Tuesday, January 08, 2008

TTL SHT and Human Beings of Infinite Worth

If you polled music critics, probably 8 out of 10 of them would tell you that their favorite review of all time was J.D. Considine’s 1986 review of the debut album from the band GTR, which was one of the most overblown faux-metal screechfests ever committed to recorded media. The album was called GTR. Considine’s succinct summation: “TTL SHT.”

I’m in the approving 80%. I love that review. It’s funny, it’s snarky, it’s a great send-up of the album title, and it communicates enough to tell you not to waste your time.

There is, in fact, a not-so-subtle competition at work among many reviewers to write the snarkiest, most biting reviews. It’s virtually the first and only commandment of the music website Pitchfork. But it’s hardly limited to Pitchfork. It’s everywhere. It’s the basis for most standup comedy. It’s what often establishes “hip cred.” It’s snobbery as an art form, and when it’s done well, there is an undeniably delicious appeal. Who doesn’t like to feel superior to somebody else? And wittily superior at that?

There’s only one problem: as a Christian, I’m not supposed to behave that way. There is, for example, this choice little tidbit from Chapter 4 of the Book of James: Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12)

The obvious defense here is that critiquing (note: not equivalent to“criticizing”) a work of art is different from critiquing the person who created the work of art. And I believe that. I couldn’t do what I do if I didn’t believe that. But I also know that the boundaries are fluid, and that it’s remarkably easy to fall into the lazy, default mode of bashing fellow human beings – “brothers,” if you will. Sisters too. I will readily admit my tendencies to do that. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to play that game, and if that means being perpetually labeled as unhip or without an “edge” or whatever other terminally uncool label applies, then so be it.

Does that mean that I’m going to start writing only positive reviews, or that I’m going to couch everything in terms of “Band X are probably wonderful people who love puppies, but their latest album is just a teensy bit not-so-great?” Nope. I’m not going to do that. Puppy lovers can still create art that sucks. They are, in fact, probably more prone to do so.

Oh, stop. You see how challenging this is going to be. But in all seriousness (and this primarily applies to people who know me and are actually known to spend time with me), if you see me crossing the line, let me know. It’s an issue I want to take seriously, and I don’t want the lazy default mode to dominate my life.


Anonymous said...

You made arelevant point. Criticism is sometimes getting too clever for its own good. On the other hand, there's a lot of crappy music out now too. How does a responsible reviewer strike a balance?

Anyways, have you heard of Danny Flowers - an artist you and your readers would probablu like. You can download a duet of him and Emmylou Harris singing "Prayer Song" at http://www.fscc-calledtobe.org/living/

Trip McClatchy said...

Andy - that is a noble goal. Good luck with it - sometimes it's very difficult to resist the clever cheap shot.

And I believe (if my skittish memory is correct) Considine's review was even more succinct, just:


Chris Martin said...

I was too young to have known about the GTR review, but remember two of my favorite Considine reviews from his column in Musician:

Yes, Talk: "Shut up."

Nelson, Because They Can: "Still, I wish they wouldn't."

Jake T said...

Good points.

Good criticism != snark.

The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive by any means, quite the opposite. But saying something sucks w/o being snarky is certainly doable.

Being fun to read, doing good criticism and NOT being snarky. Now THAT'S the challenge.

John McCollum said...

You and me both.

e said...


Pilgrim said...

You have a hard job.