Friday, June 21, 2013

Listening from both sides: fan vs. critic

Had some nice catch-up chats with other writers at the Jazz Journalists Association Awards this past Wednesday. (Shout-outs to David Adler, Nate Chinen, Patrick Jarenwattananon, Laurence Donohue-Greene, Ethan Iverson, Ted Panken and Howard Mandel.) My conversation with Nate got me thinking, as I often have been recently, about Black Sabbath and my changing relationship to their new album, 13, discussed in the last DFSBP post.

Nate, always good with a provocative inquiry, asked me what I thought of 13. He knew well that for a writer and fan of my disposition, that was no simple question. I told him that I really liked it and then I began rambling about, among other things, how I'd come to know and love the record as a fan (i.e., having moved far beyond the supposedly objective "critic" stage, in this case). I've been thinking about that concept as it pertains to my profession, and I wanted to share a few thoughts here.

I've written on DFSBP before about how a key moment for me in my daily/weekly process of music consumption is the point at which I load a record onto my iPod for outside-the-office use. For the vast majority of music I consume in a work capacity, I'm perfectly content to listen in a controlled environment—my desk at Time Out NY, say. I listen to the degree that I need to in order to complete the task at hand, and then I set the album aside. Sometimes I'll go back to the record in question; sometimes not. This isn't intended to be a cynical revelation; just an admission of the fact that there's often just not time or brain bandwidth available to devote to careful second, third, fourth, etc., listens to a given work. Obviously this varies according to the assignment. If I'm writing an extended review, I'll do everything I can to listen as many times I can, and in as many settings as I can, in the time allotted.

What I'm saying, though, is that when I'm "on assignment," I'm looking at music in a certain way. I'm making notes; I'm building an argument bit by painstaking bit. The process sometimes takes weeks, or even longer if I'm working toward a far-off deadline. If I'm lucky, I'm able to synthesize my scattered, sometimes cryptic notes into a coherent piece, one I feel I can stand behind, one that—and I guess this is key; it's a lot harder than it sounds—accurately sums up how I feel about the work at hand.

What I end up with when I write a review is a public record of my consumption of a given album. But it's important to note that in many cases, there's a whole other side to that consumption. Re-enter 13. I was fortunate to have the chance to review this record in a visible forum. I had a wonderful time working on that piece for Pitchfork, and I'm happy with the review as it was published. At the same time, it's important to note the sort of jettisoning that took place once the review went live. You blast off carrying a certain amount of cargo—the music, for one, and also the materials of your writer's preparation. Upon publication, you get rid of the latter, and you're left with the music itself. Sometimes you may choose to jettison that, too; as stated above, you might not go back to it.

Sometimes, though, in rare and beautiful cases, you jettison those writer's materials—and more abstractly the "responsibility" of having to form coherent, verbally expressed thoughts, of having to, in some respect, justify how you feel. At this point, you can just be a fan. You can rock out; you can engage with the music on the street, in the car, in the company of friends and loved ones. You're no longer playing the hermit's game. The music has, in a crucial sense, entered your life. You're coexisting with the music in question rather than dissecting it. You have begun to, as it were, let it be.

For me, this only happens a precious few times per year. Much of the music I consume in my free time is old music—just catching up on this or that. But sometimes, a new record just catches fire for whatever reason, leads you into that blessed fan zone described above, that place where you can take off your "person who's paid to coherently express their opinions about things" hat and just love unconditionally—or if not unconditionally, at least without concern for backing up your feelings with anything but other feelings. You feel how you feel, and that's that, and nothing anyone says or writes or Tweets or blogs can invalidate that.

All this is to say that for the past couple weeks, I've been right in that zone with 13. Do I still have some lingering critic-y "issues" with the record? Maybe. But that perspective means very little to me now. I'm in another place with it, hanging out on Planet Enjoyment, in a phase of "I'm just happy this exists and I don't want to think too much more about it." Do I think 13 is a great record, in the long run? Fortunately, in publishing my review, I've relieved myself of the obligation to further address that question or even pay it any mind. The album is working for me right now. I'm playing it practically on repeat in various settings. I'm grooving to it, singing along to it, air-drumming. In short, I'm doing what fans are supposed to do when confronted with worthy new music. (I had a similar experience at this year's Maryland Deathfest; as I wrote on this blog, to be there not on official assignment was thrilling; in the moment, it was about pure love instead of any kind of "processing.")

Does this mean that the reviewer perspective, the consideration of music in an "official" capacity is somehow less true? I really don't think so. I think there's something very valuable in having to gather up your thoughts and present them formally. It's a mental exercise—one that takes a lot of discipline—and it's fun to go through that process, to pay witness to others doing the same and to engage in whatever kinds of stimulating back-and-forth might arise from that discourse. At the same time, though, I think it's vital to make time to take off that thinking cap, as it were, to get to a place where feeling is all that matters. As I imply above, you can't force that; it's not every record that's really worth loving in that way—or rather, to get away from the idea of music's inherent worth, which is a bit bogus, it's not every record that strikes every writer/fan that way. Again, that transformation, that shift from head-focused, "person-on-assignment" consideration to heart-focused, "civilian" passion is a profound thing. It definitely entails a sense of relief—as though you've known someone only in the office and then you have a drink with them and realize you can just drop all the formality and hang with them like a friend.

While I think that critical, on-the-record consideration of an artwork is just as valid as deep-feeling fan consideration of same, I think the former is often incomplete without the latter. Especially in the case of a band like Black Sabbath, which has such a devoted following stretching back four decades, any view of the record that doesn't take into account what it feels like to be a fan, either passionately supporting or rejecting the music at hand, can't really be said to be complete. It's important to remember that just because it might be someone's profession to comment on something, that doesn't make the fan's perspective any less authoritative. On the contrary, it's us, the "media" who are on the outside, who have to justify why we're even here at all. The fans will always have their place at the table, just by virtue of their love for and support of the artists. When an artist looks out into the crowd at a packed show, by and large, he or she isn't staring into the faces of critics, you know? I think that's something everyone writing about music needs to keep in mind. You may a be a great writer and/or a great thinker, but if, when you get down to it, about 98% of this pursuit—the real "Why you do what you do" at the heart of it all—isn't coming from your fan's heart, I'm wary of your perspective.

Speaking for myself, I like to think of these two states of being as symbiotic. I love devising and expressing formal statements, and I also love just letting the words and the arguments and the reasoning go. People say that writing about music spoils music, and maybe in some isolated cases, that's true—I've felt that way when out on assignment at certain live shows, for example. But ideally, it's just a regimented prelude to more loose, organic relationship with an artwork. When you've gone through that process, listened from both sides, as it were—as I have this year with 13, with RVIVR's The Beauty Between and, in a slightly different way, since I didn't write about it in a formal setting, Suffocation's Pinnacle of Bedlam—you feel a deep closeness to that music. It's a complex feeling, and it's one that I love.

P.S. One sub-point to the one(s) I'm trying to make above: While we, as reviewers, might be obligated to couch our opinions in definitive, absolute language, it's pure fallacy that published reviews (esp. timely day-of-release ones) represent some sort of final word. If other music writers are anything like me, we second-guess ourselves constantly, and I think that's healthy. In other words, ideally, publishing one's thoughts on an album isn't the end point of one's relationship with that album; it's just a best-we-can-do ante-up, to be revised constantly—if only in one's own mind—in the days, weeks and even years to come.

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