Why We Still Need Music Criticism

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Why We Still Need Music Criticism

What is the most important job in Western Civilization today? Music criticism.

Wait, wait—don’t change screens. I know it sounds ridiculous, but hear me out.

What’s the root cause of the world’s major problems: racism, sexism, fundamentalism, ageism, income inequality and environmental damage? The fear of death.

A human being is often described as “an animal aware of its own death.” At our genetic core, we recognize death as the final erasure: now we exist and later we don’t. Thousands of years of religious myth haven’t been able to lessen the terror of that fact, because our bodies know the truth no matter what our minds believe.

To cope with that fear, we try to split the mind from the body. If we can convince ourselves, against all evidence, that the mind—or soul, as it’s often called—is separate from the body, we can convince ourselves of our own immortality. To do this, we celebrate everything about the mind/soul and denigrate everything about the body.

We denigrate bodies that have darker or wrinkled skin, bodies that menstruate, bodies that copulate not for procreation, bodies that are maimed or marred, the bodies of plants and animals that die in plain sight. We try to accumulate enough wealth and fame—usually at the expense of the less fortunate—to outlive our bodies’ deaths. And if contrarian hedonists celebrate the body but denigrate the mind and spirit, they too preserve the mind/body split of Platonic Dualism.

If this dualism underlies most of the world’s problems, what is the solution? What is the human activity that brings the mind/soul and the body back together again? Art.

Politics, philosophy and science may stimulate the mind, but they don’t repair its division from the body. Sex and food may stimulate the body, but they don’t bridge the gap between the physical and the mental or spiritual.

Art bridges that gap. At its best, art sparks ideas about our feelings and feelings about our ideas. Whatever the genre—whether it’s painting, drama, writing or something else—the most successful art combines sensuality with thoughtfulness. It uses colors and sounds, figures and movement, to evoke the most stubborn conflicts in our lives, so we can feel them and think about them at the same time. When we truly engage with art, we experience it in our bodies as well as in our mind/soul.

And what genre of art best exemplifies this? Song. Because it includes words as well as rhythm, song works at both ends of the spinal column: it makes us move in the hips and think in the brain. Because it links those words and rhythms to the emotional trigger of melody, it makes us understand our feelings as located in both our mind and our body. And when we’re dancing with other people or echoing the song’s harmony, we implicitly acknowledge the value of every other body and every other mind.

Song goes a long way in healing the breach between the body and the mind/soul. But it doesn’t go all the way. We experience this mind/body reunion subconsciously, but we’re not aware that it’s happening, so we don’t change our worldview to reflect this event. Once the artistic encounter ends, we are left with nothing in our consciousness that would reshape our belief system.

How can the implications of song penetrate our conscious thoughts and change our operating values? What is the catalyst that can transform this implicit lesson into an explicit one? Who is the actor who can complete the unfinished work of the song by making us aware of what’s going on? Who can solve Western Civilization’s most crucial problem? The music critic.

The music critic—more often than not unkempt and impoverished, isolated at his or her desk surrounded by teetering piles of books and CDs, arguing peevishly with an editor on the phone—may seem an unlikely candidate as the savior of Western Civilization. But only music critics can articulate with words (i.e. translate into consciousness) our instinctive response to song. Only they can connect the dots and close the deal on art’s attempt to heal the mind/body breach.

Consider a song like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Whether you first heard it on the original 1967 album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, in the movie Blues Brothers 2000 or leaking from an oldies station from a diner’s radio or from the background of a TV show, you can’t help but respond to the narrator’s demand for respect from her man—respect in the way he shares his paycheck, respect in the way he talks to her, respect in the way he makes love to her. You respond not only to the authority implied by the lyrics but also to the authority implied by Franklin’s voice, and the way it locks into the muscular syncopation of the musicians behind her.

But asked to explain why the song affects you so powerfully, you may grope around for words, mumbling cliches about the beat and the singing that don’t capture what you really feel. But in that gap between searching for the right words and finding them lies the last, untaken step in the transformational process of art. Because until you can explain a song’s impact to yourself, the full effect hasn’t registered. Until a song’s full implications can be articulated, until they’re been integrated into one’s worldview, the experience is incomplete.

Who can fill that gap? The music critic. Critics can provide information and assess value. They can provide context—how Franklin added the “Sock it to me” refrain to Otis Redding’s original version, how this daughter of a black Detroit preacher recorded the tune with a band of white Alabamans, how the song resonated with the racial and sexual politics of 1967—that deepens the appreciation of a song.

But far more important is critics’ ability to provide the words that explain a listener’s inchoate reaction back to that same listener, the words that convert a vaguely felt response into one that’s fully aware, the words that make clear that the mind’s alertness to the lyrics’ ideas is no different than the body’s attentiveness to the rhythm’s push and pull, the words that emphasize that there is no distinction between mind and body. The brain is as biological as the groin and the stimulation of one becomes the stimulation of the other.

When the listener of the song becomes the reader of the song’s critical unpacking, the listener must consciously confront the implications of the song’s mind/body reunification. And once the listener embraces that message, the sins of dualism become unsustainable, and the future of Western Civilization begins to pivot.

This all sounds self-serving coming from a music critic—and, of course, it is. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I make no claims for my own work, but I can say this: It has happened to me. Reading the best music critics of my generation has changed my perception of not only song but also of the wider world.

Critics have been as crucial to the evolution of my thinking as any songwriter, novelist or screenplay author.

So when it comes to performing surgery on the gaping wound in the heart of Western Civilization, artists, politicians, scientists and philosophers all have useful roles to play as attendants in the operating room. But the lead surgeon is going to be the person you’d least expect: the music critic.

No, really.

Geoffrey Himes has been a weekly contributor to the Washington Post since 1977 and has written for Paste since 2004. A poet, songwriter, playwright and theater critic, Himes has also covered music for Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the Oxford American, the Nashville Scene, Jazz Times and Downbeat.

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