On The Art of Music Criticism . . .

Music is not meant to be placed on a one-size-fits-all rack. The type of theoretical analysis that may lend itself to Classical music can’t necessarily be cross-collateralized against African arts. That is a check that will never clear. There is no right way to look at Black culture through a European lens. Off the bat, this is where most writers fail. Black music is not to be dissected like an animal in biology class. That’s a very White way of doing things. And when I say “White,” I’m not referring to white skin, I’m talking about the racial narrative that perpetuates a White myth of sovereignty over all others. The Western standard is diametrically opposed to Black heritage. So the question is not about intellect as much as it is, whose idea of intelligence are we speaking?

As racism becomes more entrenched in code words and semantics it shows itself to be more elusive than ever. The White way is synonymous with The Standard at this point. It is how things are expected to be done and anything outside of that is considered an aberration.

We live in a world of words, and these words have power, and without the key of literacy, one is forever bound to a lifestyle on the margins of society. Conversely, many native and ancient peoples of the earth view the ability to read words as an abomination. That goes for photographs, phonographs, and any other form of media that may trap one’s soul. Some natives and ancients can’t read a book, but they can read a palm. They can’t write a letter, but they can talk to a tree. They can commune with The Universe by arranging a set of stones or shells in some fashion. They can see into the future by looking through a gourd. However, in modern times it is a liability to be wise in the ways of nature but lack the ability to decipher text. In fact, the imagery that often accompanies words like “ancient” and “native” is pejorative.

“I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.”

John Dryden: The Conquest of Granada

Words are far more frequently used as a tool of oppression than as a call to liberation. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use them to your advantage. Don’t shun knowledge because you’re afraid to be accountable for what you’ve learned. Develop the ability to overcome those stigmas and empower yourself to be multilingual.

In The Stone

Critiques are not typically delivered in oratory fashion, they are encapsulated and enshrined by the written word where they can live forever on a page. The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” is bullshit. Names have hurt plenty. It is my guess that if critics had to voice what they were saying to those who are being reviewed face-to-face, they would chew their words and do a lot more swallowing than spitting.

I think critiques can be constructive if they enlighten the otherwise unknowledgeable or highlight a farce that could be destructive gone unchecked. Outside of that, they either tend to be an exercise in self-glorification (look how cool I am because I get it and you don’t), or a means of belittling someone else to feel better about themselves (I don’t get this and it makes me feel insecure, so instead of copping to that, I’ll dismiss it).

Must one be musically or theoretically literate to offer a valid critique? My first thought is that any music critique written by someone who lacks the ability to do what they are reviewing is questionable. To wonder if someone can be an authority on something they’ve never done, is a reasonable conclusion. The snag is, what is “do-ing” something? All arts are related, so to have a heightened level of perception in one area can translate to others if you see the parallels. That said, being able to give a theoretical analysis doesn’t automatically imbibe you with an adept level of understanding, and not knowing music theory doesn’t exclude you from being able to ascertain what’s happening.

The over-arching cultural implications are of greater importance than the minutiae of how one arrived where they are. And there’s nothing worse than a critique by a cat that’s studied music in school who’s more concerned with impressing the readership they know how many bars are in a tune, or where middle-C is on the piano, than saying something powerfully transformative.

Unless you know how to do what they’re “do-ing” up there, steer clear of nerding out on chords and scales and shit. And even if you do know how to “do” it, say it in a way that someone who doesn’t know might peep it.

Less wacking off and more turning on.


— Nicholas Payton aka The Savior of Archaic Pop

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