Between the Rock of Snark and the Hard Place of Crap: Two Meditations On Negativity In Music

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Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.

1. I saw The Wall this weekend for the first time, at the Wildey Theater in Edwardsville. I've always been a fairweather Pink Floyd fan, but I know enough to not expect The Wall to be an overly happy flick. Still, I did not anticipate how dark it would be, or how uncomfortable I'd feel by the cartoon character with balls for a chin, or how everybody in the audience walked out of the theater like they'd just seen a version of Schindler's List without Kevin Costner's character.

I tend to think often about the inherent motivations of music, and The Wall bummed me out both viscerally and conceptually. Some of my favorite music deals with dysphoric themes. Radiohead gets pretty glib, but the band rarely settles on an "everything sucks" conclusion like Floyd sometimes does. Other music which seems negative on its surface - metal, hardcore, noise - is frequently a positive channeling of aggression or frustration.

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2. Every week, RFT has a section titled "Critic's Picks" where the writers recommend shows happening in St. Louis this week. I often contribute to this section, which by default makes me critical. Granted, the whole point of the picks is to spotlight the best of the week, so it is very rare that it is a platform for anything other than praise - although I did bash on Stone Temple Pilots in the section about a year before I realized that "Interstate Love Song" is awesome.

I struggle with my own negativity as a fan and critic of music. The first writing about music that I really dug was in the Internet's infancy, when Buddyhead and pre-branding-mechanism Pitchfork made snark seem revolutionary - at least to high school-era me. I worry about how this infiltrates my own attitudes, as I tend to default to pessimism if I don't watch myself. The column title Better Living Through Music is intended as a way to keep myself in check.

1. (continued) Surprisingly enough, RFT is not exactly a cash cow. My most consistent source of employment is through teaching guitar lessons. I find it uplifting, getting people excited about music at the ground level. As an interesting subplot, I hear a lot of songs I would otherwise never have listened to or, at best, would have tuned out. Many of my students are young girls, and about half of them were inspired to play by Taylor Swift.

Anything that gets kids wanting to play music (Guitar Hero, School Of Rock, the "Zack Attack" episode of Saved By The Bell) is a good thing, and Taylor Swift is no exception. But I am sometimes disturbed by her lyrics, as sparkly and Walmart approved as they are. She often writes from the perspective of poor-old-me, the one who interrupts weddings because she knows she's better for the guy and would forever hold her peace otherwise.



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1 comments
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tonypatti
tonypatti

Well-thought out start to a longer discussion about the purposes and nature of criticism and writing about music in general. I've noticed that it is far easier to get someone to criticize anything than to praise it intelligently. The criticism you get is usually superficial, too. Superficial praise is equally useless, like, that's great! Well, why is it great? People are usually faster to give you slightly less superficial criticism than the praise they give out.

 

Recently a critic friend of mine started to describe the structure of songs he likes, and using that as an outline, was able to deeply describe things that work and don't work in a song. You may not be able to do that about a lot of things, but I find any insightful analysis refreshing in a field of writing dominated by verbose thoughtlessness.

 

Thanks for the thoughtful writing, Ryan. I'm looking forward to reading your next column.

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