Category Archives: Books

On Criticism (3)

There is an old saying the newspaper business.  Although it has been formulated different ways through the years, the most concise may be, “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

When it comes to criticism, there is a real question as to whether it is mere advertising and boosterism, or something else.  In that category of “something else” fall a few things.  One is the insertion of the personality of the critic.  In other words, the critic inserts or attaches himself or herself into the work.  The critique becomes, in part, about the critic.  Another aspect is the reproduction of social relations.  This arises most often through editorial decisions, as published criticism is as much about what is excluded and included within the attentions (or “gaze”) of the critic.  But it also arises through a frame of reference, enforcing certain points of view (or “habitus”).

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan – How to Write About Music

 How to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan, EditorsHow to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers (Bloomsbury 2015)

The implicit premise of the book is really “how to get paid to write about popular music in a journalistic setting“.  This is not a book that talks about how to publish a book about music (biography, academic text, etc.).  It does not deal with getting a job writing the text for programs to euro-classical orchestral concerts, as just one more example.  While much of the book admirably tries to offer tips on the mechanics of writing for newspapers, magazines and large web sites, readers should bear in mind the underlying assumptions of the editors who put this together.

It is inevitable that all critics write from a certain cultural perspective.  Readers either share (or aspire to) that cultural perspective, or they don’t.  But more than that, professional critics for newspapers and magazines tend to get caught up in the economics of a popular music industry that, as a whole, makes money hyping one fad after another, covering the release of new recordings in order to generate demand for live performances.  The biggest problem this cultivates in critics is a tendency to foster a kind of privileged clique of insiders who are “up to date” on the latest fads.  Their writing accordingly spends as much — or more — effort developing and maintaining that sense of insider elitism as it does explaining and contextualizing the music that is ostensibly the focus of their written pieces.  A few contributors here acknowledge this and describe it as reasonable and inevitable.  But of course, it is neither of those things.  Yet writers do need to either choose the path of “professional” writing laid out in this book, or reject it, and only by overcoming the underlying assumptions and dictates of “capital”, that is, the large media businesses that pay professional music writers, can writers actively reject such dictates.  Of course, some writers are just shills who will say just about anything for a sufficiently large paycheck, or too dim-witted to comprehend what is going on.  But more insidious are those who simply internalize the dictates of their industry, constrained by dependence on their salary to not say anything against industry interests.  That can fairly be called “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  On the other hand, it is worth remembering that most critics who eschew remuneration do what they do to advocate for certain music against the commercial marketplace.  Critics often want to praise was has yet to or may never garner commercial success, which doesn’t necessarily reject elitism but merely shifts focus from an economic sphere toward a cultural/symbolic sphere.  So they don’t get off the hook so easily either.

Another aspect of this book is its liberalism.  Liberalism describes the political outlook of nearly all the contributors, and especially the editors.  There is a pervasive belief that the post-WWII golden years of the working class — the time when pop/rock journalism was first created — represents the norm.  Such an outlook is the embodiment of liberalism.  People on both the political left and right of liberalism see the post-WWII years in the global West as a historical anomaly — but with different subjective reactions.  On the Right, the post-WWII welfare state was a tragedy, and they make attempts to return to a new gilded age, or even to outright feudalism.  On the Left, there is a desire to re-attempt a Paris Commune or other egalitarian utopia, which the welfare state was an attempt to stave off.  While in places some contributors acknowledge that popular music criticism of the type the book emphasizes is a uniquely post-WWII creation, it definitely stops short of acknowledging any sort of coherent theory of why that is.  So questions like the following are outside its scope: is popular music largely a creation of the working class and, if so, wouldn’t bourgeois capital therefore want to suppress or undermine working class aspirations in the long-run by under-funding and co-opting musical criticism?  Before WWII, there was something known as the “Cultural Front” and the theories of “Cultural Hegemony” or a “Culture Industry,” or even of a “Leisure Class” that drew connections like this on the political left.  On the flip side, around WWII and the dawn of the welfare state, you have people on the political right like Ayn Rand writing The Fountainhead to advocate for toppling an existing aristocracy to (de facto) install another, with a firm insistence that the reasons for doing this cannot be questioned (because “A is A” and this is “objectivism”, among other nonsense retorts), followed after the war by the open attacks of the McCarthy witchhunts that eliminated almost all viewpoints to the left of centrist liberalism.  With the ascendancy of conservatism during the neoliberal “austerity” age, the working class base for music criticism has shrunk along with the sort of journalistic outlets that went along with it.  In short, the economy as a whole has shifted away from the one that for a brief window of time supported a robust middle and working class base interested in “legitimate” popular music criticism (i.e., from a working/middle class perspective), and critics and readers seeking to bolster it during its decline necessarily see the conservative shift as a negative, while still retaining the elements of professional elitism that largely keeps them at a distance from the political left whose militancy once arguably brought about the conditions for it in the first place.

Anyway, the contributors to How to Write About Music surely have the editor’s implicit assumptions in mind.  Numerous contributors, for instance, mention writing on an amateur basis for free on a web site of your own creation.  Some even go so far as to praise the “democratization” that web sites provide in that respect (other contributors are clearly threatened by it).  They mention these things as they chafe against the narrowness of the questions posed to them by the editors of this book.  It is to the credit of the editors that they leave these things in the book.

A number of contributors here make the same joke: in order to survive as a music writer, you should have a trust fund.  In other words, the means for making a living doing professional music criticism are limited at best.  Give up hoping against the odds!  But those jokes kind of avoid the larger implications.  Mostly, this book is about the mechanics of the current music industry: how to submit a successful proposal to an editor, how to take notes for a concert review, examples of the most common formats for the most common things editors publish.  And much of that discussion is pretty shallow.  Most writers will intuitively understand that you can prepare to write a concert review by bringing a notepad to the concert and scrawling some notes, expanding upon them later.  The more interesting of these discussions of industry mechanics describe the editorial process and the various defenses of the status quo offered by editors who retain a large degree of control in that arena.  The short take home message, once summarized obliquely by David Graeber, is that you only get to do what you want (write about music!) if before and above that you are a salesperson.  If you can’t “sell” (pitch) to editors effectively, you will be denied access to the largest mass-media publishing platforms.  End of story.  Those parts of the book resemble Chad Harbach‘s MFA Vs NYC The Two Cultures Of American Fiction, which detailed the two leading commercial hubs in the United States for fiction publishing (see also the companion e-book, Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding by Keith Gessen).  The editorial pitch process is driven by emotional “gut” reactions, not rational decision-making, and there is absolutely nothing like a meritocracy in play.  The editors of How to Write About Music do not intend to make that topic the focus of this book, and certainly never question editors who go along with that regime, but at the edges this emerges and the occasional statements along these lines provide some of the most valuable information documented here.  Yet implicit in much of the book is a crude and tentative attempt to disabuse readers of the myth of a meritocracy in the world of published music writing.

The writing samples, culled from books, magazines, etc. are generally underwhelming. This reviewer has been largely unimpressed with the 33 1/3 book series, which seems to range from tedious drivel to the mediocre, with a few exceptions.  It is therefore unsurprising that a book by and about music writers this reviewer finds to be mostly bad or mediocre would have limited appeal.  Even excerpts drawn from places beyond the 33 1/3 book series are no better, and tend to be from the likes of Alex Ross and other writers working for urban liberal publications, especially a few web sites like The Quietus (which this reviewer has largely dismissed as uninteresting liberal multiculturalist blather).

So, on the one hand, readers who accept the basic premises of this book may actually find a lot they like.  On the other hand, readers should very much question the basic premise of the book and what it represents.

Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky – The 5 Filters of the Mass Media Machine

Link to a video narrated by Amy Goodman about the “Propaganda Model” of Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky:

“The 5 Filters of the Mass Media Machine”

(Incidentally, this video helpfully updates the “anti-communism” filter of the original version of the theory).


Bonus link: Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty

Slavoj Žižek on Populism

Slavoj Žižek from In Defense of Lost Causes (2008):

“Populism is ultimately always sustained by ordinary people’s frustrated exasperation, by a cry of ‘I don’t know what’s going on, I just know I’ve had enough of it! It can’t go on! It must stop!’ — an impatient outburst, a refusal to understand, exasperation at complexity, and the ensuing conviction that there must be somebody responsible for all the mess, which is why an agent who is behind the scenes and explains it all is required.  Therein, in this refusal-to-know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism.” (p. 282)


“for a populist, the cause of the troubles is ultimately never the system as such but the intruder who corrupted it (financial manipulators, not necessarily capitalists, and so on); not a fatal flaw inscribed into the structure as such but an element that doesn’t play its role within the structure properly. For a Marxist, on the contrary (as for a Freudian), the pathological (deviating misbehavior of some elements) is the symptom of the normal, an indicator of what is wrong in the very structure that is threatened with ‘pathological’ outbursts. For Marx, economic crises are the key to understanding the ‘normal’ functioning of capitalism; for Freud, the pathological phenomena such as hysterical outbursts provide the key to the constitution (and hidden antagonisms that sustain the functioning) of a ‘normal’ subject.” (p. 279)


Two contrasting examples of these very principles:

Thomas Frank: “Donald Trump doesn’t really reflect the moral values of middle America. He is a consummate city slicker, a soft-handed, foul-mouthed toff who lives in a 58-story building and has been identified with New York City excess his entire life. But people in rural areas are desperate these days. Many of them chose Trump, despite his vulgarity and his big-city ways, because he promised to make them ‘great again’. *** Why? One of the men present told me you could summarize it with a single word: ‘Hillary!’ “

Kshama Sawant: “Because this is not only about Trump.  It is this predatory system of capitalism, in decline and crisis, that has given rise to Trumpism.”

Leo Tolstoy – The Kingdom of God Is Within You

Quote from Chapter XII “Conclusion – Repent Ye, For the Kingdom of Heaven Is at Hand” from The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894), by Leo Tolstoy:

“the organization of our society rests, not as people interested in maintaining the present order of things like to imagine, on certain principles of jurisprudence, but on simple brute force, on the murder and torture of men.

“People who own great estates or fortunes, or who receive great revenues drawn from the class who are in want even of necessities, the working class, as well as all those who like merchants, doctors, artists, clerks, learned professors, coachmen, cooks, writers, valets, and barristers, make their living about these rich people, like to believe that the privileges they enjoy are not the result of force, but of absolutely free and just interchange of services, and that their advantages, far from being gained by such punishments and murders as took place in Orel and several parts of Russia this year, and are always taking place all over Europe and America, have no kind of connection with these acts of violence. They like to believe that their privileges exist apart and are the result of free contract among people; and that the violent cruelties perpetrated on the people also exist apart and are the result of some general judicial, political, or economical laws. They try not to see that they all enjoy their privileges as a result of the same fact which forces the peasants who have tended the forest, and who are in the direct need of it for fuel, to give it up to a rich landowner who has taken no part in caring for its growth and has no need of it whatever—the fact, that is, that if they don’t give it up they will be flogged or killed.


“Simply because torture and murder are not employed in every instance of oppression by force, those who enjoy the exclusive privileges of the ruling classes persuade themselves and others that their privileges are not based on torture and murder, but on some mysterious general causes, abstract laws, and so on. Yet one would think it was perfectly clear that if men, who consider it unjust (and all the working classes do consider it so nowadays), still pay the principal part of the produce of their labor away to the capitalist and the landowner, and pay taxes, though they know to what a bad use these taxes are put, they do so not from recognition of abstract laws of which they have never heard, but only because they know they will be beaten and killed if they don’t do so.

“And if there is no need to imprison, beat, and kill men every time the landlord collects his rents, every time those who are in want of bread have to pay a swindling merchant three times its value, every time the factory hand has to be content with a wage less than half of the profit made by the employer, and every time a poor man pays his last ruble in taxes, it is because so many men have been beaten and killed for trying to resist these demands, that the lesson has now been learnt very thoroughly.

“Just as a trained tiger, who does not eat meat put under his nose, and jumps over a stick at the word of command, does not act thus because he likes it, but because he remembers the red-hot irons or the fast with which he was punished every time he did not obey; so men submitting to what is disadvantageous or even ruinous to them, and considered by them as unjust, act thus because they remember what they suffered for resisting it.

“As for those who profit by the privileges gained by previous acts of violence, they often forget and like to forget how these privileges were obtained. But one need only recall the facts of history, not the history of the exploits of different dynasties of rulers, but real history, the history of the oppression of the majority by a small number of men, to see that all the advantages the rich have over the poor are based on nothing but flogging, imprisonment, and murder.

“One need but reflect on the unceasing, persistent struggle of all to better their material position, which is the guiding motive of men of the present day, to be convinced that the advantages of the rich over the poor could never and can never be maintained by anything but force.

“There may be cases of oppression, of violence, and of punishments, though they are rare, the aim of which is not to secure the privileges of the propertied classes. But one may confidently assert that in any society where, for every man living in ease, there are ten exhausted by labor, envious, covetous, and often suffering with their families from direct privation, all the privileges of the rich, all their luxuries and superfluities, are obtained and maintained only by tortures, imprisonment, and murder.”

Gustavus Myers – History of the Great American Fortunes & Supreme Court

Links to books by Gustavus Myers:

History of the Great American Fortunes, Vol. I

History of the Great American Fortunes, Vol. II

History of the Great American Fortunes, Vol. III

History of the Supreme Court of the United States

Meyers wrote some confounding things, but he also performed a valuable service by looking critically at things like methods of wealth accumulation, which have tended toward fraud and insider dealing (for instance, the History of the Great American Fortunes “gives the details of [the Yazoo land scandal] and other frauds that have shaped American history. The moral is that great gifts to insiders have effects that will last centuries.”)