Note: the following post has been adapted from a conversation between Jacqueline Ristola of criticalhit009. Most of the language has been left untouched, though it has been edited for clarity and grammar.
Jonathan Hielkema: I’m writing a very agitated blog post right now. Well, working on research for one.
Jacqueline Ristola: Oh?
JH: Yep. It’s about the terrible critical conversation around Kanye West in Christian media circles.
JH: Seriously. Think Christian (if you don’t remember, that’s the website run by the current Filmspotting co-host Josh Larsen) just posted probably the worst article I’ve read about it so far. Even worse than the Relevant review. Which is unusual, because Think Christian tends to be more professional than Relevant.
JR: Yeah, so I’ve gathered.
JH: I did some due diligence, some basic research into the author’s background. And he’s never prone to use language quite like this review. Even in reviews of non-Christian music, it’s usually pretty basic review language. I don’t know where he gets off using words like “demonic.” At least, using them the way he does.
JR: All of the criticism I’ve read so far has always made a distinction between the music and the lyrics.
JH: Exactly. There is never any consideration for how the lyrics are delivered or in what context. It’s all reduced to what the words are. They don’t even consider how the vocals might be distorted.
JR: All the music is dark and monstrous: how does that add commentary to the lyrics? That sort of thing.
JH: I hated this paragraph:
“Ironically [Kanye’s supposed belief that he can do anything because he’s rich] is the same hubristic lie that has emboldened twisted (and tragically successful) people to victimize others and aggrandize themselves since the dawn of time. The level of spiritual blindness, willful rebellion and arrogance West peddles is unique, though. Not just anyone can spew this level of pseudo-spiritual trash and convince millions that it’s caviar.”
JR: That last line…I haaaaated that line.
JH: If there’s one thing I remembered from my historical research and writing course, it was never to use phrases like “dawn of time.” Ever.
JH: While the Christ and Pop Culture and Relevant reviews were somewhat legit in terms of looking at cultural context and considering the work in some depth, this is almost entirely moral grandstanding. He’s putting himself in a superior position to the work. OK, so Kanye claims that he is a God, but what is he actually saying? And does it sound at all pleasant to be a god in his song?
JR: I agree. Part of this album’s release highlights the difficulty between art and artist. You are reviewing the art, not the artist. But the art wouldn’t exist without the artist, so where is the line drawn in terms of criticism?
JH: There isn’t a line, since life and art filter back and forth into each other. What you have is a zone.
JR: A gap, if you will?
JH: Yeah. That works. What happens is that you review an album in its cultural context. That includes the person who created it and their position in the culture. But it’s not that simple.
JR: And because of the history and nature of rap, people tend to focus solely on the rapper. In this case, so much of the contextual criticism is focused just on Kanye.
JR: If this were a band, [the reviews and treatment of the work] would be totally different.There likely wouldn’t be such a focus on separating music and lyrics. Because it’s already accepted the those are cohesive. But rap is still being treated differently in this regard.
JH: Exactly. And there’s little to no mention in any of these articles of Justin Vernon and the other collaborators. They have a significant impact on how we perceive the songs. You can’t just assume that all the songs are straightforwardly autobiographical. One real problem with the Think Christian article is that it says, “Oh, yes, once you listen to this you obviously get what Kanye’s world view is.”
JR: I was about to say, the Pitchfork article [where Kayne’s collaborators share their experiences working on the album,] is fascinating because it focuses on their voices and contributions, [which are substantial.]
JR: [The Think Christian article] assumes Kayne’s voice [and worldview, if we can fully discover it] is static. It doesn’t seem to recognize that perspectives of an artist have the ability to evolve or change.
JH: Yeah. I think that you have to address context and personality. So, I think one effective way to address those questions is to think: “why is this person making music like this at this time?” Is he appealing to preexisting tastes? Challenging them? Reacting to personal problems? Addressing broader social questions?
JR: Exploring something new?
JH: Yeah. Another thing to remember is that music is always painstakingly created. It’s a selection and careful presentation that an artist wants. Especially in this case. Therefore it behooves a reviewer to consider that what we’re seeing in a work of art is an obstructed view. It’s a persona. I mean, in the Pitchfork article, the collaborators talk about how much was left on the cutting floor.
JH: Also, in the reviews, there’s never a recognition that the sickly or unsettled feelings they might have are intentional provocations. And then they never ask, “Oh, I feel awful. Why is that? Why would this guy want me to feel that way?” Or, if we don’t want to address intent as much. Or presume to know so much, ask “What is it that I find offensive, and what does that say about my experience?”
JR: I suspect the divide between music and lyrics is something deeply entrenched in the Christian world. Part of that comes from the awful mass that is CCM, which just appropriates music of the time, but [slaps] Christian lyrics on to make the music ok. In CCM [and Christian response to music in general,] there is a clear divide between music and lyrics
JH: Oooh. You’re right.
JR: “Form and content” I suspect many CCM artists believe [to separate it], but such a clear divide DOES NOT EXIST. The kind of lyrics and the way you sing/speak them is also a means of form. Music is also content.
Yes, this exists.
Jr: So, I think that permeates Christian criticism as well. Part of it is also it’s harder to object to music itself.
JR: At least, there used to be outright denial of rock and roll. Lest we forget that name is short for “rockin’ and rollin’ “, a euphemism for sex.
JR: And as Todd in the Shadows points out, rock is the go to form to talk about sex, whereas country music is all about marriage. [Ed. We could not recall which video he talked about this in, unfortunately.]
JH: When we talked with Stephen Deussner at FFM, [sexuality] came up in relation to Americana and CCM.
JR: Oooo. Care to expound upon that?
JH: Yes. So Deussner made the same point you just did–that rock music rhythms are sexual in nature–and said that that partially explains the reason why so many Christians are flocking to groups like Mumford. Because their music is essentially asexual as well as nostalgic for “the good ole days.” And full of uplift. It’s the same attraction Christians have to Coldplay, which is even less sexual than U2. Mumford, he said, was Coldplay without [much] electric instrumentation.
JR: Oooh man. Yeah, U2 ranks pretty low in terms of expressing sexuality.
JH:Passion, they get. Sex, not so much.
JR: More focus on layers of guitar than heavy beats, I would add as well.
JH: Cough Sigur Ros Cough
JH: It makes so much sense now. Even if some Christians embrace secular music, the aversion to sexuality remains.
JR: I understand that when reviewing, that’s an easy way to get some headway into a work. Taking a smaller piece of a song, just the lyrics, let’s say, and analyzing them.
JR: But the problem is that you can’t then present a review like that. You need to illustrate the cohesion (or lack thereof.) How it works as a whole.
JH: Precisely. I relished finding that one line from the Babel review by Thompson. “The songs explore the effects of sin on the individual and on relationships with language and an intensity that is consistent with the brokenness they uncover.” I mean, come on!
JH: The comments section on that guy’s Yeezus review is…oooh. It makes me so mad. Because it illustrates how a poorly-thought-out review can hurt.
JR: People agreeing?
JH: Well, it’s obvious that some people, who might have given the record half a chance if the reviewer had been less of a jerk, used the review as an excuse to totally ignore the album.
JH: Also, I was surprised by this, but it’s the first hip hop review ever posted on that site.
JR: Yeah. The album is certainly getting more attention because of the hyped release and the album title itself. If this did not do anything in regards to spirituality, it would not have been reviewed, I suspect. Also, I just had a revelation. This kind of lyrics/music divide is inherent in Cultural Discerner listening sessions. The only material you get is a lyrics sheet. You never get anything on what instruments are being used, you don’t see a music score, there is often really poor or no contextualization of the artist at all. So it makes sense why, in my year as a CD, there was a struggle to not focus so much on the lyrics, because that is what is implicitly preferred.
JH: Yeah, if your whole critical lens is organized around finding out what the artist’s “worldview” is, then you’re going to be focusing on words.
JR: I understand that finding a score would be impossible, and unhelpful anyway, because the majority of CDs have little or no musical training. Now, there are some things to counteract that, if the SAO would so wish to.
1. Really focus on contextualizing and explaining more about the artist. All of the CD listening sessions are close readings, which are valuable, but significantly limit one’s ability to understand an artist and their breadth of work. This means CDs have a responsibility to teach others about the artist. Which, if they are bringing in this artist’s work to talk about, they should be able to do that already.
JH: Correct. I always tried to provide as much context as possible in my sessions. Often just studying a whole genre and showing some examples.
JR: 2. Work to have more of a focus on what’s occurring in the music. Have the CDs write down their reactions to the music as it goes along, perhaps list the instruments being used and in what way. This goes back to my first point. For instance you could ask: Is the artist in an electronic phase? How is it significant that, for example, Sufjan Stevens used mostly electronic instruments on Age of Adz where his best-known work was mostly folk? So, if one did not know this, the intentions of using electronics wouldn’t be as clear (intentions of being what we can suspect the artist is trying to do at least, not know for sure.) I can feel, on much of the album, that the music is fragmented, and this helps reinforce the elements of broken relationships on the album. But one would not know of that change from just a close reading of the work.
My suggestions for improving a listening session would be to find ways to better follow and understand what is happening in the music. One particular change I would recommend would be to list all the instruments being used. Track the changes of what’s happening in the song as it progresses. Actively encourage CDs and other listening to do so. That’s about it for that critique of the music listening sessions. It’s really important that the music is emphasized as well, otherwise the CD work falls into the same trend of privileging lyrics, which leads to bad criticism and appreciation.
If Calvin is truly an institution that is “Always Reforming”, perhaps they might take my suggestions to heart. This makes me appreciate more and more the Spin female critic roundtable on the album. They don’t say anything revolutionary, but illustrate some appropriate, thoughtful responses. From the impression I got, they recognize the artistry involved, the complicated relationships with women, but overall appear to love the album. They have a better way of appreciating a work as a whole.
JH: I agree. This has gone well.