Noel Murray, a reviewer at of the Onion A.V. club, took the year (well, until Oct. 31) off from buying or intaking new music, instead trolling through his existing collection and reassessing what he thought he knew about the music he loved (or thought he loved).
He’s wrapped up his writing, most of which I’ve only skimmed through throughout the entire year. His successes and “Buying Nothing”, confined only to music, have been about as successful as mine, which I guess is to say, once an addict, always an addict.
Now Murray has returned to the fold and digesting music like a man left starving in the wilderness for three days being presented before a buffet. The mind is willing, but the body is not. His insight on how his tastes have changed by encompassing himself in what he’s already chosen for his collection is interesting:
Some friends contend that I’m becoming too picky in my middle age. I’ve always been a fairly soft touch as a critic, and I still have a higher tolerance for some disreputable genres and modes of popular art than a lot of my fellows. (Laugh tracks? Procedurals? Soft rock? Prestige pictures? Daily newspaper comics? All okay with me.) This year though, I’ve been left relatively cold by a lot of movies that other critics have raved about,
I think this is fair, and also part of getting older. With more responsibilities, family, mortgage, debt, career all taking up brainspace, the filter gets dulled and the need for escapism or just escape facilitates the acceptance of things once considered negative or lacking in any artistic value. I know this well, watching altogether too many reality TV shows that surround dog training, home repair, fashion and debt management (appearing on one this year doesn’t help either). Taking the year off of buying things for me, specifically on music, meant I glommed onto something more intensely than others. I think if anything it’s let me hone my filter in that regard, stating that if I can only have one or two new albums to listen to every six months it better be a damn good one. That belated purchase of Neon Bible in June still haunts me. What a tragedy of uninteresting mediocrity that album was in the context of the many albums of my collection I love that I revisited this year.
He points out something interesting about book and music reviewers, how limited they can sometimes be in their reviewing selections in comparison to TV or Movie reviewers, who spread their net considerably wider:
A few interesting blog-essays have recently considered why it is that book reviews and record reviews are so much more generally positive than movie reviews and TV reviews. The obvious conclusion? It’s much harder to cover the waterfront with books and music than it is with TV and movies. Outside of the big titles that demand to be reviewed–which may well suck, and thus get properly panned–the bulk of book and CD reviews are written by reviewers who do a certain amount of pre-selecting, and tend to gravitate to what they know they’ll like.
(he links to the following essays: here, here and here)
This extends to my comic book criticism where I’ve been confined primarily to what the Silver Snail has available (due to my work-in-trade with them). The Snail, bless them, are fantastic people with a quality mainstream store, but their selection of alternative press is pretty poor and what they do select to bring in is by and large uninteresting. I haven’t seen a new :01 (firstsecond) book in 9 months, and a host of Fantagraphics or Drawn and Quarterly titles I was curious to look at never materialized (at least nowhere visible to me). Not that I was wholly uncomfortable sucking down on superheroes and more mainstream (for comics) fare like Pax Romana or Golly!, but I now crave something different, but also good, and finding different is easy, the good not so much. I don’t want to continue reviewing things people already have opinions of (how many people really care about what anyone has to say about the latest Uncanny X-Men… how many opinions is that review really going to affect?), I would rather get four people to read Lulu and Mitzy than to turn 10 away from whatever travesty is going on in Marvel’s Ultimates line.
Part of what I found lacking in the blogosphere, particularly in music, was diversity, which is primarily why I’ve abandoned most podcasts and blogs. There’s a sever lack of voices out there that will explore beyond their comfort zones, look at music other than what the reader can look at and say “yeah, that makes sense why they like it”. Too many indie heads know nothing about hip-hop or electronica, so when something more mainstream captures them it’s more noteworthy to them than perhaps the even more noteworthy deep indie crowd. But there’s such a glut of music out there I can’t blame people for narrowing their focus. But there’s still people like my best of friends GAK who listen to music across a broad spectrum and just love the medium. Perhaps my tastes have grown this eclectic thanks to him, and our tape come cd come digital exchanges over the past 15 years, (but we both came from the same source, CBC’s Brave New Waves) but I still look to GAK as a filter for the music industry. He can parse classical, jazz, soul, blues, rock, punk, opera, electronic, hip-hop and everything inbetween and outside, and even if I don’t necessarily form the same appreciation, I still get exposed to it, and revel in that exposure, I delight in the difference and the extremes. Have you ever found yourself segued from Brian Eno to Stereolab to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs? If not, then you’re missing out. The central alternative scope which comprises the bulk of blogs when last I checked, bored the pants off me and led to some highly unrewarding (long-term) musical purchase decisions. Things that intrigue and delight at first and quickly dissipate their fresh scent once removed from the wrapper.
Which brings me to a question Murray asks, one which every reviewer should face on a regular basis, maybe with every review:
Throughout the year, I’ve been wondering: What is the responsibility of a critic? Is it to respond openly and enthusiastically to whatever an artist is trying to do? Or is it to nitpick it in the name of maintaining some authority? For most of my career, I’ve leaned toward the former, but I’m starting to see the value in the latter. Everything looks flawed to me these days–even the music, movies, TV shows and books that I love. When I review Mad Men or Lost for The TV Club, I often take pains to note the flaws even as I’m raving about what those shows do right, but whenever I do that, I wonder if I’m unnecessarily bumming out fans who came to The TV Club merely to celebrate the good. If I’d reviewed The Shield finale–one of the best TV endings of all time–would I have been persnickety enough to point out that some of the dialogue was strained and the ending rushed? If so, would that have served a purpose? I’m honestly not sure.
You have to ask yourself what you want with the review. Do you want to speak to people who have already read/seen/heard what you’re talking about, engaging them in a one-way dialogue about whether it’s good or bad and why? Do you want to notify people of something they may not know about? Do you want to turn them away? Do you want to lash out at popular opinion? Do you want to explore the material as an exercise, coming up with an answer about how you feel at the end? Did something in the show/book/record spark an idea you want to get out there, perhaps completely disassociated from the material itself?
Every review can cover one or more or none or something other in them… each review has its own singular purpose, and its up to the reviewer to decide whether to focus or roam free with the review. Keep it concentrated, on point, on-topic, or to just let every minuscule thought spill out, no matter how half-formed it is. Sometimes you can bring something you love down a notch or two just to satiate those that don’t love it, or to show how minor the quibbles are in the context of the rest of its greatness. I find that if you’re trying to promote something you like to a wider audience, you keep the quibbles to yourself, but if it’s something the masses are going to find anyway, then the quibbles are noteworthy. Sometimes the point of a review is to differentiate yourself from other reviewers… and sometimes the only point are the little nuggets that you noticed but perhaps noone else did.
One thing I hate to do as a reviewer is praise too loudly, for fear I’ll fall flat on my face, or that I’ll regret my words later. I don’t like giving things full marks because I feel there’s always a margin of error in what I say. I ploughed through Ebert’s blog post and comments on Synechdoche, New York and found the “instant classic” or “highest form of art” praise to be almost damning, in that four years down the road it could be completely deciphered, and feel silly and hollow. Anything that’s great now may not be as great in the future (Blazing Saddles, Star Wars, James Cameron’s entire catalogue) as time marches on and contexts change, the quality of a film or the emotions associated with it can shift (or in Star Wars’ case, be tainted). The only thing that makes a classic “classic” is time. Similarly, a cult film is only a “cult film” after time is done with it. Marketing can’t speed up time no matter how hard they try, and awards and acclaim are only flavour of the day. As Murray says:
That’s why you probably shouldn’t take any gripes I have about the music of 2008 to heart. Get back to me in 2018, when I’ve had to time to live with these albums a little, and have heard how they sound to me after enduring another decade of what a wise man once called “life’s little ups and downs.”
I have to wonder if perhaps any real reviewer worth his or her salt should be forced to review his or her top ten lists every ten years, to see how their favourite films or books or records have weathered. I don’t have much behind me from ten years ago… my reviews were primitive in 1998, and my exposure to the larger cultural pot excessively limited (listen to Patton Oswalt’s “the Gatekeeper of Coolness” on “Werewolves and Lollipops” where he talks about growing up in Sterling, Virginia and using the local TV critic as a barometer for how cool or uncool your town is… that was me 10 years ago… talking about Dr. John). I like Ebert’s “Great Movie” collection, where he obviously spends time with films over the years, some recent, some ancient (sorry Roger), each gaining perspective and merit over time where they might not have fully earned it initially.
Of course the measure of “cool” or “good” is purely subjective. There are things I love which aren’t cool (Hall and Oates), and things I love which aren’t good (a whole heap of comics), but those kinds of things stay with us so much more than something that’s technically great but lacking any resonance (pretty much half of all Oscar-bait flicks). At this stage, I prefer semi-decent entertainment to pretty-good art on about a 60/40 ratio, and long term I’ll revisit semi-decent entertainment far more frequently than pretty-good art for escapist value (that said, pretty good art I’ll remember far more than semi-decent entertainment, hence why I probably revisit it more often)
The point of all this: just random distracted thoughts on a gloomy late-fall Monday. A full-on Synecdoche, New York review is probably in the offing… at somepoint when I gather those thoughts together.