Indeed, one of the most interesting additions to the new reissue of Let’s Talk About Love is an essay called “Too Much Sociology,” by the writer and academic Marco Roth, originally published last year as an unsigned editorial in n+1. We’re now at the point where, for a certain kind of listener, it’s impossible to talk about music – or any art, really – without talking about cultural capital; that is, our aesthetic judgments are no longer lacking but swimming in social context, in a jumble of referents and disclaimers and appeals to subjectivity. “With the generalization of cultural sociology, however, the critical impact has vanished,” Roth writes. “Sociology has ceased to be demystifying because it has become the way everyone thinks.”
Like all good polemics, “Too Much Sociology” massively overstates its case, but its inclusion in Let’s Talk About Love is an interesting meta-critique of Wilson’s project. What’s the use of questioning our own tastes if the answer is always, simply, that they are socially determined? Too often, leaning on “cultural capital” to explain our likes and dislikes becomes just another way to indicate our code-switching cultural fluency. As the academic Jonathan Sterne writes in his contribution to the book, “Being omnivorous, being inclusive, can itself mark and perform various kinds of privilege and status.”
This omnivorousness can also turn into laziness. On balance, it’s undoubtedly a good thing that today’s critics treat pop music and TV the way their forebears did rock music and novels, but the pendulum has perhaps swung a little too far. “Part of the problem with anti-rockism is that while it usefully argues that a Britney Spears, Justin Bieber or Céline Dion should be taken just as seriously as a Bob Dylan or a Stevie Wonder, it is a huge leap to then treat the works of these artists as equally meaningful in the historical trajectory of musical output,” the musician and academic Jason King writes in his Let’s Talk About Love essay. “At its worst, anti-rockism becomes a poor excuse to relativize musical content and to celebrate the mediocre as if it were indeed artistically transcendent.” Instead, he insists, when evaluating pop music (or just about anything else, for that matter), “you always have to ask, ‘Compared to what?’”
Here, I think, is a crucial point, and the way forward for music critics and fans. If there is no such thing as an objective aesthetic standard, then the best tools we have are the questions we ask. So, rather than artificially pitting Dion against a confessional singer-songwriter like Elliott Smith (to cite an example from Let’s Talk About Love), we’d be better off meeting artists on the terms of their efforts. Does this pop song do what a pop song is meant to do? What about this black metal song, or this Ethiopian funk song, or this ethereal, ambient soundscape? Does it succeed or fail within its own limits, skilfully employing or updating or subverting its genre’s tropes? Although taste will always be slippery, and genres will always be fluid, asking these questions leaves room for judgment without devolving into the rockist, disco-sucks model of music criticism.
Ultimately, it’s not very useful, or interesting, to become a prisoner of your own self-awareness; we still need to like some things and dislike other things, without constantly wringing our hands about our own discursive privilege. Indeed, the “we” here is exclusive in its own right, referring to an elite subset of cultural producers and consumers with the time, inclination, and education to sit around fretting about all this stuff. Wilson’s book is so good, in part, because it’s a frank, conscientious call for this kind of criticism – one that’s open-minded but still, fundamentally, critical. “You can’t go on suspending judgment forever – that would be to forgo genuinely enjoying music, since you can’t enjoy what you can’t like,” he writes. “But a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment – to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare.” In other words: let’s talk.
Drew Nelles is a senior editor at The Walrus.