I recently had a conversation with someone who argued that writing about music was obsolete. Now that is so easy to access practically any music online, he claimed, there is no real role for reviewing.

This presupposes both that the only role of reviewing is to merely describe music – to identify its (formal, textural, etc) properties – and that any description becomes redundant when faced with the thing itself. But the world never transparently translates into words; language does more (and less) than simply describe, even when that is its official aim.

The idea that the function of reviewing is basically informational is widespread. It has come up in some of the recent discussions of Simon Reynolds’s concept of the hardcore continuum. Beyond specific debates about what belongs to the continuum – is dubstep is in? Are funky and wonky out? – there is a grumbling hostility towards any sort of ‘theoretical’ claims about music, where ‘theoretical’ is taken to mean any departure from the bald act of description. Such an attitude is especially prevalent in English-speaking countries where the dominant philosophical school has been empiricism, which places all its trust in concrete properties accessible to the senses and evinces profound scepticism towards anything abstract. Yet the problem is that music is abstract.

“Music is music,” argued one hardcore continuum sceptic, in an attempt to foreclose discussions of the social and gender in relation to UK dance music. But by no means is it self-evident what music is. And if music is ‘just’ music, it isn’t even music – reduced to its describable properties, deprived of existential charge and stripped of social significance, it is a shrivelled shell. So rather than colluding with a logic which will inevitably lead to their redundancy, critics should go beyond the act of description and risk overreaching themselves. In a time of ubiquitous information, of digital twitch, of endless, inconsequent debate and opinion, of fragmentary micro-discourse, it is more important than ever that critics produce grand concepts that can restore status and significance to cultural objects.

The role of a critic is not merely to describe, or even to assess – too much reviewing has been suborned into the task of providing consumer reports. It is to get to what is in music more than itself – the burning core that makes it what it is but which is not amenable to empirical description.




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