The State of Rock Music Criticism, with a few exceptions

A large section of popular music criticism addresses the intellectual side of this equation, usually with an analysis heavy on lyrics, or the “poetry” of rock music, and light on much else. Such an approach is misguided and robs rock music of music of its cultural importance and possibility as a site of social critique and change (as well as making it much less fun to study). Simply put, rock music is not poetry. Coupled with its roots in exclusionary modernist aesthetics, this kind of academic elitism also obscures the fact that one does not have to be an academic to feel something, especially something about a rock and roll song.

On the other end of the spectrum, one finds an approach heavy on theory, especially that of the isolated body and/or subject. Theoretical tools and lyrical analysis are helpful, but more so as a means to understand and critique an already present feeling, regardless of one’s ability to put it into the “right” words. What is important to remember are Frith’s thoughts: “ Ignorance of how their music makes sense certainly puts no limits on a rock audience’s appreciation; all that needs to be taken for granted is the common experience of desire, hope, fear. ” With its fairly recent marriage with “post”modern theory, this brand of music criticism has instead used such tools as exclusionist criteria for joining some sort of professional music critic club dedicated to despairing over the death of personal power, the subject and (falsely) perceived notions of prior authenticity. The nihilistic, gloomy picture that emerges, of “a lamely disengaged, over-intellectualized armchair approach to music” does indeed convince a fan of rock music that perhaps “many academics…need to get out more”. Both approaches, aside from excluding ordinary fans of rock and roll, also do an injustice to rock music by robbing it of its continuing cultural importance and existence as a site of social critique. To understand what it does, culturally, it is necessary to start with a proper understanding of what it is and how it works on the listener, which is neither as modernist poetry nor as some sort of  mute, postmodernist “body” detached from real lived experience.

This is to detail how I do not study rock music. Neil Nehring, Simon Frith and Claude Chastagner have been, and are, my role models for how to do it right. Without them, I would not be nearly as pleased with myself academically or enjoy what I do and study.


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