Criticism, 2017
By Beppe Colli
Nov. 12, 2017

A very large and complex puzzle that's impossible to "get" at a glance. Many aspects are only present by implication. I'll try to be very clear when it comes to those things that are explicitly stated.

Maybe readers are already familiar - the episode was widely talked about all over the Web about a month ago - with the facts and figures that will be discussed in a moment, but I think those things are worth repeating.

On September, 14, Rodney Jerkins - a musician, songwriter, and producer who I think needs no introduction - made a speech in Los Angeles in front of an audience of his peers. Transcriptions of his speech appeared in many publications, with the title "I Wrote a Hit Song with Justin Bieber. Want to See My Royalties?".

The person who wrote a hit with Justin Bieber is Norwegian songwriter Andre Lindall, who went to live in the United States, following his muse. Soon there was a hit, As Long As You Love Me, a song recorded by Bieber, and a Top Ten of which Lindall owns 20%.

Here's the detail of the royalties Lindall was paid as the writer of  20% of the song:

$149.000 is the total amount paid to him by BMI;

$53.000 is the compensation for 47.820 radio spins;

$765 for 1.509 spins on Sirius XM;

$258 for 38.225.700 spins on Pandora;

$218 for 34.220.900 spins on YouTube.

So, with the royalties he got from traditional media for writing 20% of a Justin Bieber hit - something which is quite similar to one winning the lottery - he could buy a house; while with the money he got from the "new digital media" - which, as readers can easily see, are the compensation for quite a lot of spins - he could (maybe) buy a bike.

This is perfectly legal, and a consequence of the fact that record companies negotiated the rights for themselves and for others, too, so that "the others" often get such minuscule sums that can't even be paid.

One can't help but wonder what will happen when "new digital media" will totally replace the old model.

Starting with the old days of Napster, a lot of people have argued that "music wants to be free", and that this is just a natural consequence of the way History has developed, and that musicians will have to provide for themselves. We all remember those talks about musicians having to survive selling t-shirts at their gigs, and so on.

Now it's the "back to vinyl" phenomenon that is said to be saving the music industry from collapse.

Having a look at those figures tells us that the royalties record companies now get from the "new digital media" are not so low, when one considers that "digital music" is quite cheaper to make and distribute when compared to its "physical" counterpart of old. Also, there are no percentages to pay to wholesalers and shops, no returns, and so on.

Quite peculiar, this, those who once protested against the record companies haven't acted in a similar manner in order to criticize what is an oligopoly that has even fewer members than the already tiny number of record companies of yesterday. No one appears to criticize those agreements of dubious legality - I bet the Supreme Court would have something to say about them - which give such meagre compensation even to somebody who wrote a hit with Justin Bieber.

It didn't take long to understand that the diminishing of the sums that the "physical item system" made available would soon submerge both magazines and criticism.

No ads, no paper, no wages, no critics. Things have only gotten worse in the online world, where - in parallel with what happened in the world of "physical music" - there are fewer expenses but revenues appear to be nose-diving, with readers/listeners wanting to have fun for free, rather than getting sound information for a price.

"Criticism as a pass-time for the rich who can afford to write for free" was in recent times a preoccupation for the "Dean of the American Rock Critics", Robert Christgau, who in his autobiography tried to show the parallel dimensions of "profession" and "function" in the American society of his time.

Criticism appears to survive, if only for a reason that's quite easy to see: one's need for an "objective opinion". If the word "objective" doesn't sound too believable, let's say "the opinion of somebody who's not on the payroll of those who make and sell the items that are being discussed".

When the fishmonger says the fish is fresh, the restaurant owner says the food is tasty and safe, the movie director says the movie is highly creative, the songwriter says the song is quite catchy and in its way profound, one really needs an objective view.

Of course, an "objective view" can also mean "other peoples' opinion", something that is quite different from "the opinion of somebody who's professionally qualified". And as we know too well, if "everybody" see things one way, why bother when "one" critic thinks otherwise? An attitude that when it comes to music is more and more common as the music becomes more and more "tactile".

Those who still relate to music in the old ways, with an important role reserved for language, still value critics and criticism quite highly, both on paper and on the Web. Though one sometimes has the disturbing feeling that "old media" are artificially kept alive in order to sell those old-style items for which online peer groups are a weak source of validation, and so, a weak incentive to buy.

In the "nose-diving" wage scheme that by now appears to hit those specialized roles of yesterday and their middle-class wages, critics remember with a sense of nostalgia those $100 reviews paid by such monthlies as Blender, and the time - so near, so far - when they angrily discussed the movie Almost Famous and its treatment of a symbolic figure such as Lester Bangs.

Reading many reviews of large boxes and "properly done re-releases", one gets the feeling that those objects were not necessarily in the hands of those who reviewed them, at least not with the proper amount of time one needs to write something profound while meeting one's deadline. As it's easy to see, one week is not enough to really listen to a box featuring 2.8 days of concerts, in various formats.

It's difficult to believe that a reviewer that has never seen, or listened to, the original version of an album whose new re-release "just like the original album" s/he has to review has other choices than trying to guess right, and hope for the best.

When it comes to recorded sound, there are those who - of course! - talk about "different strokes for different folks and all that" and "splitting hairs", but I think that getting compressed files is not the ideal solution when reviewing releases that are said to be of the "audiophile" kind.

Let's talk about things that "hit the eye", such as the (low) number of pixels that makes a lot of today's vinyl re-releases look "washed out".

I still remember - let's insert a moment of levity in this discussion - the cover of a vinyl re-release of the highly celebrated Rolling Stones album Exile On Main Street where the cover image was tinier than the usual 12" square, so at a certain point on the right the image ended... only to start again, with more than a few pictures appearing twice.

The quite elaborate cover of the Rolling Stones album Their Satanic Majesties Request in its re-release version has been examined with much attention, revealing shoddy "copy and paste" Photoshop work intended to hide the fact that the original images were missing. One can't help but laugh when reading about "a fantastic cover that looks just like the original".

But the modern world makes it possible for us to access things that didn't exist before. For instance, the Web makes it possible for people from all over the world to participate in discussions where everybody can add their bit.

So one can read that in the 70s the words "Babylon by the Bay" were a nickname for San Francisco, something that adds meaning to the Steely Dan song Babylon Sisters, and that one can read thanks to somebody who lived there in the 70s.

These communities where people's participation is voluntary could be regarded as being a collective equivalent of the work done by yesterday's critics.

But the "for free" nature of people's efforts has a serious drawback: that while it takes a lot of people to get interesting results, the number of active participants is quite low.

For those who are fans of things that are appreciated by a minority - "difficult music" being one of them - the gradual disappearing of those "serious magazines for the masses" has consequences that are impossible to counterbalance.

If one accepts the idea that "modern rock criticism" was born fifty years ago with U.S. bi-monthly Rolling Stone, the notion that "the new" and "the industry" walk side-by-side should not be enough to make one think that the work of critics has been "dirtied" by the proximity.

The fact that nowadays one can easily read whole archived libraries makes it possible for one to see that such people as Jon Landau and Stephen Holden could investigate the work of such an artist as Paul Simon in depth. When the music became more difficult there was a serious chance of things going bad, and there are many examples of this happening.

There's a crucial passage here: the possibility of formulating a distinction between a serious magazine and one that is not as serious, or not at all. I know quite well that there are those who profess that such a distinction is impossible to make. I also know quite well that many people who hold this belief write poor pieces for shoddy magazines.

To be more precise, having a quality magazine print in the same issue serious articles about Metallica, Richard Thompson, and Henry Kaiser - or about Sting's, Phil Collins's, and R. Stevie Moore's personal studios - makes it feasible to talk about Richard Thompson, Henry Kaiser, and R. Stevie Moore.

The fact that nowadays newspapers and magazines of any type and size give a lot of space to music makes it difficult for a quality music magazine to survive. Sure, there are a lot of "niche artists" who are interesting for a "highly specialized audience". But who will pay for those magazines' contributors?

We still have people who in the international panorama, within their individual area of expertise, can shed light on their subjects. For instance, when it comes to songwriting, Paul Zollo, who also wrote a book called Conversations with Tom Petty, published in 2003.

When Petty died, Zollo wrote - on the website of the magazine American Songwriter, on October 6, 2017, under the title On The Life And Times Of Tom Petty - that in the introduction penned for that book Petty wrote that Zollo would show up "ridiculously prepared, to the extent of knowing how to play the songs himself".

"This was true", writes Zollo, "as knowing the song from inside out, and understanding its ingenuous architecture, is the only way to truly discuss the totality of a song with its songwriter."

Readers who have patiently read up to now have noticed that my attention has been devoted to things that could be defined as "obstacles of an external nature" for the good health - or survival - of (music) criticism.

But there is another aspect, something that - as a Trojan horse - enters a part of criticism that could be defined as "internal" and "constitutive", and in the end fabricates "simulacra" of critical objects.

For reasons that will become clear in a short while, those "simulacra" progressively take the place of criticism, depriving it of space and oxygen, in the end becoming part of the class of "obstacles of an external nature" discussed above.

Complex, difficult? Not at all, as I'll show in a minute.

Let's think about three famous architects - for instance, Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas, and Thom Mayne. While their buildings greatly vary when it comes to their style, function, philosophy, they all share an important feature: they don't fall down.

We can separate man-made objects in two large categories: "those that when built badly fall down" and "those for which this criterion is not applicable".

Society "chooses" and "decides" which parts of life are to be closely watched and regulated: it's not possible for one to become a doctor unless one has passed certain exams; buildings and bridges have to be tested in prescribed ways, the same being true of medicines and cars.

A record review cannot "collapse", and the critical realm is one of those society "chose" not to "regulate".

One can say that the arpeggio that opens (Don't Fear) The Reaper by Blue Öyster Cult reminds one of the Byrds. Some time ago, the group guitarist, Donald Roeser, who penned the song, said the arpeggio was the same one that opens the song Born On The Bayou by Creedence Clearwater Revival, only faster. So one can say that the arpeggio reminds one of the music of the Byrds, but that inspiration was found elsewhere. But arguing that the guitar parts of this song remind one of Led Zeppelin is false, and it is an "eternal" kind of falsity that doesn't change with time.

For those who don't like "pop" for instances, one could say that the synthesizer piece created by Brian Eno that starts the Matching Mole song Gloria Gloom reminds one of Tod Dockstader's music, particularly his composition Quatermass. One could listen to both pieces side-by-side, then arrive at one's conclusion. One could call Brian Eno asking him about it. What one cannot say is that the Eno piece reminds one of Touch by Morton Subotnick, because it's not true. The fact that this assertion is false can be demonstrated.

Let's now imagine a continuum where on one side there are assertions like the ones discussed above, on the other there are assertions like the ones that follow.

"The new album by ZX is a freedom shout more devastating than any past releases the dirty and maudit rock has vomited up to now."

"The new album by XZ cancels those porous limits the singer stood by, while here she chooses a fluid identity while not reneging on her past in its liminal sense."

For a long time now I've regarded this kind of writing as a screen behind which those who are not prepared, or haven't done their homework, hide.

It goes without saying that the above sentences are impossible to confute, also meaningless.

It goes without saying that no society can survive while letting "freedom of interpretation" as represented by the quotes sketched above go rampant in all walks of life.

So there are realms of knowledge - for instance, designing computer chips or devising new ways to make forensic research available to A.I. software programs - where one "cannot play".

Also other realms - for instance, that of "humanities" - where one can safely argue that pigs can fly.

There are newspapers and magazines where people say whatever they want about whatever facts with no fear whatsoever of being challenged. Whole nations or social groups that believe what they want.

Sure, sometimes as a collateral effect one has a Brexit or a President Trump.

I still remember those times when (in a record shop, or on the radio) I listened to the sound that starts the world-famous Emerson, Lake & Palmer song Take A Pebble for the first time. I immediately wondered "what is this?". Those questions are often the starting point of a better understanding.

I won't use the word "objective", but the expression "internal" to the object. Categories may change, but the meaning of music has to be found "inside" the music.

A quite widespread trend - mostly in the United States, though one could argue that the roots to this can be located elsewhere - is the one that regards music as an expression of a different "thing", and that argues that in order to understand the former, one has to investigate the latter. And the first thing one has to investigate is something called "identity".

The - ahem - porous borders of those articles make it possible for some to write "meaningless" assertions  - the summation of various fields of knowledge in their raw form - and sell them to the press all over the world, at the expense of articles that put music on top.

Readers are invited to picture university courses where students are taught the "right way" to deal with the arts, a bunch of graduates fighting in order to get those few jobs still available at those newspapers and magazines that still pay contributors, a clique of writers lauding each other, and a tour when one talks about a book which deals with "porous identities". That's reality.

Even if Ann Powers has never been one of my favourite music writers, in time my reading of her articles had me worried, with a slow but deliberate progression on her part from something that could still be recognized as being the fruits of critical work to a dimension that with more than a little effort could be defined as "cultural".

Powers has generously granted interviews while promoting her most recent book - Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music - with a whole chapter available to read for free online. If one is permitted to judge a whole by one of its parts, I'll say this book reminds me of those books that in those horror movies make those who read them go insane.

But I've always thought that the Gold Medal of new criticism should go to Prof. Amanda Petrusich of Gallatin University, New York, staff writer at the New Yorker, contributor to many magazines that still give one a paycheck - from Pitchfork to Esquire - also writer of three "acclaimed books".

I have to immediately make it clear that the piece I'll discuss below was not chosen for being her worst - in this respect, Petrusich's many interviews are something else - but because it's recent and definitely representative.

I didn't purposely choose the most meaningless sentences. For those who are curious, the piece can be easily accessed on the New Yorker website under the title Free Falling with Tom Petty, October 3, 2017.

One has to suppose that the obituary of a very famous artist will say the most important facts while also offering some interpretative keys for those readers who'll want to go deeper.

Here's a key passage:

(...) "and I've often wondered if the verse that opens the song "Free Falling" (...) "was in some small way an accounting of his own beginnings".

Which is an excellent interrogative. Which - alas! - gets no answer. But at least one knows that Petrusich asked herself this interrogative.

The song's first verse, Petrusich writes, goes like this: "She's a good girl/Crazy 'bout Elvis/Loves horses/and her boyfriend, too". (...) "A list of the things that he thought should matter, the things that could get a kid through." That's for sure. But to whom should they matter, to the girl in the song or to Tom Petty? The distinction is important, but the answer never comes. Anyway, one knows that Petrusich asked herself this interrogative.

Tom Petty was an important artist, in both quality and quantity. What can one say about this?

"Surveying the work now, it's hard to surmise a single narrative, or to properly quantify exactly what he meant to rock and roll."

Well, I understand that surmising a single narrative is hard. Also properly quantify exactly.

In the end, one is left with this lacerating interrogative:

"How do you sum up that kind of career, draw conclusions?"

An interrogative those who have to write the obituary of a famous artist think about long and hard before writing, in order to offer readers an answer. But here the enormity of the task at hand appears to make Petrusich speechless.

Luckily, it is Petty himself who appears to offer an appropriate interpretative key from the afterlife:

""You don't know how it feels to be me", he cautioned on "You Don't Know How It Feels", from 1994."

Fair enough, but this doesn't appear to be a pertinent observation to what had been argued before.

I seem to remember that in the same song Petty also says something like: "So let's get to the point/Let's roll another joooooint...." - maybe he's suggesting a more appropriate way in order to find an answer to those unanswered questions?

(I don't know if it's true, but there are those who swear that after John Lennon composed I Am The Walrus his cook started bringing him tiny little fishes in the raw, inside an iron bucket, throwing them at him from a distance, having confused the song with real life. The cook was soon fired.)

An observation of great importance comes to us under a humble verbal guise:

"Yet I'm fairly certain Petty knew how it felt to be us."

Which is bound to raise a lot of doubts. We don't know how it feels to be Petty, at least the one who sings the song. Yet we are certain we know he knew how it feels to be us. How can it be?

Here it is! After a colloquial expression - "what kills me" - intended to signify that someone who knows the word "liminal" is not that far from "the streets", Petrusich drops the bomb:

"Petty understood how to address the liminal, not-quite-discernible feelings that a person might experience in her lifetime (that's in addition to all the big, collapsing ones - your loves and losses and yearnings)."

If one has to take it seriously, this assertion appears to be similar to the old "ontological argument" about the existence of God, which was rejected by Kant (I seem to remember something featured at the end of his Critic of Pure Reason, perhaps?).

But why Petty is supposed to be the only one possessing those qualities? What can we say to those still reading this obituary?

We have an answer!

"I can't think of another songwriter as tuned in to these in-between, transitional moments - to the blank spaces between our catastrophes and triumphs, when we are desperately trying to sort out what comes next. When we take to running."

I don't know about the part about running, but the part about "desperately trying to sort out what comes next" definitely reminds me of someone.

Driving safely to the conclusion, here's at last a solid proof.

"I have, at various points in my life, cited Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Greatest Hits" as my favourite record of all time. He's such a distinctive singer, with his own syntax and emphasis and tone, and that mysterious patois; I loved his work enough to love him, too."

What to say? Bravo! Except for the part about the "mysterious patois", which I'd like to be better defined, except for the fact, of course, of it being mysterious.

But can citing an album as "my favourite record of all time" "at various points in my life" prove to be enough as the writing on the tombstone erected by such a distinguished U.S. magazine?

It's not with joy that I wrote this piece, nor its ending. But I firmly believe that critics must defend rationality.

The overflowing of such articles as the Petty obituary clearly show the tragedy we live in and the one that's to come.

The exercise of criticism as an exploration of "something" "out there" which can be rationally argued is getting replaced by a crazy mixture that fuzzily assembles what is believed to be true, morsels of texts almost randomly linked, faulty parallels between what is part of one's life and other people's narrations as they are subjectively reworked, in a critical exercise that wants the freedom of literature while declaring itself to be a true description of the world.

It would be a very bad thing even if this nonsense were confined inside a University class. If those barriers still left standing will fall down, there'll be no future left.

© Beppe Colli 2017 | Nov. 12, 2017