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Artists of just about any stripe are often baffled by the response of critics. "Is he/she really talking about the work that aining in music have a difficult subject.  How do I talk about a language that I don’t speak? (Writers with musical training, sometimes frustrated musicians themselves, can write some of the most convoluted, turgid prose imaginable! I should know.)

Lyrics are a natural place to start, because they at least seem to be in the language the writer uses, but good lyrics are neither poetry nor prose and do not stand on their own.  Ask any pop songwriter.  Poetry has to stand alone, and good poetry has its own music built in, so that attempts to “add a musical setting” are tantamount to gilding the lily.  Look at any of the masters who have taken great poetry and provided a musical setting.  It is very tricky and not usually a complete success.  It almost always requires editing of some sort, reorganization, elisions, repetitions….

How do you talk about the music itself? The first stop is to find descriptive language that suggests some feel for what is going on in the music.  “Soaring string lines,” “stabbing guitars,” “punchy drum licks,” and so on are the kind of phrases that result.  A few writers who are gifted artists themselves may be able to so identify with the music that they are able to render a kind of prose that suggests the energy and cadences in the performance, but you might have to be a Jack Kerouac to accomplish that. 

A third approach, achieved by a very few, turns its attention on what I can only call the “moral force” behind the work.  The ability to even hear the “moral force” in an artist’s work (any artist, not just a musician) is likely a function of character, propelled by one’s own sense of integrity, history, and deep caring about things beyond the art form.  Some of the best writing (and some not so good) comes from a desire to place the work in a context, suggesting ways in which the art aspires to human values and its degree of success at achieving that vision.  

Obviously, most writing of this type concerns itself with work that one admires.  If the work doesn’t speak to you, how can you speak to it?  Critics who pursue this course understand that they are revealing at least as much about themselves as they could ever say about their subject matter.  Even harsh criticism in this vein is interested in the vision which somehow has been betrayed or fallen short in the artist’s attempt.

I see a lot of reviews in various publications, and there is a type that is instantly recognizable, usually in a college newspaper of some sort, a small local paper, or tacked at the end of a major publication to fill out the column.   The writer, in good faith, perhaps, and with the best intentions, is attempting to fill the assignment with what they understand to be trenchant, memorable analysis of the work in front of him.  Instead of simply being informative and maybe giving a personal response, it is as if there is a need to show off.  Enamored of his or her own ability to turn a phrase, the writer’s focus is self-referential, and to anyone with a little experience, immediately recognized for what it is: intellectually pretentious and professionally shabby.  There is plenty of this sort of work around….

When you’re in the learning process of searching for your own voice, it is natural enough to try out a lot of different tacks.  Any writer worth his salt must finally find his or her allegiance to something higher than a paycheck, personal self-aggrandizement, or even love of the language itself.  It is only in finding one’s sense of personal responsibility, both for the inner self who creates one’s personal experience, and for the larger world “out there” that any lasting contribution can be made.  Criticism is an art form, and always says as much about the critic as it does the work that's analyzed.


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