"An avalanche, a transformation..."
December 1987, and for perhaps the twentieth or thirtieth time in one long, languorous, teenage afternoon, I am again eagerly poring over the latest issue of what is, without question, the most important journal of cultural criticism in the world: the weekly music magazine Melody Maker. It is the end-of-year round-up edition - the compendium of reflections and selections from regular writers, culminating in their agreed overall best-of lists - and my just-bought copy is already worn and ragged from a combination of rapt close-reading and frenetic page-turning. U2 are on the cover - fair enough, since it is the year of The Joshua Tree, the year of their confirmed status as a rock superpower - but inside, in the stirringly idiosyncratic commentaries and choices of the magazine's most mesmerizing writers, there is strong evidence of other pressing priorities, of other phenomenal forces to be reckoned with. Inside, let's say, I just might have found what I'm looking for...
Reading this humble indie-rag back then was - however ludicrous it might now seem - an experience of exhilarating recognition and revelation, a giddy week-on-week rush of alternating ‘Yes! That's it!' and astonished ‘What the fuck...?' moments. (Effects which recall, incidentally, Nabokov's belief that "although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades." "Let us," he says "worship the spine and its tingle."1) In that Christmas '87 issue, several of the albums and singles of the year were by bands with whom I was already in confirmed, but doomed, relationships: The Smiths, New Order, The Cure, The Jesus and Mary Chain; the core quartet of my limited indie-miserabilist canon. Yet alongside chart placings for these dying loves were slots for other bands I had thus far only read about - and so had yearned to hear - and for others again whose names and noises were utterly unfamiliar to me, but who would soon become objects of disconcerting infatuation.
Much of this momentous new music (new and momentous to me, at least) was from America and, accordingly perhaps, was more extrovert and excessive in attitude and form than a lot of the British (Post-)Post-Punk that had pre-occupied me in recent years. It was certainly, in some cases, a good deal louder: albums by Big Black (No.5 on the year-end list with their tender meditation on romantic love, Songs About Fucking), The Butthole Surfers (at 10 with the similarly sensitive Locust Abortion Technician) and Pixies (coming hollering into the world with the manic, mutant pop of Come on Pilgrim, at 19) were by turns brutal and bewildering, electrifying in their extremity and absurdity. Other discoveries were expansive in different ways. There was, for instance, the emotional vulnerability and angular, agitated rhythmic and melodic unpredictability of Throwing Muses (The Fat Skier, no.4). Or there was the wonderful minimalist murmuring of Arthur Russell's World of Echo (at no. 22), an album that I seem to remember ‘loving' for a long-ish time before actually hearing it - making my own initial experience of it quite severely minimalist, I suppose. (The local record shop in my Co. Antrim hometown of Larne had, sadly, a somewhat disappointing section devoted to pioneering avant-classical compositions for voice and distorted cello emerging out of downtown New York's experimental post-disco dance-scene.)
Back on this side of the Atlantic, though, there was also the feedback-misted dub space of AR Kane (appearing under their own name in the singles list at numbers 2 and 16, but also at 6 as part of the house-inspired, chart-conquering M/A/R/R/S: their one-off collaboration with 4AD labelmates Colourbox). AR Kane's dreamy, queasy, psychedelic love songs came out of nowhere - and seemed to exist in a strange, dizzying musical nowhere, between genres, between states of mind and being - achieving a spellbinding strangeness rarely evident amongst the shambling lo-fi jangle or portentous goth gloom of the English indie-charts. And then there were The Young Gods: a barely-heard-of trio of Swiss sampler fanatics who, despite the U2 cover splash, had been voted as band of the year by Melody Maker's critics in 1987. Celebrating the trio's poll triumph, David Stubbs hailed their eponymous debut album as "the apotheosis of 1987's dark expansion, its fabulous recession, its headlong urge towards blackout."2 This was a work that was, Stubbs argued, absolutely radical in its re-imagining of how sampling technology might be employed and of how ‘rock' might be transformed, malformed, rejected or renewed by sampling's influence: instead of introducing specific samples as "nods and winks, reference and collage," The Young Gods's sources were "crumpled and charred, blackened, cascading and tumbling into one another." It was an album of stolen, melted-down riffs, sturm-und-drang strings and (French language) metaphysical poetry - and it drew from Stubbs a critical prose more akin to the Futurist manifesto than to routine, rational, marks-out-of-ten reviewing. With The Young Gods, Stubbs claimed,
A giant gulf opens up between THEN and NOW. This is the NEW ELEMENT, a new METAPHYSIC, a rock CONCRETE. Everything - time, the future, the sea, sky and moon - belongs to The Young Gods because they throw everything in. The Young Gods are MASSIVE, TOTAL, UNDIFFERENTIATED, ELEMENTAL, an AVALANCHE, a TRANSFORMATION...
Such sentences and sentiments were of course preposterous and pretentious - but they were also, to my preposterous, pretentious young mind, unaccountably thrilling. In an era when nothing special was presumed to be on the agenda, when it was all too readily accepted that all popular music's great glories and innovations were in the past, when irony, whimsy, or faux-soulful subservience to tradition were deemed adequate qualifications for artistic credibility, here was a bold critical effort to shake off the dust of this settled, moribund contemporary moment, to dismiss the hierarchies, and pieties of the complacent present - and, in concert with the writings of a cluster of fantastically intelligent and talented colleagues, this was a critical effort that was often as extreme and absurd and bewildering as the brilliant music it sought to celebrate.
If I was awakening, then, to a wider world of music, I was also blinking and stumbling towards new ways of thinking about music and developing a half-alert appreciation of the manifold ways to imagine the encounter between music - or art or literature or anything - and criticism. In addition, then, to falling for the extravagant manifesto-making and lurid comic exuberance of David Stubbs's weekly contributions (e.g. "The Butthole Surfers are proof that masturbation, indulgence, investigation of your own arsehole, or even your own entrails, wanton-ness, moral depthlessness, noisy obesity, the sacred, the profane, the obscene, the heavy bass, the hairy guitar solo, are not just permissible, but absolutely crucial just now...") I also swooned over utterly eccentric, surreal and romantic articles by Chris Roberts (who would depart from the commissioned task at every opportunity, composing obsessive, subjective, devotional hymns rather than assembling anything so humdrum as a ‘review'), and I staggered issue-to-issue under the influence of Nietzschian contrarians The Stud Brothers, astonished by their gleeful rejection of common sense and consensus, relishing their high-minded, high-handed nihilism. Above all, though, I became transfixed and transformed by the seductive intelligence and the rich capacity for rapture in the musings of my emerging hero, Simon Reynolds - undoubtedly the most gifted of the Melody Maker writers, and the one whose work would rise most in prominence and influence over subsequent years. Reynolds had - and has- an extraordinary knack for capturing the texture of music in text, articulating and triggering great delight in the sensuous particularity of sound - a talent that gave licence for his critical endeavours at Melody Maker to become less determined by the responsibility of balanced judgement than by the delinquency of delirious enjoyment (‘licence' seems doubly apt: implying both permission and perversity). In this regard, there are telling resemblances to Roland Barthes, who, as Susan Sontag once said,
repeatedly disavows the ... vulgar roles of system builder, authority, mentor, expert, in order to reserve for himself the privileges and freedoms of delectation: the exercise of taste for Barthes means, usually, to praise. What makes the role a choice one is his unstated commitment to finding something new and unfamiliar to praise (which requires having the right dissonance with established taste); or to praising a familiar work differently.3
‘Praising differently' would mean diligently seeking out the non-obvious response; luring ‘criticism' away from received knowledge. As Sontag says succinctly of Barthes's method, "The ‘message' is already received or obsolete. Let's ignore it."4 I very much like, here, the sense that ‘praise' might serve a purpose beyond dutiful professional promotion - beyond the PR function that the critic can be pressed into or tempted towards - and that perhaps, pushed to an excited, sensuous extreme, celebratory writing might have the potential to become something risky, even radical (like Sontag says: praise as dissonance). A corollary of this tendency, moreover, could be that ‘strong' critical writing need not be aggressive. Simon Reynolds's writing, for instance, has certainly always had a ‘muscular' quality - lithe, taut, pulsing with energy and ideas - but his manner has never been macho, his persona in print never one of the domineering, intimidating expert, ever-determined to throw his weight around.
Not that there wasn't, in these Melody Maker articles, plenty of intellectual weight to be reckoned with. The link to Roland Barthes, for example, isn't a forced or incidental one, since it was in reviews, interviews and think-pieces by Reynolds that I not only received my introduction to such essential Barthesian notions as textuality, jouissance and the ‘death of the author', but also encountered for the first time mind-scrambling provocations from the work of Kristeva, Cixous, Derrida and Foucault. My initial experience of ‘theory' was therefore, largely inseparable from the dizzying disorientations of the music eulogized in this treasured magazine (even if, given the time it could take to lay my hands on copies of these raved-about records, it was often the writers' descriptions alone that started my head spinning) with allusions to Barthes and his poststructuralist comrades pointing to a playful but demanding critical language wholly appropriate to the beautiful convulsions I was experiencing as a confused but ecstatic underground pop fan. Such landmark works of continental theory as Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text or Kristeva's The Powers of Horror were, as Reynolds has recently recalled, "texts that seemed to writhe with the same unruly and reality-rearranging energies as the music."5 And in fact, Reynolds suggests, it was precisely the capacity of theory to "intoxicate" that was of most pleasurable, powerful value: "Far from being born of a cold-blooded drive to dissect and demystify, the attraction of critical theory (especially the French kind) was that it set your brain on fire."6
Given the potency of these illicit intellectual substances, it still surprises and pleases me to think that they were, in several ways, so accessible. How amazing it is to remember that this progressive, critically adventurous publication - promoting and pilfering fragments from psychoanalysis, deconstruction and discourse theory - could be picked up each week not in some out-of-the-way radical-bookshop but in my very conservative neighbourhood newsagent's. For at that time, all-too-briefly, Melody Maker was an unorthodox primer in subversive French thought that happened to take the form of a widely available pop magazine. It's worth pointing out, of course, that not all readers were quite so convinced by the more edgy and esoteric contributions - much as, a few years earlier, sales figures of the New Musical Express had drastically tumbled in response to the daring, and often splendidly demented, efforts by Ian Penman, Paul Morley and others to re-make and re-model that rival magazine as an organ of Situationist sloganeering and arch Po-Mo theorizing. (Morley has since been rightly disdainful of music journalism's steady move towards a now-dominant consumer-guide mode, despairing at the "librarian" fogeyness of ever-worthy monthlies like Q and Mojo). But despite inevitable resistance to the Barthes-citing, bliss-seeking style from some hostile readers (who demanded doctrinaire, canon-respecting recommendations and properly ‘objective' analyses), my own imperfect memory is that in 1987, and on into the truly magnificent year of 1988 (Pixies' Surfer Rosa; My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything; Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden; Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation ...) the most impressive of the Melody Maker writing was often elliptical, lyrical, theoretically-informed or highly personal but it wasn't wilfully opaque. Rather, it seemed to me, in a variety of ways, eager to please, eager to engage an audience. Reynolds et al - unlike many academics or art writers today - wrote as if someone, even if only their less theory-inclined colleagues, might actually enjoy reading what they had to say. They wrote as if their abundant enthusiasm might just be communicable - however deconstructive their critical position, however unresolved or contradictory their opinions, however purposefully chaotic their articulations of sensation and intuition - and as if their energetic pursuit of new perspectives might, in fact, change someone else's point of view too. It was galvanizing, then, to gain the sense that criticism could be complex but also committed to at least some version of ‘lucidity', that it could be capable, in an intellectually credible manner, of capturing something of the subjective turbulence and uncertainty of an ‘art' experience while also being convincing and welcoming to non-initiates.
This luminous Melody Maker moment passed quickly, of course - so quickly, perhaps, that it would be foolhardy to suggest that such a fleeting period in the history of a now-defunct magazine could offer anything as concrete as a model for future critical activity. But my nostalgic admiration for the generous editorial policy and risk-taking critical practice of this otherwise quite ‘ordinary' publication remains undimmed (even if what I would choose to celebrate, whether theoretically or artistically, is likely to be a little different today). For this formative fascination with a particularly Dionysian paradigm of music journalism helped to make ‘criticism' itself seem something worth celebrating, just as it has continued to keep open the question of what the ‘proper' place and purpose of criticism might be - and of what ‘improper' thoughts it might yet prompt.
An art-critical coda. ‘Celebration' (so central to these vague memories and barely half-baked speculations) can also be framed as ‘affirmation', and in a recent paper written for the symposium Canvases and Careers today: Criticism and its Markets, George Baker has argued that a "criticism-as-affirmation" is one of the viable "lives" that art criticism might now lead. (Criticism in these terms is seen to be in need of a new lease of life, having been sent into early retirement as a result of the dynamic critical capacities of contemporary curatorship) In any traditional sense, Baker suggests, affirmation is criticism's polar opposite: to merely affirm is to be "non-critical," to avoid the challenges of critique. But affirmation, he says, might also be understood in more positive terms as a mode that "voids criticism's own former functions":
Instead of judgement (good vs. bad), critical affirmation brings something - thought and art - to visibility. It is something like what Boris Groys has recently called a form of ‘phenomenological criticism', a simple making-visible and perceivable of art, as opposed to historicization, judgement or critique. But affirmation is not just a making-visible, but also a making-possible: criticism as affirmation links critical discourse to the art object in the modality of creating a new space of being for the work of art (and for criticism), new possibilities.7
Baker's thesis on art criticism here is strongly influenced by the emphasis on ‘becoming' that is central to the writings of Gilles Deleuze (also an important influence on Simon Reynolds, most particularly as he began to immerse himself in dance music and rave culture during the early 1990s), and Baker quotes admiringly a passage from Deleuze that he once had pinned above his writing desk as an inspirational reminder of his critical goals. Writing should not be about "judging life in the name of a higher authority which would be the good, the true," says Deleuze. Rather "it is a matter of evaluating every being, every action and passion, even every value, in relation to the life they involve." Accordingly, we must aim to see the "good" as "outpouring, ascending life, the kind which knows how to transform itself, to metamorphose itself according to the forces it encounters, and which forms a constantly larger force within them, always increasing the power to live, always opening new ‘possibilities'..."8
In advancing such a critical attitude (and aptitude) a fundamental question for Baker is, nevertheless, how to ‘affirm' in a manner that is not merely instrumental or, more accurately perhaps, how to cultivate a criticism-as-affirmation while acknowledging that the former instrumental roles for art criticism have been usurped. Coupled with an aspiration for criticism is, then, a historically and art-institutionally specific anxiety about its ‘lateness' - the ‘time' of criticism has passed, its redundancy confirmed, so what might critics do now? Baker's hunch is that the art world's cold-shouldering of this once powerful cultural form is to welcomed: only now, shorn of its duties, and shunted to the margins, might criticism re-invent itself, revelling in the freedom of a new-found art-world ‘autonomy'. A "criticism-of-lateness," Baker proposes, might begin to invent new criteria and modes of operation9. "Late criticism," as he calls it - consciously echoing Edward Said's thoughts on "late style" - would be a criticism that seeks to employ "wilfully anachronistic criteria,"10 that would "locate the art and the artist who falls outside of the times."11 It would be, intriguingly, "a criticism of anomalies."12
Given my earlier, stated predilection for forms of criticism that retain some degree of perverse disregard for propriety, I am very taken with Baker's extension of an ‘affirmative' critical attitude through the envisioning of a space, liberated from long-standing responsibilities, of somewhat free(er) intellectual play and production. His notion of a newly ‘autonomous' form of criticism is, I think, interesting and intelligent - but it surely falls short by undervaluing the potential of testing the many live situations of criticism. A real joy of the Melody Maker writing that so delighted and disturbed me as a youth was the combination of an affirmative mode with a pronounced and impertinent sense of context: a sense of being n the right place and utterly out of place all at the same time. And it is perhaps not a space of autonomy that will forge a ‘new' criticism, but the affirmative dynamism of a richer, more profoundly plural sense of criticism's potential relations, audiences and sites of activity.