Sun is cold and rain is hard… The neglected world of music criticism #arts

listen-out (1)


The terrifying image left was the still image advertisement for the Listen Out festival.  There has been a wave of cancellations and downsizing in the music festival world — perhaps not unreasonably given the ridiculous rate of growth we’d seen over the past decade.  Parklife was perhaps the largest festival for dance music in Australia but, in response to the realisation that we’d hit Peak Music Festival, it refashioned itself as the artistic, smaller, and ‘more intelligent’ Listen Out.

It was so artistic, small, and more intelligent that it even advertised itself in French.  French ballerinas.  Creepy, soul-eating, nightmare fuel, electro-tech French ballerinas.

It was so artistic, small, and more intelligent that police were able to seize $10k in drugs.

What is surprising is that the latter story continues to be the dominant lens through which most of the population interprets music festivals.  It’s a fun time in the blistering heat listening to a variety of different artists while being fenced in with Australia’s drug culture.

In other words, there seems to be tacit agreement that music festivals are not really art forms worth critiquing in any meaningful or intelligent sense.  There’s no discussion about their composition or construction.  There’s no analysis of the interaction between the shifting, nomadic audience, the transient performers, and the physical location of the entire ordeal.  There’s no interpretation of that which is being interpreted.

Which is weird.

More than film and definitely more than literature, music is increasingly seen in terms of pre-linguistic, unconstructed enjoyment.  You listen to the music and it makes you move your body.  We frame our discussion of music in sub-rational terms: music is primal, instinctive, animalistic, &c., &c., &c.  More importantly, we frame pop music as being anti-intellectual.  ‘It’s just music to enjoy and not think about.’

There are very few pop music pieces which are purely instrumental.  The majority have lyrics which — at least generally — are constructed with some semantic sense.  They’re not random words.  Even if we accept the idea that instrumental pieces can exist without meaning (we shouldn’t), the same cannot be said for songs which contain lyrics.  These are cultural products which can — and should — be analysed the same way as literature and film.

The above song, Half in Shadow, Half in Light by Prom, is a particularly good example of this.  Prom is a Canberran band that formed around a particular aesthetic: blending incongruent styles of music.  Despite being released in Canberra (highest cultural consumption per capita in the country), there’s very little discussion, analysis, or interpretation.  To put it bluntly, even in the city with the highest rate of cultural consumption, there’s no community of music criticism.

In effect, we have artists who are generating interesting, engaging, and intellectually stimulating stuff, but the reception lacks the same level of interest, engagement, and intellectual stimulation.  Let’s have another song.

I’m continuing on with my Canberran bands theme (it just happens that they have an entirely convenient name for the purposes of this post).  That was The Fun Machine’s Naked Body.  I listen to the song whenever I’ve been sitting at my computer for too long and need to move my shoulders around.

Even in the mainstream media, our conversation about music is almost universally taste-based.  Did the reviewer enjoy the melody-word-formations? Yes/No?  How many stars?  Did the Kulturindustrie mass produce quality goods to satisfy the economy?  Was fun manufactured?  Was enjoyment purchased?

If ever there were a time to generate an insightful, inquisitive community of music critics, it’s now: it’s when the mass media starts to invade fringe arts.  Meet Spell Block Tango.

This is a really interesting example.  Musicals already exist at an intersection between ‘high arts’ and popular culture.  For some reason, film hasn’t completely purged Broadway from the face of the Earth.  It’s sure given it a red hot go:

At the other end of the spectrum, the combination of reality television and the music industry has made manufacturing new cultural goods for mass media even more efficient.  Television is lousy with ‘fresh’ artists tempted by vague promises of ready made stardom.  American Idol, of course, is the most famous of these.

Appearing in Spell Block Tango is Todrick Hall (who was also the creator), Pia Toscano, and Adam Lambert, who were all made famous by American Idol.  There’s also Amber Riley from Glee, and Cassie Scerbo from Sharknado.  In other words, we have people who’ve become part of the entertainment industry through the existing entertainment structures now colonising the new media space in which unknown artists are competing for attention.

So in the one work, we have questions about where musicals sit on the spectrum between high culture and popular culture, and about the colonisation of the new media by the existing culture industry.

And all of this is long before we get anywhere near the question of whether or not the work is ‘Boo!/Hooray!’ enjoyable (I loved it, by the way, and I hate Chicago).  Of course, I had no idea who these people were until I saw articles written about it (again in the established media).

When you get past the economic questions of the production, there’s still a trove of questions about what precisely we’re seeing.  Is it a parody of the original Chicago piece?  What does it mean to read it as a parody?  Is it a reinterpretation of the original Chicago piece?  Is it a reframing of the Disney villains?  Given that the original Chicago song was an all-female song, is it meaningful that one of the characters has become male in Spell Block Tango?  Does that change the way we understand what’s going on in the song?

In the original Disney cartoons, every single one of these characters with the exception of the Red Queen was executed.  In Spell Block Tango, the characters are now incarcerated as punishment instead.  Further, they’re pleading that, although their crimes were crimes in the legal sense, they were not crimes in some higher, moral sense.  Except Spell Block Tango has changed the nature of those crimes (Cruella isn’t evil because she wants to kill puppies; she’s incarcerated for killing her henchmen, &c.,).

Finally, is it an exploration of how we continue to see evil as sexy.  As distracting as Grimhilde is, there’s something fundamentally weird about morally ambiguous characters being presented as the subject (perhaps object) of a burlesque show.

Instead of just sweeping it under the ‘Switch off your brain and enjoy’ carpet, a production that took this much effort to produce should be matched with similar levels of effort to interpret and analyse.

And this brings me back to music festivals.  Music festivals are the biggest, physical interaction between the music manufacturers and the music consumers.  Instead of viewing them through the lens of the decadent, wild, rebellious, drug-taking youth, it is more useful to view a music festival as being like an art gallery for music.  It’s a curated collection of cultural works, even if it contains something as ‘poppy’ and light as generic dance music.

If we encouraged people to look at music festivals this way, we’d eventually get them to start thinking about music the same way.  Until then, music producers are going to continue to abandon their creations to the uncritiqued void.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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