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I've seen Jeffrey Dvorkin's rant about "hip, but inscrutable" NPR music reviews cited in a handful of places, and a few people have asked me what I think about it, which makes me wonder if I'm wearing a beret or something. On the other hand, I was wearing my "NOTHING IS ANY GOOD IF OTHER PEOPLE LIKE IT" T-shirt when I first got the link, so I sort of have it coming.

The problem with the reviews Dvorkin cites here isn't that they're inscrutable-flavored hipness. (Well, the Morrissey one seems to assume prior knowledge of his work, which is potentially a problem, but the others don't.) The actual problem is twofold. First, they're reviews of artists with whom Dvorkin is not already familiar, and address those artists' work directly instead of attempting to relate it to something (anything! Tolkien!) that Dvorkin already knows about. His Timbaland/Timberlake confusion is his problem, not the reviewer's, and it's symptomatic of the general know-nothing-ism that certain defenders of the highbrow faith assume when it comes to popular arts. I bet that if the Magnetic Fields review had been about Sondheim it wouldn't have been a big deal, and as a friend points out via email, if the Morrissey review had been about, say, David Hockney, nobody would have raised a peep about inscrutability. That joke about how many indie-rockers it takes to change a lightbulb ("you don't know?!") goes triple for black-tie-opening culture.

But the legitimate objection to these reviews--which Dvorkin doesn't actually raise--is that they're bad radio. Phrasing that would be redundant or bland in print is sometimes necessary for a piece that's meant to be heard rather than read. "These extended explorations and others, like the five minutes of abrasive dental-drill feedback drone near the end of the disc, give Wilco's music an entirely new dimension" works okay on the page, but say it out loud and you begin to see what's wrong. You can't say "extended explorations" aloud without hitting a thicket of consonants; you can't use "dental-drill" as an adjective on the radio, because listeners won't see the hyphen and will take a few precious seconds to realize what's meant by it; you can't have a subject and predicate separated by a long-ass subordinate clause if you want to have a listener (as opposed to a reader) follow your meaning. The Magnetic Fields piece seems a bit more innocent than the other two, although I can see some poor commuter trying to parse what a "caustic coffee shop" is supposed to be and sideswiping the boss's SUV.

2 Comments

Alex Ross said:

I was since a long time ago the first person to say: nothing is good, that other people like! "If it is for the many, it is not art, and if it is art, it is not for the many."

Alex Ross said:

Signed Arnold Schoenberg. I do not know "Alex Ross."

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This page contains a single entry by Douglas published on July 2, 2004 3:00 PM.

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