Monday, February 14, 2005

Normalized taste

Being a good citizen molded by capitalism, I feel compelled to write today, to produce, to create novelty, even though much of my mental energy has been already spent in writing a music review that I'm thoroughly ashamed of. Good pop music often aspires to avoid attention; it seeks to seem as if its always been a part of your life's soundtrack, mirroring your emotional highs and lows, adapting fluidly to suit your personal dramas. It seeks to be transparent, so its lens magnifies the listener and not the people who made it. But when you review pop music, you go against the grain of all of this: you listen very carefully and pay close attention to the music, you look for signs of the performers' specific talents and peccadillos, you are acutely aware that the album is new to you, not yet integrated into your life and most likely never will be. It's an extremely artificial condition under which to appreciate pop music, which really isn't meant to be appreciated so much as tolerated, deployed, used as an extension of self. There is no objective point from which to assess pop music, since its function is to bridge the personal to the social, to give your private thoughts some kind of clearer expression, and feel that they are shared by others, legible to others in music form. So the review is a futile exercise in disguised publicity, since what you write about it typically matters far less than the fact that its simply being covered. This is why reviews are being supplanted by lists, because all readers really want is a cribsheet for things they should be aware of, and perhaps a sentence or two of why.

These lists are especially emblematic of American culture because they epitomize the quantitative nature of it. American culture is about managing quantities, about maximizing our cultural throughput; this allows our consumption behavior to match our production behavior -- we are maximizing utility, consuming the most amount of stuff we can in our cherished leisure time. But most of us sort of hate these lists even as we feel compelled to read them. I had this feeling reading the Village Voice Pazz and Jop lists, those irresistible annoyances; I need to see the list to have some context for my own preferences, which are then subtly altered by the list itself, which works to bring me in line, normalize my critical tastes the way essay-test graders must be normalized, trained to agree the other graders what consititutes passing or non-passing. Criticial criteria has to be social to have any kind of relevance to anyone besides yourself, I suppose. But well-trained in the supposed supreme autonomy of our tastes, we struggle against this, balk at the creeping sense that our tastes are not ever formed in a vacuum. Our tastes are always deriviative, regardless of capitalist propaganda celebrating our unique preferences as signs and expressions of the blessed pure freedom it grants us. We know we need to read lists like the Village Voice to develop our taste and hone it, bring it within the realm of acceptable, yet we also stubbornly believe that our tastes need no shaping, no normalizing, and are absolutely ontologically perfect they way they were born into us. Encouraged by consumer-capitalist prerogatives to believe our tastes, our consumption preferences, reveal our true inherent selves, we feel our soul being robbed from us when we read these lists and become aware at how they are molding us -- suddenly the true self is muddled, cluttered with "inauthentic" socially influenced preferences.

But lists also seem to utterly misrepresent our experience of culture, which is always qualitative. We treasure deep cultural experience because it lifts us out of the rationalizing, taxonomizing mindset that treats experience as so much data to be counted and organized and returns us to the sensuousness of experience itself. Something worth listing on a best-of list actually impedes the list-making imperative altogether. While we are in its sway, it makes us forget the need for the novel, for more; it's not on a list, it is the list, the only necessary thing. It is somehow enough, just to be hearing that song, and we don't think while its on of all the other songs we should be aware of.

It may be that critics are duty-bound to have their tastes normalized, once they decide to write for others -- it's a quasi-contractual obligation between writer and audience to be within the socially accepted range of taste. Only then is your criticism relevant to readers, who are looking for some kind of distillation of non-idiosyncratic opinion from what they read about culture. Idiosyncratic opinion they can get from their friends, and then they can decode its relevance through the prism of their personal familiarity with the opinion-giver's quirks. Presumably if you are a talented enough writer you can force an audience to get to know you as well as that, to teach them to filter your pronouncements through those quirks, open their eyes to a new perspective and expand the horizons of recieved opinion -- but writers with that sort of talent usually find something better to do than write about pop music. And if you want to write merely to demonstrate how unique and unfathomable your tastes are, how way outside the mainstream you've labored to be, you may as well be writing in your diary (or on your blog).

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I agree, especially with your last paragraph.