Dancing about Criticism.

9 09 2008

Let the record state, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is the stupidest thing Elvis Costello, and perhaps anyone outside of politics, has ever uttered. It holds its own next to classics of stupidity like “baseball is 90% mental and the other half physical” or “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”

This post started as a comment to the below review of the Stand-Ins, where Fabakis used the familiar quote in his last paragraph. (Note, I endorse the below review of the stand-ins; it is a very good, if not great album). But I can’t let my co-blogger’s misinterpretation of and false reverence for such hogwash stand.

Bertrand Russell famously wrote that Heidegger’s philosophy is “[h]ighly eccentric in its terminology…language is here running riot.” While Heidegger’s use of language is unconventional, it is strikingly precise. Costello’s statement is riotous without any inkling of precision. 

The ridiculousness of the Costello quote in question is why it’s still in the common consciousness. Dancing about architecture! Who would do that! It’s a buzz-phrase, a sound bite: a reductionist, consumable sentence to throw in at a party when your friends are trying to toss off the importance of pitchfork or stylus. 

Costello’s claim, that any attempt to nail down the abstraction of music is fruitless, fails in two important ways.  It is meant to be a thorn in the side of the music machine (and criticism in particular) much like many of his songs, e.g. Radio, Radio. But it 1. makes an inept and imprecise comparison and 2. compares criticism to a positive, if obscure, entity. 

Criticism, which has historically been created in written language, exists at least partially to nail down (but not necessarily objectify) abstract concepts or assertions put forth in a subjective work of art. Dancing, of course, does nothing to clarify or nail down an abstract message. Dancing can say multitudes about architecture; it is worthwhile. It can reinterpret and raise necessary questions about architecture. I would be surprised if no one has created a piece of performance art on this premise. Costello’s statement fails: his objective is to devalue music criticism. He compares “writing about music” to something that is not devoid of value.

Dance, however, is expressive, not expository. It cannot provide criticism’s precise insight, interpretation, or clarification: the type of thing Elvis Costello frequently exhibits even in his subjective, poetic songwriting, but not in his criticism of criticism. 

This is, I realize, taking a somewhat simplistic view of what criticism can do. Written criticism can reinterpret and raise new questions about music or architecture. But criticism’s job of critiquing, clarifying, and interpreting is valuable and is a far cry from dancing about architecture, which is also valuable.    

Nietzsche says, in “The Problem of Socrates,” that Socrates was not equipped with the means to succeed in athenian society — he was ugly and of modest means — so he philosophized to find self-worth and to claim to be superior to a society that was not very kind to him. Elvis Costello, like Socrates, is ugly and was, in the early part of his career, very poorly received. (He was also very poorly received by women, see the Girls Girls Girls collection).  So if critics aren’t treating you well, why not toss off criticism as useless? 

I love Elvis Costello. This Years Model is 39 minutes of flawlessly crafted hard-driven pop songs. My Aim is True, Armed Forces and All This Useless Beauty are solid records. Criticism has come to grant these albums their proper place in the canon of classic records. Have some patience, Elvis. Now, you’re critically acclaimed and respected (and married).





One response

15 10 2008

criticism is inevitably expressed through the medium of language, which is so limited and thus imprecise in its capability to express pure ideas that it may be much more expressive/much less expository (more like dance) than you think.
im just being a bitch; i thought this post was awesome, i had lots of fun reading it.

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