As I’ve often noted here, the part of Sorry State that I receive the most feedback on is the work we do on our email newsletter, which we’ve been working to expand with the new web site’s emphasis on our original writing. I’ve had so many people tell me that they enjoy our writing, but one thing that always irks me is that people tend to refer to them as “reviews.” I always refer to them as “descriptions,” because the word “review” seems to imply that the music is being evaluated, and that isn’t really what I’m doing. If you’re a longtime reader you’ll know that I rarely write anything negative in these descriptions. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the basic one is that the purpose of this web site is different than the purpose of a typical zine or publication that fancies itself as music criticism. We sell the music we write about, and while I don’t tend to use the descriptions to try to drive sales, I also don’t want any of my descriptions to get in the way of sales either, because ultimately we’re trying to sell copies of just about everything I write about.
Another reason I don’t think of my descriptions as reviews is because I wouldn’t even know where to start formulating an argument about whether a piece of music is “good” or “bad,” because there’s no universal objective standard that I can use to judge any particular piece of music against. This is something that I learned from teaching. Like a lot of college teachers, I was given my first class with very little training, so when that first stack of papers got turned in I really had no idea what to do with them. So, I just winged it, reading each one and assigning it a fairly arbitrary grade based on how “good” I thought it was. This method of grading was remarkably inconsistent and, I don’t doubt, totally unfair. However, at some point I heard about these things called rubrics. Rubrics weren’t terribly fashionable when I was a kid, so I don’t recall ever encountering them when I was in grade school or even in college, but if you’re younger than me you almost certainly know what they are. When I learned what rubrics were it totally changed the way I grade. Rather than grading each paper against an arbitrary and inconsistent set of expectations, I started creating rubrics that described what would constitute success on any given assignment. If an assignment required a student to demonstrate critical thinking skills, for instance, along with the assignment I would also give students a description of what might constitute various levels of success in implementing those critical thinking skills, from very strong to very weak. With clearer expectations my students immediately started performing better and my grading got more objective and consistent. However, there is no such rubric for evaluating music, at least not a universal one.
However, the other day I was driving around town doing errands and an idea popped into my head: if I were going to evaluate music for my descriptions, what would a rubric look like? In other words, what kinds of things do I / people in general value in music, and how would you go about measuring these things? While I would never want to actually implement something like this for Sorry State, I thought the idea was interesting, so let’s spin it out here and think about some of the things one might focus on when evaluating whether music is “good” or not.
This was the first one that popped into my head, and my first reaction was, “That’s totally subjective! How could you measure originality?” However, when I really stopped to think about particular examples, it seems like assessing the originality of a particular record would be fairly straightforward. It’s not like every record needs to be some kind of outré, avant-garde journey into the unknown, but it does need to add something to an existing musical conversation that wasn’t there before, or at least recontextualize it in some interesting way. One example that springs immediately to mind is the band Fury (not the Swiz side project, but the current Triple B Records band). If you’re steeped in the history of hardcore you can find plenty of antecedents for their sound in the 80s and 90s, but the things that define their aesthetic—elaborate, almost literary lyrics; progressive song structures and arrangements, but cut with the clear influence of classic youth crew hardcore—definitely add something to the current straight edge hardcore scene that wasn’t really there before. Maybe I wouldn’t give them 5 out of 5 stars for originality, but they’re certainly far more original than the straight up youth crew knockoffs.
- Technical Proficiency / Virtuosity
This one is probably pretty obvious because lots of people are totally hung up on this particular quality, but it’s definitely part of the equation. Again, though, I think that the term “virtuosity” is kind of misleading, because it’s not like everything needs to have shredding guitar solos or lengthy, complicated prog rock song structures. Rather, this quality is about perfectly articulating whatever idea(s) one is trying to get across. I would argue, for instance, that Disclose would rate very highly on the Technical Proficiency / Virtuosity scale. Even though their music is noisy and messy, it is noisy and messy in precisely the ways that Kawakami & co. wanted it to be. I have no doubt that if Kawakami had been super into some other band or genre rather than Discharge, whatever band he started would have just as much attention to detail in the creation of their sound and aesthetic as Disclose had. In other words, Technical Proficiency and Virtuosity is less about one’s flexibility and flash as a player (though it can have those qualities as well), and more about the unity and consistency of the vision as articulated in the final product.
- Cultural and Social Relevance
Now, this is a really tough one to evaluate, because cultural and social relevance is a moving target; what might be important and/or relevant to one community might be boring or rehash to a different community, even a similar one. I have to admit that the band that got me thinking about this quality was G.L.O.S.S. Personally I would rate G.L.O.S.S. fairly low-to-middling on the originality scale (sorry if you disagree! It’s just my opinion and not some kind of universal truth) and above average on the Technical Proficiency / Virtuosity Scale. So, if not those two qualities, what is it then that makes that band so powerful? I would argue that it’s their ability to capture the cultural and social zeitgeist, to say the right thing to the right people at the right time. We actually have a term for this in rhetorical studies—the Greek word kairos—and I would argue that G.L.O.S.S. had kairos in spades. If their demo / first EP had come out five years earlier I don’t think that people would have really had the frame of reference to feel the full impact of what they were saying. However, what they were saying needed to be said at that precise moment, and audiences clearly responded to their propitious timing. Another interesting thing about this quality is that it can change over time, since it’s not just about a band or a record’s relationship to their own cultural moment, but every single one that comes after it as well. In fact, I often tell people that the most valuable records are the ones that are ahead of their time, that seem to be speaking to some future cultural moment rather than the one that the artists who created it are actually living in. Thus, these kinds of records tend to have low sales figures during their initial run, but gradually build up a following as the culture gradually drifts toward the world as those artists saw it. Examples of this abound, and any record collector can list them off for days… the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Baby Huey, Kraftwerk… the list goes on and on.
- Realness / Profundity
So, the first three of these qualities came to me very quickly, but I felt like there were more things out there, so I started doing a little research into what kinds of arguments other people have made about what makes good music good. I read a lot of interesting arguments, but most of them were really just different ways of saying things I had already said above. However, one word that kept popping up again and again in these discussions is “meaningful.” Now, on the surface it might seem that a music’s level of “meaning” would be covered in #3 above, but I think that there’s something else at play, something that has less to do with the right person (or people) saying the right thing to the right audience at the right time and something that’s more like an artist hitting on a kind of universal truth. Perhaps this one didn’t come to me immediately because it assumes a kind of Platonic, universal truth, and I tend to be too cynical to believe that something like that actually exists. However, it’s something that other people are definitely looking for and/or expecting from music, and if you look, for instance, at the top entries on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest rock songs of all time, you’ll see that almost without exception these songs don’t derive their value from their relationship to some particular, contingent historical moment, but rather because they seem to transcend such moments altogether. “Hound Dog,” “Let It Be,” “God Only Knows…” these are songs that get at something very primal, visceral, and essential to what it means to be human. It doesn’t have to be something broad or obvious, either; how many people have been knocked out by the line “the milk bottles stand empty” in Wire’s “Ex-Lion Tamer,” despite the fact that the line almost couldn’t be more cryptic? So, how do these artists do it? Well, it’s kind of mystical, and as someone uncomfortable with mysticism, I’m not really the one to explain it. Or perhaps it can’t be explained… it’s like love, in that you can try to describe it, but you won’t really know what it is until you experience it, and you’ll never successfully explain how it works.
So, that’s what I’ve come up with so far. Now, obviously when you come down to brass tacks, articulating how well any given record fulfills each of these qualities is going to come down to a subjective judgment, but using a rubric like this would undoubtedly bring a lot more clarity into any discussion of whether or not a record is “good.” So, next time you tell you friend that a new record “rips” or “sucks,” maybe think about what you mean. Do you mean that it’s a virtuosic articulation of the classic power violence template? Or do you mean that it is irrelevant to the concerns and priorities of the DIY hardcore community?
I’d be particularly interested to read comments on this one, so if you have any qualities you tend to look for in music that you think I missed, or if you have anything else to say please sound off below.