RW: When you write you bring in the cultural trappings of pop -- image and identity, scene and scenesters, marketing and make-up -- in order to shed more light on the music and its novelty. Do you think it’s possible to write about pop music without this context - would it make sense or even be interesting to write about a new Britney album without this material?
SR: I used to have this stance that music writing
should focus on pure sound, a sort of reaction against the over-emphasis
on lyrics, biography, etc -- which to me at the time (late Eighties)
seemed to be an evasion of the sonic, and linked to lingering hang-ups
from the punk and postpunk era that constantly sought to validate music
through its relevance, political content, redeeming social value, etc.
Being all hopped up on Roland Barthes and the rest of the French theory
crew, I was trying to do writing that was purely about jouissance,
focusing on that aspect of music to do with ecstasy, convulsive bliss,
ego-loss, excess, oblivion, etc. Today I think that stance, while
understandable in its context (opposing the middlebrow rock critic
fixation on lyrics and meaning, which never seems to go away), was
misguided, in so far as pop/rock has never been purely about music
alone. It's a hybrid art form, radically impure, with a whole other set
of factors being as important as the sound: lyrics, persona, biography,
performance, the broader social and cultural context, the discourse at
any given time around music (including criticism), the design and
packaging of records, the way fans make use of the music and invents its
meanings, and quite a few other frames.
For instance, I think it would be great if critics wrote more about
the Smiths in purely musical terms (the contributions of the band
hardly ever get dealt with), as a sensual sonic experience; but the
meaning and power of the Smiths is bound up with a whole lot more than
the songs and the recordings. There's the record covers, there's
Morrissey's interviews (which you could see as just as important to his
artistry as his lyrics), Morrissey's dancing, etc. Or look at the
postpunk era: a purely sonic evocation of the recordings would be fine,
but it would miss all the other things going on in terms of inputs from
other art forms, all the concepts and theories and ideologies flying
around and informing what was going on.
That said, as per your Britney idea, I think nowadays we are almost
too inundated with knowledge and data and it would be interesting, as
an exercise, to try to listen to Britney or a Madonna album as a "pure"
sonic experience. Probably impossible, but it might be interesting. And
there have been times when I thought it would be cool to review an album
how I did in the late Eighties, where often I knew very little about a
band, seldom bothered to read the press release, really just responded
to it sonically.
[interview with Rowan Wilson at ReadySteadyBook]