Here’s another longer-read piece about a subject that just started bouncing around my head last night. The idea started when I was writing an album review and found myself being somewhat critical of the band, saying that I felt an element was missing and that the band hadn’t quite found it yet. This brought the question to my mind of do I actually have a right to be critical of a musician?
So hear me out on this. For starters, I have zero technical knowledge about music. I know there are these things called “instruments” that get plugged into these big, magic boxes and then wonderful noises come out from said boxes. I have a vague idea of what the magic is, thanks to living with two electrical engineers, but for the most part I just stand there slack-jawed, like a caveman finding a shiny mineral for the first time. How those instruments are played? No damn idea, it’s a skill I never learned and never really have a desire to learn.
All that being said, I’ve listened to music for long enough where I can pick out certain things during songs, I can listen a little bit deeper than I used to and most of the time I can verbalize what I’m hearing, even if it has no technical grounding. Now I have no illusions that all critics are musicians, I know the industry of criticism is mainly founded by listeners, not creators, with the depth of personal knowledge varying from person to person.
I think there are two sides to this argument of “who has the right to criticize”, which I will try to elaborate on. The first argument, to me, seems the most obvious. Only a creator, or someone who has the knowledge and understanding of a creator, has the right to criticize a creation. This makes sense, only a person with an intimate understanding of what goes into a creation can present a valid argument on where it falls short and where it excels.
Let’s compare this to an industry beyond music, one where the distinction is much clearer. Any technical industry or trade, from mechanics to plumbers to steel manufacturing and circuit-board assembly, there is a clearly defined “book” of knowledge and criticism only ever comes from someone with equal or greater knowledge than you. For example; you wouldn’t go up to your mechanic and tell him that he measured the valve clearance on your engine wrong, because chances are you don’t know what the fuck that is.
Without a solid foundation in the technical issues behind the work or creation, you can’t begin to comprehend how, or even what to criticize. Most people don’t understand why their TV set stops working but can be quick to criticize the repair person, even though they don’t have the faintest idea what goes on behind that inky black screen. While music and art in general present their own interpretations of this analysis, I think this approach is very applicable. How could you possibly being to analyze a work of music when you don’t understand the intricacies and skills that lie behind the sound coming from your speakers?
The second approach to this issue is the complete reversal of the first. I would say that it is completely fair to argue that since music and art are objects meant to be consumed by a general, uneducated public, that the public then has an inherent right to criticize these works. This of course starts the whole argument of “who is art created for”, which may have a place in more abstract forms of performance or visual art but for the sake of my argument won’t be considered.
It is safe to assume that a recording musician is creating music for the general populace. They are creating music for their fans and distributing it as such. The majority of published music is not created with the intention of only being for exclusive ears. Music is created to be heard by any and all who want to hear it, regardless of their knowledge, training or understanding of the subject matter.
This presents a perfect counter to my comparison to the technical industries above. Music is not as clear cut as casting steel molds or repairing an engine. There is no “right” answer and the work that is created is open to a massive amount of personal interpretation that is not found in those other industries I mentioned. You can’t interpret a valve clearance any other way, it is a clear numerical answer, if you fuck it up you can’t recover that.
Music has no such numerical answer. Songs can be heard by a thousand different people and enjoyed and analyzed a thousand different ways. You can argue that music is much, much more than the sum of its analytical notes and melodies and that what a person hears in their head, is much more important than the strict notes that appear on paper. In this respect, everyone and anyone who hears music can be a critic of it. They are the intended audience and can make criticisms not based on technical know-how but on personal intuition and feeling, which for this argument is all that really matters.
So which is it? Should criticisms be founded on a technical understanding or on a personal intuition? Well I just don’t know. For me personally, the technical argument holds a lot of water. While the music may be open to my personal interpretation, I cannot possible begin to verbalize a complaint against something I don’t understand. However I think the opposing side presents just as strong an argument, since the music I’m talking about is created for and to be consumed by fans and the general population.
Anyone who has read my writing for long enough would have noticed I essentially never criticize a band. Partially because I never write about music I don’t enjoy but also because I never considered my “musical opinion” to be very valid. Even after looking at both sides of this quandary I don’t see this habit changing. I’m perfectly happy being a dirt-dumb listener and verbalizing my enjoyment of a particular artist or song through things I can understand, like textures, grooves and melodies. However I don’t see myself ever being able to be a full-fledged “critic”, without developing that technical knowledge to work from.
What do y’all think? Should everyone have a critical voice or should it instead be reserved for those people with the know-how?
And of course; Some music.