly have less patience for Lester's beloved "skronk".

Anyhow the bone I have to pick with you Carl is about the distance between a critic and the art he writes about. You had a very intresting lanswer to Kat's question but im left thinking about some aspects of your answer. I guess the best way to explain this is the "Now magazine" syndrome. Every time I see a good review or a nice write up about a band from Toronto in Now i get the uneasy feeling that they are sort of writing about their friends. This started back when I was in high school and couldnt know better but later on as I moved downtown I found out that it was actually truea lot of the time which reassured me. Basically j'accuse Now of writing about things that move in the Now circles. (this is not always the case but there are a bunch of shit cd's in collection of shit toronto bands that got 4 or 5 N reviews in Now to help my point)

Ok so is this bad? Is it wrong to have this organic network where you critically support your milieu?
Well the answer is yes and no, or more precisely no if its done well. By saying done well i mean the when writing about stuff thats close to home a critic must be very honest not just with his audiance but with himself. The first question asked is whether the art could be judged as "good" to anyone who isnt close to it. If its not then and the critic still thinks its good (lets take Ninja High School the example you used, though I dont know them well enough to judge how "good" they are). Its the critic's job to explain to the audiance that isnt close to the art why this intresting. This is where (to continue my example) Now fails, not because they write about people they know but because they fail to be honest about it. The failure is both in not judging the quality fairly (not being honest with themselves) and in not explaining their friends work to an audiance which might not be able to enjoy it the same way (failure to be honest with the audiance). The result is lots of shit Blue Rodeo albums with 5N reviews and some of Toronto's smuggest writing in any genre.

To summerize: can a critic tear a new asshole to a crappy new CD by a band that you just danced with onstage during their show the previous week? Well if not then at least explain why you were up there dancing.

Guy

Posted by guy Tanentzapf on March 15, 2006 5:53 AM

 

 

I think the comment about fame as wish-dream is spot on, and one that seems peculiarly exclusive to music and a couple other mediums. The notion of winning fame and fortune is a bad joke to most poets or playwrights or modern artists or whoever; the focus is on making ends meet and, maybe, quitting that shitty day job. Those somewhat different goals are probably better for inspiring longstanding artistic institutions. Not that there aren't many local musicians who feel the same way - I'm generalizing too much - but it has been neglected a bit in the scene. And I'd like that to start changing now, when I'm young; I don't want to hit 35 and feel forced to just attend literary readings in the Annex or god knows what because it's too weird to go to shows anymore.

Posted by Chris R on March 14, 2006 9:32 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson