In Ask The A.V. Club, we answer your pop-culture questions. Sometimes at great length, and in great detail. Case in point:
Those Who Can't Do?
I was wondering how many of your music critics are trained musicians? I ask because I notice that most music reviews I read tend to not care about musicianship, but more the overall "sound." I understand that not all great music is made by technically proficient musicians—The Beatles couldn't read music, and the whole genre of punk seems to scorn the very idea of musicianship—and believe me, I'd rather listen to something simple-yet-genuine than Joe Satriani practicing scales.
But at the same time, I know that being an informed musician changes one's appreciation of music. It seems musicians like "music" and "musicianship," while everyone else likes "songs" and "singers." The A.V. Club's music reviews tend to focus on a particular scene, which is mostly the post-punk-inspired indie-rock in flavor right now (with some electronic music and "progressive" hip-hop thrown in). I get the feeling a lot of reviewers (not just yours) tend to review how "cool" they think a given record is, as opposed to the music. I see heaps of praise showered on acts that are really rudimentary in their musical development (i.e. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and I also notice that any rap group that makes an effort to actually pick up an instrument (like OutKast or The Roots) are labeled "genius" by the mainstream press. Meanwhile, you review Kaki King as if her virtuosity is a drawback. At what point does musicianship hurt a record?
This question understandably inspired a lot of discussion among our music writers, so we're giving everyone who wants in a chance to have at it, starting with the musically illiterate Noel Murray:
In some ways, this is the inversion of a question we answered last year, about whether The A.V. Club's film critics are all frustrated filmmakers. Jeke's question doesn't presume that all rock critics wish we were rock stars—thank goodness for that—but wonders whether we need to have made music to appreciate others who do. And I think it's a tough-but-fair question, albeit one that should be answered much the way we answered the film question, by reasserting that criticism is an art form all its own, quite different than the arts that are being analyzed.
No, I've never studied music theory or played in a band, aside from a little basement jam-group in junior high. Sometimes I wish I had, because it would've expanded my critical vocabulary, and I wouldn't be forced to sort through the usual assortment of rock-crit clichés when I want to describe how a song sounds. But at the same time, I don't think it's impossible for we untrained music-lovers to explain what we love about music, especially since the audience we're writing for is most likely just as untrained. What matters more is the ability to write, concisely and clearly, and a rich knowledge of musical history. And though I've got my genre blind spots, I've been reading about rock 'n' roll since I was a teenager, and writing about it almost as long. I may not be able to identify the chords The Arcade Fire is playing, but I can tell you what bands have played those chords before.
I think Jeke's right that "trained" musicians listen for something different in music than non-musicians—or even untrained musicians—but I'm not sure that's always to their credit. I've known plenty of music-theory majors who prefer music that's technically excellent but fundamentally soulless. And I don't think it's any accident that most rock musicians decline as they get older and more knowledgeable about their craft. It isn't that inspiration fades with age, but that veterans begin to prize some obscure technical accomplishment over genuine passion and ear-catching melodies.
Do I prefer people who can't play their instruments? I wouldn't say that. It drives me crazy that so few indie-rock bands bother to hire a decent singer, and there's nothing I enjoy more than hearing a really great drummer. But there are "rock" standards of decency and greatness, and there are objective standards. As Simon Cowell pointed out in an interview last week, Bob Dylan wouldn't stand a chance on American Idol. But the average AI contestant couldn't do "Tangled Up In Blue" justice.
Finally, as the person who wrote that Kaki King review, I take issue with Jeke's characterization of my opinion. I described her as a virtuoso with a knack for indie-rock, but never described her talent as a stumbling block. As one of the few rock writers willing to cop to loving Windham Hill-style guitar noodlers—Michael Hedges, especially—I've got no beef with people who can play. They just need to play what they're good at playing. King does just that.
Kyle Ryan continues the discussion:
I hesitate to describe myself as a "musician," even though I've played in several bands and continue to do so. One, I don't think I have the necessary skills to warrant that label, and two, the punk rocker in me thinks it sounds pretentious. But having played music since I was a pre-teen, and having written about it just as long, I guess I'm grandfathered into this discussion.
First of all, there's a fundamental problem with Jeke's outlook: "I get the feeling a lot of reviewers (not just yours) tend to review how 'cool' they think a given record is, as opposed to the music." I can't speak for other publications, but I can say this is preposterous here in A.V. Club Land. None of us is trying to score points with someone out there. It's a futile pursuit, because just as many—or more—people will disagree with you as agree. (Incidentally, that "post-punk inspired indie-rock" we apparently love isn't exactly a flavor-of-the-week.)
Second, you needn't be a trained musician to appreciate good musicianship. Although listeners may not understand what time signature Neil Peart is using, they know the guy can play. (And I say this as a person who isn't a Rush fan.) Good musicianship gets noticed on its own. Like Noel mentioned, laymen just don't use the same vocabulary to describe it.
Third, it's tricky to discuss musicianship in reviews. Space is always limited, and you also run the risk of alienating readers, the majority of whom don't have formal training. So it's best to speak generally when addressing musicianship. Jargon and music theory would not only derail the review, but confuse a lot of people. I find that my musical background comes in handiest when I'm interviewing people. Band dudes usually light up when you display a little musical knowledge, particularly when it comes to their gear.
Fourth, in answer to your final question, I don't think musicianship ever hurts a record—wankiness does. Fine musicianship needn't stand out and scream "Notice me!" Sometimes the best stuff is the subtlest. Elaborate solos and that kind of thing are masturbatory, especially in the rock world. (Not so much in jazz.)
Finally, I suspect you haven't spent much time in the genres your question dismisses, such as punk and hip-hop. Neither is a wasteland of the untrained and unpracticed. Sure, there will always be people who don't care to learn music theory, but that's hardly restricted to punk, hip-hop, and electronica. The attitude you ascribe to punk comes from its assertion that anyone can (and should) play music. Studying how best to play it certainly doesn't guarantee its quality—or a review's quality.
Jason Heller says his piece:
Like Kyle, I find that labeling myself "musician" makes my skin crawl—but I have played in plenty of bands over the years, from punk to indie-pop to country-rock to shoegaze. Have these experiences given me any insight when it comes to reviewing other people's music? I'd say so, at least a little. One thing I've learned by being in bands is that there are two fundamental types of musicians: songwriters and shredders. Seems pretty obvious, but let me clarify: A songwriter sees technique as a means to an end. A shredder sees technique as an end unto itself. The two, of course, aren't mutually exclusive—in fact, most people who play music are both songwriter and shredder to varying degrees. But witnessing these ratios in the people I've played with over the years has made it a little easier for me to discern such conflicting approaches in others' music.
The conflict between songwriting and shredding, of course, often makes for the best music: I love hearing Charles Mingus or Curtis Mayfield bend their virtuosity toward a higher purpose—namely, making me puke in awe of their godhood—and I also love how Hendrix twisted his technical ability into helixes of dissonance and beauty. When I review an album, part of me is always looking for that balance, or lack thereof. Does that mean I like all pure songwriters and hate all pure shredders? Definitely not. I mean, I'm a guy who air-guitars to Orthrelm. But—and maybe this answers your final question—shredding can hamstring a great song (see: Sonic Youth), and sloppiness can enhance a mediocre one (see: The Sonics). But there's no failsafe formula for determining this. Like all criticism, it boils down to taste, context, what you had for dinner last night, etc.
As for some of your other points: Yeah Yeah Yeahs' music might seem rudimentary to someone who grew up on, say, Tool (not a swipe at you, just citing a random example), but it's no more rudimentary than a Howlin' Wolf or early Beatles tune. Radically advanced music theory can be applied to ostensibly basic music, too, if you want to get into the whole Steve Reich and Terry Riley side of things. The problem with Yeah Yeah Yeahs is, well, they make crappy songs. (Hey, I didn't say being an inept musician was a guarantee that you're a good songwriter.)
When it comes to the "hip-hop acts playing live instruments" thing, I hope that most of us—musicians and non—have figured out by now that sampling and rapping are as much an art as plunking an arpeggio and wailing about your ex. I'd say it's mostly a misperception that "live" rap bands are more highly regarded by the mainstream press—I've really never seen any categorical proof of that. Check out Kelefa Sanneh's "The Rap Against Rockism" article from The New York Times (reprinted in Da Capo's Best Music Writing 2005) for a smart (though histrionic) examination of the issue. I don't agree with a lot of his points, but it's good fuel for the rhetorical fire.
Christopher Bahn's two cents:
It would be silly to suggest that a knowledge of music theory would actually hinder a musician or a critic, but at the same time, I don't think being conservatory-trained is at all important in either the creation of music or in its appreciation. It's like asking a book critic to be an expert in linguistics, or a food critic to understand the biochemistry of a meal. It's not that it isn't worth knowing, but you're talking about science instead of art, mechanics instead of soul. Rather than being able to recognize and elucidate how some unusual chord structure functions, it's much more important that a critic should be a historian, and know something about the evolution of genres and the social history of popular culture. That's because a music writer's real job is to help explain why a piece of art was created, and what it means, not how it was created.
Andy Battaglia adds:
I play music, and it informs the way I think about records greatly, but I'd never think it necessary. Technical skill makes up a pretty small part (if any part at all) of what makes an interesting musician; that's more about ideas and how they're made to manifest themselves, which can happen—indeed, often happens—within musicians who have no technical skill to speak of. It's kind of like wondering how good a novelist is at typing.
I don't mean to be glib or dismissive. Technical skill can be thrilling, and an awareness of how music happens from a player's standpoint can enrich in terms of understanding choices made in the presence of obvious or idiosyncratic patterns that reveal themselves in the act. I like music-writing that addresses such things and/or thinks about them. But there are many more vantages that prove just as fruitful or interesting.
A phenomenon that's always fascinated me is people (critics, listeners, et al.) who devote large parts of their lives to music, but don't keep an instrument around, or play at making sounds of their own. It's a different mind-set that obviously makes for a different relationship with music, but I don't think there's much of a case to be made for that relationship being lesser—or even all that profoundly different—at the end of the day. I think it's best to be open to what captivates us, whether it be an intricate Deerhoof chord-change, a 3-year-old's kazoo jam, a strange synth glitch in a Chicago house track, or a radiator that has as much to suggest as a composer with a music-theory degree.
Keith Phipps pitches in:
I've never heard this complaint from a non-musician, for what that's worth.
And finally, Steven Hyden sums up:
Look, I think you get the point that A.V. Club writers don't think being a musician should be a prerequisite to being a music writer. (If it were, the best band ever would be Dream Theater.) Of course, this probably doesn't do you much good, since I'm sure you'd still like to read reviews written from a musician's perspective. Not to steer you away from the warm arms of The A.V. Club, but I suggest checking out magazines like Guitar Player and Bass Player, which focus more on musicianship in their reviews. It might still irritate you that more music mags don't follow this format, but at least somebody's doing it.
If I can steer you back to our warm arms for a moment, I'd argue that seeking out diverse opinions about music from musicians and fans alike is a good thing, because it keeps the potential for discovery alive. Who knows? Someday I might read something that makes me regret making that Dream Theater crack.
Whew! After a response with that much depth, it's clearly time for some much shallower stuff. Here are a few quickies that inspired a lot less rumination, but deserve answering anyway:
When a police officer refers to an automobile as a "late model" Chevrolet, for example, what does "late model" mean? Does it mean the car is old, or does it mean the car is of recent manufacture (as in, it has been produced 'of late')? Thanks,
It means it's a car of recent vintage—the cop has noticed the perp is driving a newish vehicle, but doesn't know the exact year. Google "late model," and you'll mostly find magazines dedicated to recent vehicles, and people asking car sites whether they can put late-model (that is, new and readily available) parts in their vintage cars and still get them to work.
I vaguely remember a Jetsons episode that I saw as a child in which Jane wants to learn how to drive. The driving instructor is shocked that a woman wants to drive, and before her test, he sounds a "woman driver" alarm. Following this, business owners and people on the street exclaim "Woman driver!" as they all close their shops, and jump for cover as they put up "woman driver" signs to warn other people. Was this a hallucination, or do I remember correctly?
None of us have seen that episode in a while, but we can confirm it exists, and it's on The Jetsons' first-season DVD set, if you want to refresh your memory. Keep in mind it was made in 1963, when that wacky women's lib was a sitcom-humor staple, and that like The Flintstones, The Jetsons came out of the comedy mold of The Honeymooners—where one of the most famous running jokes was Ralph Kramden promising that someday, he was really gonna slug the hell out of his wife.
The only thing I can recall about this one '80s cartoon I really liked is that it featured a bunch of kids (one of whom I would swear had red hair) who by some means I cannot remember, would travel to the "The Flipside," an alternate dimension which had lots of swirly colors and bridges and things. I know I loved it once, but it's totally gone now. What was it called? And what was its basic premise? Thanks a lot!
It was called Kidd Video, and you can find out more than anyone ever needed to know about it here. The A.V. Club hereby washes its hands of any childhood memories that may be shattered once you start digging up clips of it online.
I have a question that has pestered me for the last couple years. Why do people like Martin Lawrence keep getting roles in movies? Lawrence is a marginal comedic actor and has even less prowess for lead roles, but someone out there keeps giving him roles. Case in point: Big Momma's House 2 and Rebound. My only explanation is that someone with either a load of money or clout or both thinks he is wonderful. What does The A.V. Club think?
The A.V. Club thinks producers have noticed that both of those films made a crapload of money. According to the IMDB (look under the "box office and business" link on any film's individual page), Big Momma's House cost $30 million to make, and grossed more than $117 million in theaters. Big Momma's House 2 was less of a blockbuster, but still a respectable earner, with a $40 million budget and a $70 million theatrical gross. Rebound cost $6 million, and grossed $16 million (a relative failure, but still a moneymaker in the long run). And that's just in U.S. theaters—you can generally expect lowbrow comedies to double their take when they hit video. Blockbusters do better on the big screen, but cheap comedies do better when the DVD comes out, and all the people who didn't want to spring for a $10 ticket rent them or buy discounted copies. Given his profitability, Lawrence's popularity with producers makes perfect economic sense. Perhaps you should be asking why people keep going to see these movies.
Next week: What's up with those accents? Ask another A.V. Club intern! And more. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.