Monday, April 21, 2008

You know what other trope sucks? Too many parentheticals.

This may be the equivalent of reviewing a Black Crowes album for a certain men's magazine without actually hearing it, as I've never attended the EMP Pop Conference. But since my bread-and-butter seems to be criticism of criticism, I figured what the hell? My perusal through the blogosphere of the wrap-ups of this year's conference has annoyed me, as the common trope this year seems to be about the Great Divide between journalists (yay!) and academics (boo!). Having straddled this divide for quite some time (although, at this point "Academic" has most definitely won out), I find this disconcerting and I want to tease out what the problem is. Isn't it time we all got along?

The main argument seems to be that the academic papers are awash in meaningless jargon, while the journalists' papers are written and argued better. As one rundown notes, "I never want to hear about "praxis," "teleological," and "heteronormative valences" in my presence again." Well, you know what? I never want to hear about "rockist" tendencies, "shambolic guitars" or "angular grooves." These are the "teleological" and "praxis" of the rock-crit trade. Clear writing exists in academia and in music criticism, and maybe the two can learn from each other. I know that in my own experience I've had editors called my record reviews "academic" while some of my academic work has been suggested to be more "magazine-like." These may be (not-so) veiled insults, but I take them to mean that my criticism exists in a frustrating, liminal space. This liminality (uh-oh, academic jargon!) creates a tension that forces a reader to consider the arguments without the formal limitations. If I argue that baseball is a civil religion, should it matter whether that argument is in Sports Illustrated or in a religious studies journal? Shouldn't both arguments be compelling and well researched to be published? I know this is a utopian ideal--a ton of crappy writing and rhetoric gets published in all kinds of places, but if the problem is that the ideas are buried under meaningless words, the criticism goes both ways.

The "academics can't write/present" argument might be one of frustration. Are "we" (nerds!) encroaching on "their" (rock-crit) turf? As more critics make their way to academia, as Carl Wilson notes, does that increase the tension? Is this the actual "conflict and change" that should have been explored at this year's meeting? Again, these are questions I ask from the outside looking in. My perspective is that of an interested outsider. (Full disclosure: I have submitted proposals to the conference a number of times, but have not had a paper accepted.)

This divide is one that has made the EMP a frustrating conference. It seems to want it both ways, as a place where music criticism is given an air of legitimacy, but without any of the rigors of many academic conferences. This year there were many more first-time presenters, which is one step in the right direction. I would really love to see what would happen if for just one year, the conference organizers implemented a blind review process for abstracts. If there is such a concern about "hearing new voices," then why not place everyone on equal footing? Let the ideas be judged, not the connections. Strip out the jargon from both worlds and see what ideas really shine. (As long as it's not guitar sounds. Seriously, sounds cannot shimmer. As a friend once wrote over IM, "THERE ARE NO RAYS OF LIGHT SHOOTING OUT OF GUITARS.")

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