Review As Revelation: A Call To Arms

“children guessed (but only a few and down they forgot as up they grew)”

-ee cummings

The music review has been pronounced dead in many quarters.  Some say it has lost its relevance, some argue it no longer has a story worth telling.  I think there is some truth to this idea.  There is a formula for a standard review and it is tried and true.  A few strong metaphors, a band comparison or two, a reference to earlier work and the albums place within its genre and you’ve got a review. This is not to demean much of the writing that is out there.  There are some truly exceptional writers who can take the standard form and make it deeply engaging, but there are a lot of reviews out there that simply don’t make an impact on me.  I don’t believe that this is the fault of the writers but rather the fact that the medium they are using has confined its creator to the narrow world of observing and reporting.  I think it is fair to say the music review as pure informational medium is probably on its last legs.  While I believe that its role as informer of music fans is ending, I believe that it is in the process of going in a bold, exciting new direction that can make it relevant again and even an art form of its own.

Audiences no longer want to be informed, they want to be involved.  They are not just looking for information about a band; they are looking for a deeper understanding of what it is like to experience the music.  Audiences want to connect to the music, not just read about it. The dramatic shift that I believe is taking place is moving the review away from being about the artist and towards about the experience the artist has created.

The star of the review is no longer the band, but the audience as voiced by the writer.  The goal of the writer used to be to melt into the background and let the band be heard.  Objectivity was a characteristic to be aspired towards.  The idea of the writer as passive communicator no longer has a major place in the all-at-once culture of engagement that we live in.   More and more, the writing I see is coming to reflect this truth.  The writer, no matter how much he or she tries, is a subjective creature.  This is not a liability.  The experience had by the audience is, in my opinion, the single most interesting thing about music today.

Director Jean Luc-Goddard supposedly once said the only way to review a movie is to make a movie.  To me, this is a near perfect description of that the type of writing that will move the review to its next level.  The review itself is an act of creation.  A review can exist nearly independent of the original material.  It can be a story unto itself that uses its source material as a beginning step into a labyrinth of unbridled creativity.  A review can mark a unique moment in time, the moment when the artist meets the audience.  Inspiration transfers from musician to writer and a new world is created.  This world would not exist without the musician but it has transcended the original idea and morphed into something beyond its original intent.  When the writer simply describes, it short-changes the audience of the revelatory power of the music.  What has the music awakened within you?  What did you see?  What did you find?  What did it genuinely make you feel?  Instead of a medium that narrows the experience, a review can be something that becomes more than what was originally intended expanding exponentially through each person it comes into contact with.

In order to achieve this the writer must shun the formula and go beyond.  The review need not be constricted by anything, even words.  It can be photography, painting, sculpture, and maybe even more music.  It must be an original statement of experience.  A confession.  That is its only qualification.  It may present itself in a form that may be at times incoherent, but sometimes visions are not easily explained or understood.

The label often placed upon this type of creation is self-indulgent.  There is an unwritten rule that good writing must purge the self as much as possible and fit neatly the pantheon of writing that came before it.  What that really means is that in order to truly create we must forget who we are.  This is insane.  The unedited self, allowed breaking free of the artificial covenants that chain it to the floor, is capable of bringing a new vitality to a stilted form of expression.  Imagine six billion selves illuminated, simultaneously witnessed and witnessing, all expressing unique shades of humanity and learning in fullness what it is like to human from every possible angle.  This is what music reviewing can be.

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  1. #1 by johncerickson on June 27, 2011 - 2:59 PM

    Ooph! I come looking for light humour, and I get sandbagged! 😀
    Seriously, a great post. I never cared for the dry, droll reviews that followed fixed formulas. (Holly Alliteration, Batman!) If you’re a follower of a band, you KNOW their style. You KNOW what genre they follow. Unless you have something strange like Def Leppard trying Country music, it’s fairly easy to predict, in general, what the next song or album will (in general) sound like. The differences, the interesting parts, are the chance to “be there” and feel the music, to feel the involvement in the creative process (a reason I quickly turned to preferring concert recordings to studio albums). Very well done, my friend. Bravo!
    Now, can we go back to silly, frivolous little posts? 😉

    • #2 by Keith Spillett on June 28, 2011 - 12:54 PM

      Thanks John! Have to throw the old 3-0 curveball from time to time, just to make sure you’re awake. I would love to hear Def Leppard doing country music. I think that could work!

  2. #3 by johncerickson on June 27, 2011 - 3:01 PM

    By the by, what is the other Gravatar picture you have? And are the goats available for dating? (Not me, Blackjack is interested. 😀 )

    • #4 by Keith Spillett on June 28, 2011 - 12:57 PM

      The one with the goats is Alejandro Jodorowsky from my favorite film “The Holy Mountain.” The one I use with the odd facial close-up is Jodorowsky in “El Topo”, his existential Western. I think Blackjack and one of the Jodorowsky goats would make a lovely couple. I’d be glad to sing at the wedding.

      If you ever get a chance to see “The Holy Mountain”, give it a watch. It is the most profoundly bizarre hour and a half you will ever experience. If I had to pick one film to properly explain the human condition that would be it. Blackjack would like it, too!

  3. #5 by Dave on June 27, 2011 - 3:50 PM

    Good insight into where music reviews might be heading. And it brings to mind your Graveyard review:

    • #6 by Keith Spillett on June 28, 2011 - 1:03 PM

      Thanks Dave! I liked that one, but I have a feeling this direction is going to lead to some trainwreck-like experiments. I’m already seriously considering letting Blackjack the goat review the new Anthrax album.

  4. #7 by UA on June 28, 2011 - 12:40 PM

    >There is an unwritten rule that good writing must purge the self as much as possible and fit neatly the pantheon of writing that came before it.

    Good lord…I hope that isn’t true.

    Excellent article, btw.

    • #8 by Keith Spillett on June 28, 2011 - 1:09 PM

      I really hope I’m wrong about that one too. If it turns out to be true, I’ll probably need to take up a more rewarding hobby like sewing or collecting skulls.

  5. #9 by Phil Dai on June 29, 2011 - 2:24 AM

    I just like people writing,as you:).Though I can’t understand all.

  6. #10 by alexdavidwright on March 4, 2013 - 6:29 AM

    So, so right.

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