Macon Holt. © Marcela Lucatelli

Sublime ghosts and capricious categories

To reach its potential music criticism needs to go beyond opinion. In his response to Seismograf’s survey on the state of Danish criticism, Macon Holt suggests the critic must grapple with the ethics and politics of the music.
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I don’t particularly want better Danish music criticism. I particularly want an economic system that doesn’t make the planet uninhabitable while squandering the potential of millions of people through violence and drudgery. This is not to say that Danish music criticism isn’t largely dull, elitist, inconsequential consumer advice or factoid lists. It is, but this doesn’t make Danish music criticism special. It makes Danish music criticism like most music and cultural criticism around the world. But given the occasion to desire better music criticism, I’d like to make the case for the genre’s potential.

I buy part of Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis of the culture industry. The part that argues that cultural production follows many of the same logics as industrial production. Music criticism, like the music it criticises, is subject to those same logics because the opinions of critics are products too. Today, the opinions of critics have been shown to be much less effective than the marketing of musics and lifestyles and the normative pressures of a milieu when it comes to shaping the discourse of music culture and driving sales. To continue, for a moment, in this Adornian mode, opinions are the always already reified content articulable through the amenable forms (the review, the reportage, the interview, the profile) of the music criticism industry. They help perform a containerising function on music. One necessary for the containment of music’s unruly potential as it is utilized as an aesthetic release valve that helps to make sure that things always stay the same.

Rankings and ratings and genres and lazy comparisons, and writing that hardly ever risks going beyond opinion to grapple with the ethics and politics tangled up in the aesthetic assemblages of concerts and vinyls and streams and happenings, all serve to force music into the package of a discrete object that we, as individual subjects, can appraise. This is the faulty foundation of so much criticism, which ignores the best thing about music, which is that it can transform us and how we relate to the world. This isn’t to say that music is always wonderful. It is instead to say that good and bad are facile and capricious categories. At best, they are starting points for investigations into everything that music throws up as it relativises bodies and philosophies and eros and ethos through new logics of sensation. Far from being our object, music can be the occasion when we objectify our enjoyment or our commitments or our lacks thereof. Criticism then becomes an opportunity to practice, what Kodwo Eshun has called, a kind of ‘ecstatic rigour’ in the service of affecting others, and making things different.

This is the faulty foundation of so much criticism, which ignores the best thing about music, which is that it can transform us and how we relate to the world

Music criticism today has the same challenges as every other sector whose craft is the crafting of ideas and interpretations. Its inability to appear objective as a means of producing value has led to it being devalued and thus defunded. As the money dries up, so too does the time one has to translate sensations, and the thinking that follows from sensations, into the vocabularies that help ideas travel. State funding helps shelter Danish music criticism from some of this, but not that much. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, there is only so much a social democratic state can justify spending on music criticism within its political paradigm. This means the number and range of voices and the time they can spend on the critique of music is reigned in by the logic of the political balancing act that maintains an uneasy alliance between globalised neoliberal capitalism and a postcolonial, nationalist welfare state.

Secondly, such funding is filtered through the norms, values, education systems, and critical discourses that work to produce the pretence which claims this balancing act to be the necessary condition for freedom. Which is to say that funding often comes with the tacit claim that neutrality and objectivity are possible and desirable under the present arrangement of things, and thus should be put to work, through criticism, in the service of this arrangement’s maintenance. So, we end up with music criticism haunted by the sublime ghosts of Europe’s aestheticised history. The power of these ghosts mean that so much experience is unwittingly deformed by Danish music criticism to obliquely affirm the narrative that this little nation has achieved history’s end so completely that it is even obvious in aesthetics.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. There are so many resources here that could allow for the use of music criticism in the service of expanding the boundaries of thought and, with it, sharing the sense of other possibilities for the living of life. Alone, music cannot change the world. Nor can it with the help of even the most sophisticated and rigorously ecstatic critique. But these are spheres where some of the most precious sensations of existence, which are so often dismissed by so many as trivial, can be experienced by and made valuable to people again. By insisting on this communicative potential of music criticism, it may, in some chaotic way, help to shake us from an apocalyptic malaise. The first step is to shift your incredulousness from its lazer focus on the music and instead let it spill over onto the circumstances under which you have been allowed and empowered to critique it.

Macon Holt is the author of ‘Pop Music and Hip Ennui: A Sonic Fiction of Capitalist Realism’, contributing editor at Passive/Aggressive, and postdoctoral research fellow at Copenhagen Business School.

This article is a response to Seismograf’s survey on the state of Danish music criticism. Additional responses can be found in our collection ‘Status på dansk musikkritik’.