Who are the (Jazz) Police?

I saw this article/blog post by Eugene Holley, Jr. on NewMusicBox about the perception of critics in the jazz world and had to smile, even if a little ruefully; every aspiring music writer would like to think that his or her critical input will be considered important enough to matter in the ‘grand scheme of things’, but Mr. Holley’s blog post cut to the quick on at least one point:

A critic could write that a musician’s new CD is not his or her best work, but a few clicks and you can hear for yourself whether you agree with the writer’s opinion. A consumer can also share his or her opinions about any musician with other like-minded listeners in an instant. This type of democratized discourse did not exist thirty years ago, and I suspect it’s here to stay. And while sites like Facebook and Soundcloud feature fan reviews and accessible sound files, respectively, the democratic accessibility of that data does not guarantee that opinions offered by fans are any less biased than the professional critics. We are still in the Wild West stages of this phenomenon.

they judge you when you swing poorly...

they judge you when you swing poorly…

 

As I pondered these currently-flattened hierarchies of musical opinion, I couldn’t help but recall Dave Hickey’s observation about people’s loathing of critics and criticism because “people despise weakness, and criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing. It is the written equivalent of air guitar–flurries of silent, sympathetic gestures with nothing at their heart but the memory of the music.” Today, we could extrapolate that sentiment a thousand-fold by asking “why would you rely on the memory of the music when you can have it at your side in digital format, 24/7? And all those gestures and flurries–are they merely not just one more opinion added to the tidal wave of instantaneous comments that grows through the agency of everyone having an “equal” or “valid” opinion?

That is not, of course, the point in Holley’s article, and we are made well aware of critical writers who have far more investment in jazz music and musicians than just the possibility to pull off the rhetorical cheap thrill at the expense of their subjects; but in the absence of any of the overgrown power that critical writers of yesteryear once commanded, one is left to wonder what in fact, music critics can accomplish in this day and age through the powers of sharpened observation. Holley says, “We’re all trying to swing,” and I would agree wholeheartedly; I, however, also think of Dave Hickey’s closing words to his essay Air Guitar:

In a poorly regulated, cosmopolitan society like our own, the discourse surrounding cultural objects is at once freely contingent and counter-entropic. It neither hardens into dogma nor decays into chaos as it disperses. It creates new images and makes new images out of old one, with new constituencies around them. It is a discourse of experiential consequences, not disembodied causes. Thus, the sheer magnitude of social experience and organizational energy generated in the wake of a single painting by Velázquez so far outweighs and overrides the effort and intention that went into its creation as to make nature pale and angels weep. As a critic, I generate tiny bursts of this new organizational energy in hopes of generating more. ‘Tis a small thing, but mine own.

Swing On!

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