Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Let's not be rock critics, now

-Meant to mention this Monday: I participated in Chris Mautner's second "Everyone's a Critic" roundtable at Blogorama, thus dragging down the credibility of the assembled voices. The topic at hand was "Should online reviews include sample art?" I was most interested in this response by Douglas Wolk:

"I also don’t think it’s really necessary. If you’re reviewing a record, you don’t need to include a song from it; if you’re reviewing a movie, you don’t need to include a clip; if you’re reviewing a restaurant, you don’t need to include a snack."

Abhay Khosla makes essentially the same point, while Brigid Alverson argues that radio hosts can also successfully discuss art without providing examples. Steve Flanagan shows up in the comments to make a point very much worth considering: online reviewers can very easily include a sample of the work in question, an option unavailable to print record critics or food critics of any type.

It's a good point, as is Don MacPherson's contention that a critic can often find samples online. For what it's worth, I'll probably include some samples with the upcoming Liefeld reviews. I feel especially compelled to do so, since part of the project will be tracing the evolution (or devolution, depending on your perspective) of Liefeld's linework and composition. I'd like to think I'm up to the task of writing about this without the need for accompanying illustrations, but I'll let you folks be the judge of that.

Anyway, the above-cited comments reminded me of how often I've wished rock critics would include samples of music with their work. That's certainly one of the advantages of the internet--there's really no excuse not to include samples of the music in question. Without excerpts of the albums being reviewed, allmusic.com would be nothing more than a venue for the blandest of criticism. Consider the adjectives employed by many critics--"warm," "rocking," "Beatles-esque." Do these really give you any sense of what the music actually sounds like? The Beach Boys have been called "warm," but so have Pavement, Neil Young, and the Kinks. Worse yet, how about "abrasive"--Negative Approach is abrasive, but so are...Pavement, Neil Young, and the Kinks. These are not objective descriptors; some might consider "warm" and "abrasive" to be mutually exclusive. Fans of My Bloody Valentine might be inclined to disagree.

The other great staple of rock criticism is comparing artists to other artists. Thus, we are told that the Kids sound like the triangulation of the Damned, the Saints, and the Misfits. This has never made sense to me; I can see hints of these bands in different songs, but it depends on one's perspective. Ludo Mariman has a similar cadence to Glen Danzig at times, but I'd hesitate to say they sound alike; he can't croon like Danzig and he certainly lacks Danzig's lung power. If I told a Misfits fan that (s)he should check out the Kids because of this one strand of similarity, there's a good chance that disappointment would follow. This hypothetical Misfits fan would probably never trust my recommendations again. Ditto for hypothetical fans of the Saints (who are much, much more influenced by older rock and roll and especially soul) or the Damned (who are probably closest to the Kids' aesthetic (assuming we're talking about Damned, Damned, Damned here), but whose sound is much, much tighter, largely due to Rat Scabies' incredible drumming). A review which makes these specific comparisons would be fine, but referring to the Kids as merely "a mixture" of these three bands isn't especially helpful. Unfortunately, too many rock critics are content to say "sounds like the Who," as though this were a meaningful description.

I often think truly great music writing may require some degree of familiarity with musicology. I don't possess this, and I'm pretty fucking sure that most rock critics lack this knowledge as well. (Jazz and classical critics seem a bit more knowledgeable--but then again, they can't resort to analyzing lyrics. Plus jazz and classical music both seem to have established taxonomies that render comparisons to other artists superfluous.) I can't realistically expect every rock critic to have a PhD in musicology, but surely they could do a better job at considering how music and lyrics coexist.

This is, in fact, the most frustrating aspect of rock criticism to me--I read far too many reviews which don't consider the ways that the actual music (as in the tune and how it's played) affects our perception of the lyrics. Take, for instance, "Friends of Mine" by the Zombies. I've read countless reviews which apparently didn't actually listen to the lyrics; I've seen it described as an ode to "the joy of seeing other people in love." But consider the actual lyrics:

"And when I'm with her
She talks about you
The things that you say
The things that you do...

And when I feel bad
When people disappoint me
That's when I need you two
To help me believe"

These are the words of a sad, lonely man! He's clearly unlucky in love, but none of his friends are (at least at the moment). He's having to look outside himself for hope--this is not a positive development! Couple this with the chorus, in which Colin Blunstone sings "They are friends of mine/They are friends of mine/And they've got something/You don't often find," while the rest of the band names a long string of couples ("Joyce and Terry/Paul and Molly/Liz and Brian/Joy and David," and so on). At the very least, this is a bittersweet song. Actually, I've always thought that it's a sneering, cynical song about how couples form and impenetrable shell around themselves, preventing interaction with outsiders. Consider that first verse again--this is a thinly-veiled complaint! "I can't have a conversation with either of you about anything other than your relationship. It's rather boring." But the song has lots of pretty harmonies and is dominated by a driving, bouncy piano, so I guess people fail to see these nuances. Frankly, I think the music during the chorus reinforces my interpretation.*

(Aside: skip if you want to get on to the comics-relevant stuff. Check out All Music's review of Badfinger's "I'll Be the One," in particular this bit: "...there is a wonderful, almost campfire-style warmth to the entire affair. The lyrical theme of togetherness and camaraderie comes through loud and clear." Now look at the actual lyrics, which aren't about campfire togetherness (seriously, what the fuck?) at all: "Where did you go/When you were needed?/Was it some place I know where they care?/Rise in the rain/I learned to get by/Without you for the pain in my heart." Jesus, did this guy only listen to the chorus? Come on.)

So yes, maybe it would be nice for comics critics to include some illustrations for the same reason it would be nice to have rock critics include samples of music. But we don't want to aspire downward to the level of rock criticism, do we? Thankfully, I think it's much easier to discuss (visual) art than it is to discuss music. Music is abstract; it doesn't seek to replicate anything concrete (unless it's, like, animal noises or something). It's hard to explain why a piece of music is "haunting" without getting into music theory--and even if you understand it, there's a pretty good chance your readers won't.

But art--well now, we can say quite a few things about that, can't we? We can all tell the difference between Sean Phillips' inking and Charles Burns', right? It's not so important that you recognize the techniques that lead to these differences in style (though it would be nice if you did) so long as you can talk about how their impact on the narrative and the overall story. Both artists employ big pools of black ink, but the similarities end there. Burns uses a very feathery technique, while Phillips is much scratchier; Burns' style is much more controlled and mannered, while Phillips is looser, messier. With Burns, nary a line is out of place; with Phillips, lines intersect haphazardly, extending beyond their vertices.

Okay, so the reader could draw all that from samples of the art. But it's worth pointing out, since each artists' inking style so influences their larger work. Burns' lush, baroque brushwork reinforces the theme of the horror of adolescent sexual confusion in Black Hole. In Criminal, the puddles of black obviously suit the genre.** That, friends, is why it's not enough just to include samples of the art. Your readers might draw these conclusions on their own, but then they're the ones doing the reviewing now, aren't they?

*Or maybe I'm just crazy. I have no idea, BTW, what the Zombies intended with this song, but as a semi-post modernist, I don't think it negates my interpretation of the song.

**Of course, that's not the whole of it; Phillips also uses a lot of loose outlines and charcoal as well. The former, which suggests rushed work, helps establish the nervous energy of good noir ficiton. The latter, reminiscent of older illustration art or political cartoons (think Herblock), gives the book a distinctly old fashioned flavor. Combined with the dense pools of ink and scratchy penwork, Phillips manages to make Criminal seem both antiquated and contemporary, which is probably just about perfect for that kind of book.

-And really, are we going to be up to the challenge when it comes time to review the comics equivalent of "Friends of Mine?" There really aren't too many books which deliberately make the dialogue/narration and the art incongruous. It's usually done in an "unreliable narrator" kind of way, where the events depicted in the pictures don't match up with the description in the words.* But what of those works where the style of art (as opposed to the events it depicts) is incongruous with the story?

At present, deliberate shifts the style of drawing seems to be a relatively underdeveloped technique in comics. In mainstream American comics, it's often used in a flashback scene, especially one that takes place in a different era. (See, for example, recent issues of Iron Fist; admittedly, these are drawn by different artists, but the intended effect is clearly that mentioned above. In contrast, the jarring changes of style seen in books with "all star" lineups of artists (such as Justice League #0) rarely seem to have any tonal intent.) One sees it fairly often in manga, usually as a shift from semi-realism to extreme cartoonishness; this is often a device to denote an extreme reaction, such as embarrassment, shock, or anger. Joann Sfar actually does the opposite in The Rabbi's Cat, inserting realistic drawings into an otherwise rather cartoony book.

I've seen other types of style shifts, however. The most recent I can think of is also in The Rabbi's Cat, where Sfar occasionally seems to replace his customary scratchy linework with what looks like monotype printmaking.** I'm not sure what Sfar is getting at there (perhaps (SPOILERS!) the cat's frustration at being unable to scold the rabbi for allowing his daughter to marry the French rabbi), but it's pretty jarring. The work most defined by this sort of thing, at least in my experience, is Dave McKean's Cages. Unfortunately, I don't recall McKean really using this technique to any compelling effect. Cages, from what I remember, is like prog rock in the most pejorative sense; it's quite beautiful, but in kind of a wankerly way. I haven't read this particular comic in several years, so take this all with a grain of salt; maybe it was all just a little above my head when I was a younger man. It's certainly a terrific showcase for McKean, though.

*This seems to imply that, in the process of reading comics, we understand the drawing to be "reality" and the words to be gloss. Ironic, then, that art gets so little attention among critics of "mainstream" comics.

**I have no idea if this is what he's actually doing, but those panels look like monotype to me. Maybe it's Photoshop--producing three monotype prints seems like a lot of trouble for three lousy panels, especially for a prolific dude like Sfar. See page 93 of the American edition.


bitterandrew said...

I couldn't agree more about rock criticism. I think the worst I've ever seen it was in a review that described Komeda's sound as a cross between ABBA and A Flock of Seagulls.

The musicologist approach has its own set of problems, in that most of the terms will pass right over the heads of the casual reader. "Rich tonal modality" is a particular favorite useless phrase of mine.

It's why I don't bother to attempt serious criticism, just tangential observations and associations leavened with some historical triva or context.

Caleb said...

I immediately thought of this blog when I read the question of whether art need be included in comics criticism or not. Because I've noticed there's no art here, but I don't really miss it.

Honestly, I think if the writing's good enough, you don't need the art, and the writing here seems good enough. I've noticed that when I include art, I tend to use it as a crutch, as it's easier to say, "Look at this, it's awesome!" instead of writing a little more compelling that simply, you know, "Look here!" and "How about this" and so forth.

Matt Brady said...

You make some good points, Dick (about the art, that is; I'm clueless when it comes to music criticism), but when you give your examples about Burns, Phillips, and Sfar, I immediately wanted to see an example of what you were talking about. Having read all the works you mentioned, I understood exactly what you meant, but I still like having a picture to refer to. And if I hadn't read the book, I might not have been able to figure out what you mean. You even refer to a specific page of The Rabbi's Cat, which is kind of a low-tech version of an art sample anyway.

I guess what I'm saying is that I agree that just putting in a picture and saying "look at this!" isn't enough; I try to do some criticism and actually talk about the art when I give a sample. Your version works too; I probably would have been able to picture what you meant even if I hadn't read the books. Critics certainly shouldn't just post the art and expect readers to interpret it. I guess that's a difference between good criticism and bad criticism. Hopefully I manage the former, but who knows?

I'm sorry if I'm seeming especially argumentative lately. I guess you've just inspired some interesting discussions for me.

Jaap said...

I find it interesting that apparantly, music criticism isn't that interesting to me in print, reviewers tend to focus on the lyrics, the text of a piece instead of the music.
I imagine there's a paralel to be gathered from that.

And Re: comicbook reviews with or without picaturs? I have yet to see a print publication that deals with comicbook art that at the very least doesn't show the cover of a book. More often than not, the images are thrown casually throughout the review or sometimes even interview.
Maybe that is the way it should be. Write the review first, then worry about the pictures fitting with the text instead of writing your review around the pictures.

Johnny Temuka said...

On a more practical level, one of the things I like about blogs such as this that don't have art sandwiched in there is that they are a lot easier to read when I'm supposed to be working. It's a whole lot simpler to pretend you're doing something constructive when your screen only has plain text on a white background, rather than a picture of the Incredible Hulk smashing the shit out of something.

Jeez, next thing you know I'll have to actually do some, y'know, work or something. And who wants to do that?

Anonymous said...

The objections to including samples of the work being reviewed with the review are absurd. Don't movie reviewers feature clips where media allows? (on TV)

Additionally, you have an express legal right to publish samples of copyrighted work for purposes of criticism.

Here's the thing: including a sample helps the reader get a sense of the work being reviewed, making the job of the reviewer easier. If I can include a sample of a song with my review, I don't need to be a musicologist wanker to help people decide whether they think the artist is any good. Barriers of entry to criticism become lower, criticism becomes more common and more useful (more competition for the musicologist wanker - oh noes!), etc. Attention is scarce, which is why people read reviews in the first place - they're trying to figure out what products out there might be worth their time. If you can save them from having to read 1000 of your words (and save yourself from having to write them) by including a picture, it seems like pretty obvious to me that you should do it.


Todd C. Murry said...

You can't have the discussion that dominated the second half of your post without bringing in color choices (and to a lesser extent lettering - it's part of the visuals too). I think the intentional dissonance between art tone and story tone becomes more prevalent (or at least there are more obvious examples) when you bring in this additional component. I always thought intended effect of the garish colors of Watchmen was to take the bright four color boldness of superhero comics and present them as slightly "off" (in the "the ham's been in the refrigerator too long" sense - like the comic has been left in the sun). In fact, I think the Alan Moore pastiche heredetary lines, as inbred as they are, are rife with art being used to evoke a time frame that (at varying degrees) is at odds with the stories overall tone (often cynicism) and even the words being spoken (here the lettering comes in handy - when that golden age lettering says "rip his testicles out, chum" the dissonance is more immediate). You know you are in this teritory when you see fake low res dot matrices.

Abhay said...

"Attention is scarce, which is why people read reviews in the first place"

That's one reason people might read a thing, but hardly the only reason and not a reason for me. When I'm excited about a thing, I like to read tons of reviews about it to see what other people whose opinion I liked think about it, or-- or as an outlet of my enthusiasm.

I'm not alone in that: a friend of mine had made up his mind to see Bourne Ultimatum, but he still mentioned to me he was excited that the New Yorker had liked it.

Dick Hyacinth said...

I don't think criticism should be solely concerned with recommending works to a potential reader, either. I do read reviews for that purpose, but I generally try to skim--I want just enough information to determine if something is actually up my alley. This, of course, necessitates my trusting the critic. I try to only read longer pieces of criticism after I've read the work in question; I will also read long reviews of things I don't really plan to read. I consider reading criticism part of the process of digesting a piece of art/literature/whatever. So yeah, in this case a picture is not worth a thousand words.

I should point out that I didn't have anyone in particular in mind when I wrote this or the brief bit that appeared in Chris' column on Sunday. It's a global phenomenon, really.

I also really intended to make some joke about the lack of scans in the title of this post, but I guess I forgot. I was tired.

Matt Brady said...

I'm with you on that last bit, Dick. I read reviews in a very similar manner, often skimming reviews of stuff I know I want to read, or stopping when I have just enough information to decide about purchasing a book (or watching a movie, or whatever). But it's after I read/watch something that I go and read a bunch of other reviews. Like some people said in Chris's article, a lot of online criticism is conversational, more of a discussion than a recommendation.

Andrew Hickey said...

Yeah - good criticism should add to the appreciation of the work no matter when you read it. This post is a perfect example. I've loved Friends Of Mine for about 10 years now - one of my all-time favourite songs in fact - but I never considered it from that angle. I still don't buy that interpretation, but it'll give me something to think about the next few times I listen to Odessey & Oracle...

c├ędric said...

The thing is, as valid as your points are, there's still no reason no to include pics in your reviews. Sure they can be a shortcut to avoid analyzing something in depht but they certainly don't prevent any analysis.
If i didn't already know charles Burns' & Sean Philips' work, the first thing i'd done upon reading your piece on them would've been to type their name in google image, to see what you were talking about.

Besides, as i dabble with rock criticism myself, i just want to add that there's a lot of great music writing out there, including on allmusic.