A Future for Music Criticism: Lessons from Mark Fisher
Words by Ben Richards
In music reviews what the reader typically gets is a subjective view of the artist’s achievement in music composition, a bit of context for the work within the artist’s career, and comparisons within the genre/s they are affiliated with. However, assuming you’re striving to endorse a record, to entice a reader to become a listener you must be able to appeal to both their personal interests and the broad social context in which they are a part of. This is fundamental for music criticism of today. The well-established tropes of music journalism are to write about expectation, achievement, and contrasts. Furthermore, these criteria are not only applicable to music journalism but a broader debate on society.
"Fundamentally, how does the music make you feel?"
Criticality in music journalism is also rooted in being attentive to the emotions attached to musical characteristics. Fundamentally, how does the music make you feel? This, however, creates a writing style that relies on a paradoxical combination of subjectivity and objectivity. Music journalists are aware of the tones and timbres, beats and motifs, that formulate the stereotypical sonic aesthetic for a piece to be aggressive, relaxing, tear jerking, sexual, et cetera. However, to determine if these emotive tools are utilised well is solely down to the individual. Although subjectivity and personal thought are of course crucial, for music to be accessible it is worth considering its socio-political relevance.
For future music criticism to be more accessible and to be more critical, there must be a greater understanding of the society and time that the music is born out of. An example of this is best exhibited and encouraged in the writing of the late Mark Fisher, whose writing collages critical theory and music criticism together to form a highly intuitive, entertaining, and tantalising documentation of society - using music criticism as a vehicle for a larger, more complex debate.
"Fisher established that records are a product of their own time, their own contemporaneity, and their own politics"
I was first exposed to the work of Mark Fisher thanks to an Amazon recommendation whilst purchasing a hefty anthology of writings by political theorists and avant-garde artists. Thus placing Fisher’s provocative analysis of our cultures and political critique right next to the work of highly critical minds like Guy Debord. So not a bad introduction. The book that Amazon recommended was Capitalist Realism, which is often considered Fisher’s most commendable work of critical theory. What initially seems to be a pamphlet of critical writing on the cultural elements of contemporary capitalism and their relationship with the political ideology itself, quickly becomes a far more personal and emphatic exhibition of a sheer talent for weaving music and pop culture into a digestible critical writing.
Fisher’s hugely influential K-Punk blog is where this is best exhibited. K-Punk presents the constant critique of music through the filter of cultural understanding. This style of writing not only shaped the manner in which music journalists write about music and how cultural theorists write about culture but teaches music makers that their creative output is a matter of socio-political criticality. Fundamentally asking, what does this work say about society? And how does it have any meaning to somebody today? In this, Fisher established that records are a product of their own time, their own contemporaneity, and their own politics.
"It would seem that the feeling that binds us in our own individual creativity today is to consider what our collective lost future is"
Another reason for Fisher’s significance in the future of music criticism is his use of the philosophical concept of hauntology. In Fisher’s writing, hauntology refers to the feeling that we are in an era that has lost our future, or more accurately: the future having been cancelled. Fisher, and critics alike, such as Simon Reynolds, suggested that music after the early 90’s, the post-Thatcher era of capitalism, was found to emulate a haunting remanence of what was once a utopian future. Where was the future that we had been promised by sci-fi movies?
For Fisher, a feeling of lost futures can be found in a variety of music. For example: the clashing serenity and bleakness of Burial’s debut album (a particular favourite of Fisher’s), and in the fact that every lyric of Kurt Cobain’s is a cliché of rebellious music (and his own acknowledgement of this cliché is also a cliché), or even the paradoxical sense of a past pleasure (as opposed to future pleasure) in the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘I Gotta Feeling’. It would seem that the feeling that binds us in our own individual creativity today is to consider what our collective lost future is. What were we expecting from our future and what does it feel like is lost?
"In times of mass socio-political division, we turn to the critical minds of our era to offer hope and understanding"
The future of music criticism will be reliant on not only a critique of the sonic aesthetic of a record but also on an understanding of the zeitgeist that formed the music. In times of mass socio-political division, we turn to the critical minds of our era to offer hope and understanding. Music and criticism of it will, as they have before, act as a crucial component of this. So, in true Fisher style, let us be critical of the music we make and hear, be critical of what we write and read, and be critical of the cultures we are exposed to.