Saturday, January 19, 2019

writing about music #2

from about 10 years ago i think, an interview with Angelo Di Mambro for D News, covering topics like role of music press, the music critic, dancing, pitfalls and biases, etc

1)   Once there was the musical press, with an acknowledged role in forming opinions and a market in music. Then the web and digital devices arrived. And almost everything has changed: production, distribution, opinion making and marketing. And the role of the reviewer, of the criticism: has it changed? And how? The web and the proliferation of voices talking about music have eroded the monopoly of knowledge that supposed to belong to critics?

I don't think there was ever a monopoly as such, you had a thriving underground of fanzines, the letters pages of the music press were lively forums for discussion, and people debating music with great fervor and subtlety went on in bars, cafes, school yards, etc.

But certainly what's changed is the role of music criticism as gate-keeper, the music critic as someone who gets to hear the music before the general public and can influence its reception. Nowadays with MySpace allowing anybody to check out a new band as soon as the buzz starts, and leaks of albums onto the internet long before they are released, there is much of a decentralized nature to opinion-formation, a chaos of voices and positions being taken.  In these circumstances, the role of critic changes, to offer the more considered view, to make larger connections and map out the state of the music scene in much broader terms. Of course people who are non-professionals can do that kind of writing on blogs too, or have that kind of discussion on message boards and other online forums.  Some of the most interesting  "macro" writing is done by bloggers. But generally most blogs are part of the early  buzz process, it's very much about the quick reaction to things and then moving on fast to the next hot new band or genre.

2)      One of the blunders or rock criticism was to hide the role of producers and musicians to contribute to build an artist ideology: the music as a genius work rather than a collective work. Something has changed?

Rock critics do tend to focus on the singer and the songwriter, and in the process ignore the other people who contribute, where it's the other musicians or the producer or studio engineer.  For instance the person in Joy Division and New Order who had the hippest taste and some of the most interesting ideas about music was Steven Morris, the  drummer. I know that because I interviewed him for my postpunk book and also put the whole conversation in my new book of postpunk interviews, Totally Wired. He was probably the driving force in New Order's adoption of an electronic sound with programmed rhythms. He'd also once been a music journalist himself! But generally your typical music reporter would focus on Bernard Sumner, because he's the singer.

I think the role of the producer is something that music journalism has become more aware of, though, and that actually began in the postpunk era with people like Martin Hannett, Martin Rushent,  Dennis Bovell, Trevor Horn.  You would have profiles of Hannett and Bovell and Horn  in the New Musical Express.  At that time you also had people treating managers as auteurs, people like Malcolm McLaren, Bernie Rhodes the Clash's manager, as so forth. It's certainly improved from the early days of rock criticism which by and large focused on the person who wrote the lyrics.  But then it was the Seventies and the singer-songwriter era.  It had to improve because so much of the important music of the Nineties and onwards has been driven by producers: hip hop, R&B, rave, electronic music.

To an extent it's understandable that music journalists focus on the lyric-writer because they are likely to be a better talker, because their medium of expression is language. Most music journalists don't know much about music in the sense of how to play instruments, musicology,  or equipment, or recording techniques -- so they can't talk to musicians about what the latter actually spend 90 percent of their time thinking about!  Most music journalists are happier talking about what the songs are about, or the group's opinions about what's going on in politics or elsewhere in the music scene, or just gossipy stuff.


3)      Another historical bad habit: talking about English and American production as a worldwide production, a sort of ethnocentric prejudice. Yet the music grows with hybrid. Are those days past?

I don't quite understand the question, but certainly it's true that the Anglo-American pop culture has a bad history in terms of accepting pop music that isn't Anglophonic.  I wonder if that will change as the American Empire wanes, and as the UK gets more integrated into a larger Europe. [HISTORICAL IRONY ALERT]

4)      In “Rip it up and start again” you write that the scenes between 1978 and 1984 was so plentiful and fast that finding a record of a couple of years before was impossible. No past (and no future…) seemed to exist. Now the tribute and the homage are a real cliché, many Italian mainstream musicians have made cover albums (Carboni, Battiato, Irene Grandi, as Johnny Cash did, or Paul Anka playing swing some rock classics). Pop has stopped to eat itself and has began to put itself in a museum?

My next book is about this topic: retro culture.  There is what academics call a "musealisation" -- everything becoming like a museum -- of culture, in the West at any rate. It affects every level of culture, but it's particularly strong in music.  We have become archive crazy, documenting everything, digging over the past for lost treasure. New bands recycle ideas; old bands return as their own tribute acts. It's a historically unprecedented phenomenon, at times it almost seems to me a kind of crisis. Yet at the same time it is very enjoyable to explore all this old music, I could spend the rest of my life trawling through YouTube or digging in old vinyl record stores, or buying up vintage music magazines. And some great music has come out of this archival sensibility -- I'm particularly into this genre "hauntology", made by groups on the label Ghost Box and some other bands, it's a kind of archaeology of Britain's "cultural unconscious", all the ghosts that  inhabit the memory of any British person who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies.


5)      Music is a serious thing. In your opinion, what does it say to our lives (at the opposite of Morrissey’s “blessed dj”)?

Oh, that's a big question. It says all kind of things, and often it says nothing at all, and that is its point.  Some music is just about dancing, getting in the groove, the intoxication of rhythm; it's not that it is thoughtless, but it's almost getting your body to think, to function at a higher level.  Music can be serious or it can wonderfully non-serious:  I used to think that music and comedy couldn't or shouldn't co-exist, but I've changed my mind. There's too many examples of music that makes you laugh.

But I do take it seriously  and generally, speaking for myself, one of the main things that music has offered is a sense of something bigger outside of myself, something that I can connect with and become one with. That could be networks of ideas and energy, as with postpunk, or, it could be social forces, as with rave culture in the Nineties, where I found my tastes coming into alignment with "the people" for the first time, I joined "the crowd" at last and experienced the joy of collective energy. Or it could just be a sense of the cosmos, which is what I get from psychedelic music, from the German bands of the early Seventies, also from certain kinds of electronic music, the post-War avant-garde.  I think music allows us to be subsumed in the "trans-individual", we can leave behind the petty concerns of our everyday self.  In that sense, as a force that is transcendent and transfiguring and redemptive,  it could be that music provides for me the same role that religion would have done if I'd been born in an earlier century.  I don't believe in God (or at least in a God that takes a great interest in me and what I do). But I do believe in Music.

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Mr. Waled Mohamed said...
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