Thursday, July 01, 2004

NPR : Too hip for its own good

According to NPR's Ombudsman their music reviews are too hip. I'll wait for you to stop laughing.
Alright. The ombudsman claims that the reviews are incomprehensible and he uses these quotes to illustrate his point:

A review of the band Wilco on All Things Considered on June 21:

These extended explorations and others, like the five minutes of abrasive dental-drill feedback drone near the end of the disc, give Wilco's music an entirely new dimension. The guitar isn't here to make things pretty. Tweedy uses savage, wild lunges to punctuate the verses and sometimes to inject a little danger into otherwise lovely songs.

Yeah, "dental-drill feedback," that must be really hard to understand. Maybe it should have been edited to "shrill, piercing noise."

A review of the band The Magnetic Fields from All Things Considered on June 9:

The songs themselves are the draw. They're disciplined little gems of composition, poison-pen letters set in the first person and caustic, coffee-shop observations propelled by not particularly heroic desires. The best of them tell about being deluded in love or not being able to let go of an old flame. And even under Merritt's dour storm clouds, they gleam.

I'm completely mystified on this one. What is hard to understand here? Maybe "coffee-shop observations propelled by not particularly heroic desires" is a little silly, but it sure isn't hard to understand.

A review of an album by Morrissey on All Things Considered on June 4:

Morrissey has always seemed to be a walking paradox, both playful and morose, ambiguously asexual, political but hopelessly self-involved, which is why You Are the Quarry is still a classic Morrissey album. Songs like "All the Lazy Dykes" and "The World Is Full of Crashing Bores" serve up such themes in spades. But his usual inclination towards detachment ends there. And the new Morrissey, the older Morrissey, the wiser Morrissey, the Morrissey of this moment is unafraid to show a more personal side, venting his soul with songs like "Irish Blood, English Heart" about his withering sense of nationalism and, of course, the starkly brave and confessional accusation of Christianity entitled "I Have Forgiven Jesus."

Again what am I missing here? I'm not saying I agree with any of these reviews, but what is so hard to understand? After reading "the starkly brave and confessional accusation of Christianity" I know exactly what the song, called "I Have Forgiven Jesus" for godsakes, is about and know I don't care. Isn't that what the review should tell me?
All right, maybe some of this language is in rock-crit-ese, but none of it was inscrutable.
So what does our NPR ombudsman give as the alternative?

Ulaby's interview with Timbaland was about how he found inspiration in the Tolkien novels, The Lord of the Rings. It seemed an unusual combination, but Ulaby made Timbaland more comprehensible and his music more accessible.

This was good cultural journalism: It introduced me to an artist I didn't know. It told me why he is important and why he is an artist. I may not run out to buy his CD, but at least I can make an informed choice.

Well good. But he's not comparing same to same here. He's comparing record reviews to an interview with an artist. An interview can go more in depth on what an artist hopes to achieve and why he uses the sounds he does. A review takes what's in front of the reviewer and describes why he or she thinks it's good or bad. It's not an introduction, it's advice.
Sounds like he's upset that rock music isn't reviewed the way classical music is. In classicial music, you can say "this E note coming in during this cluster of notes brings a feeling of" blah blah blah. Nobody in rock cares about E notes or C notes or notes at all. How would a classical person describe five minutes of dental-drill feedback? He wouldn't. It may hit a certain note, but that would miss the point.
It's funny, because I always thought NPR reviews overexplained rock music. Maybe NPR should just leave out the rock reviews and go back to classical. A younger crowd isn't listening to NPR for their record reviews anyway.

UPDATE: I am always so pleased when smart people agree with me. Terry Teachout and Greg Sandow have written blog entries that take issue with the ombudsman's critique as well. Sandow also makes a good point about the whole situation:
That said, there's still a problem. How are music reviewers supposed to talk, when even things they say in simple language seem -- at least to some people -- to come from another planet? If they stop to explain the most basic concepts ("Wilco's latest album may seem to be full of horrible noise, but there's a reason for that"), they'll sound ridiculous to the many people who do know the music. ("The Beethoven symphony that the Philharmonic played last night is very long, but that's how classical pieces are.") One thing this shows is that music, in spite of all the sentimental talk about it, is anything but a universal language. Instead, it seems to divide us -- to mark subcultural boundaries -- far more than it unites us.

No comments: