The myth of objectivity

Good ol’ Kenny (formerly? known as AllGdPple) has posted something to rec.music.progressive that I can heartily disagree with; so, in my grand and cowardly tradition, I’m going to do so here instead of in the forum, where people can respond. Actually, more lazy than cowardly: I don’t check rmp frequently enough to actually get engaged in a discussion at this point. Oh well.

He says: “a good music review should discuss the artist’s thematic intent, analysis of the structure of the piece and why the artist succeeded or failed to achieve the intended result… did the artist achieve the attempted result? then it’s a good effort.”

I’m with him for the first half, sort of. I agree that reviews should be descriptive to a certain extent. The idea is to convey to the reader what exactly the album is all about, in the sense of what what it sounds like in general (which more often than not means talking about styles and categories, unfortunately). However, using the artist’s intent to measure the value of a work is totally against my philosophy of reviewing (and of art in general). It’s the “intentional fallacy” - the artist’s intent doesn’t freakin’ matter, what matters is the listener’s reaction. Okay, so it’s not that black and white, at least I don’t think so, but there’s the idea. Intent is not the whole of the equation. Why should I care what the artist wanted to achieve if I value the work for totally different things in the first place, or if my interpretation is 180 degrees from what the artist “meant” for the work to “mean”?

Even more problematic, Kenny also says: “a piece should not be reviewed according to the reviewers taste in music, but should reflect the success or failure of the artist in achieving their intended aim.”

He later backtracks a bit and says that subjectivity is still allowable in reviews, but the above quote seems to contradict that. This is something I feel even more strongly about than the whole “intentional fallacy” thing: objectivity is an impossible ideal. Therefore, reviews should consciously take the reviewers’ specific point of view into account, so that the reader can have the most accurate idea possible of where the review is coming from. Put more provocatively, the reviewer’s taste is the point of the review as much as the album being reviewed. This is the whole reason we put up profiles of all the reviewers here at Ground & Sky: because I believe those profiles, and the knowledge available in them, make the reviews on this site more useful to readers.

Two things Kenny says, though, I fully agree with: first, that reviews should always answer the question “why” (reviews that basically say “this sucks” or “I don’t like this” aren’t very helpful); and second, that he’s “read few prog reviews that aren’t cliches.” This latter point is very much true, I think: partly because, given the relatively tiny size of the genre’s fan base, most of the prog reviews available on the net are written by amateurs like myself. And shit: music’s hard to write about. Especially music that there isn’t a highly developed language for.

I have to resort to cliches in a lot of my reviews, I’m afraid, in order to get a descriptive point across. That’s an inadequacy I’ll readily admit to, because I’m not a musicologist and I don’t possess the language or even the conceptual knowledge needed to best describe some of the music I listen to. Does that make me a bad reviewer? I don’t know.

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