by Alexa Weinstein on April 28, 2011
After I sent out a link to this blog in November and just before I dropped it like a stone for five months, my dad talked to me about it at length. He had read the entire blog four times through. I was surprised and touched to discover this. He had put quite a bit of time and energy into reading my blog, and it seemed that much of it had been spent worrying a question he was unable to answer.
“I love the writing, it’s just… okay, you know I don’t care about the music. But even if I did, why would I want to read this? Let’s say I’m reading about a game I missed. I want to know what happened in the game. But why would I care about what you were thinking and feeling when you were watching the game? Why would anyone want to read that?”
This is a real question, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to answer it. After wandering aimlessly through various fruitless arguments about the popularity of creative nonfiction, memoir, blogs, reality TV, and all things meta, I have returned to his game metaphor. I kind of like it.
My dad is the kind of person who wants to know what happened in the game. I am the kind of person who could not care less about what happened in the game. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine anything more inherently boring than the game itself. To me, all sports are the same—they are all just various forms of sportsball. Whatever. But if my rad nine-year-old niece who has fallen in love with soccer is playing a regular weekend game with her team, or if Billie Jean King is playing a tennis match in 1973 against Bobby Riggs after he mouthed off and said a bunch of sexist bullshit about being able to beat her because she’s a woman even though he’s 55 and she’s a 29-year-old champion at the top of her game, then yes, I am absolutely interested in every moment of the game. And while I would rather swallow glass than watch a reel of sports highlights, I would absolutely sit with a stranger for two hours and listen with fascination as they talked about their passionate love of watching, or playing, sportsball. I am wholly uninterested in the game per se, and exclusively, solely interested in the thoughts and feelings of the person who cares about it.
Similarly, I am not at all interested in fashion itself—who is wearing what, etc.—but I am fascinated by my friend Minh-Ha’s awesome blog, Threadbared, where she and another scholar dissect constructions of race, gender, class, and otherness in the fashion world. I love listening to my plant-savvy friends talk about the various medicinal and spiritual uses of plants they love, but I feel no desire to learn to make tinctures or flower essences myself, or to learn the names of aaaaaaaaaall those plants. I love reading essays where people proclaim their deep personal love of perennials, or stamp collecting, or Civil War reenactments. And I once played a game of Dungeons and Dragons that lasted all day, not because I had any interest in the game itself—it takes less time for a towel to dry than it takes for a character in D&D to walk down a goddamn hallway—but because I was married to someone who loved role-playing games and I wanted to understand that love.
I have to thank my dad, because all of this has helped me to understand, in a new way, my long-time disappointment with music criticism. It seems, at first, as though my feelings about music criticism should be entirely unlike my feelings about sportsball commentary, because I DO care about music itself. I care about it a great deal. But in truth, many of the details about music that are interesting to fellow rock nerds—who was producing, what kind of weird homemade amp the guitarist was using, where the singer was born, what label originally released the song as a 7-inch—are not interesting to me in themselves. They become interesting only in the context of a larger story. I care about the fact that Mo Tucker wasn’t there when the Velvet Underground recorded and toured Loaded, but the part I care about is that the band replaced its drummer rather than waiting for her to have her baby, and I doubt they would have done that if they’d had a male drummer and he’d been in the hospital recovering from a motorcycle accident, and I feel conflicted about it because I love Loaded but I kind of want to boycott it in defense of Mo, and I wonder how she felt while all of this was happening, and when I’m listening to the album I am often wondering how the songs might have been different with her on drums. But when the conversation then turns to other VU-related trivia, without a larger story or someone’s particular interest behind it, I get sleepy immediately. In the end, even when I’m passionate about the subject itself, the angle on the subject that interests me most is the thoughts and feelings of the people who care about it.
When I’m reading rock criticism, I am always looking for this—the personal take, the individual passionate reaction—and it’s very hard to find. But I think this is because the assumed audience of rock criticism is the rock & roll version of my dad. The reader who just wants to know what happened in the game and not what I was thinking when I was watching it is the same as the reader who just wants the facts about a band: where they’re from, what their basic biographies are, how to categorize them according to various genres, what the critical consensus is on their quality, and how many albums they are selling. I feel much less embattled about this than I used to. Some people care more about getting information, which is legitimate, and other people care more about interior reactions to information, which is equally legitimate (but, I would argue, less valued in our culture). Each of us falls somewhere on this spectrum, and we bounce all around it, depending on the context and the subject. I may be unusual in my strong and wide-ranging preference for interior reactions to information over the information itself, but I’m not entirely alone in the world, and I don’t even think I’m all that weird.
Other people who are like me, what do you call yourselves? What is the flag of this nation? (I don’t want to hear any crap from haters—no one who has ever responded to this blog is a hater, but some hater out there might find it!—about solipsism or navel gazing. I absolutely do not believe that a concern with interiority reveals a lack of concern for other people in the world, and I often find that people who spend a lot of time contemplating interiority have a genuine devotion to the greater good. I think the automatic accusation of navel gazing is a kneejerk argument on the same fifth-grade level as that old chestnut “Why are you so angry?” in response to any naming of sexism, racism, or homophobia.) If you dig interiority, how do you think and talk about it?
After spending some time on Threadbared, I am tempted to get academic for a second, though my academic mechanisms are hella rusty. Two thoughts are creaking through the wheels. On second thought, they aren’t even thoughts, just words that feel like they might be useful. 1. Discourse. I’m more interested in discourse itself than I am in most of the subjects that give rise to it, especially the kind of discourse that “is carried out within a variety of traditions that investigate the relations between language, structure and agency, including sociology, feminist studies, anthropology, ethnography, cultural studies, literary theory, and the philosophy of science.” What up, Wikipedia! I care about a person’s thoughts and feelings about sportsball or perennials or music because I’m interested in the relations between language, structure, and agency that are revealed when they talk about their own relationship to the subject they love. 2. Phenomenology. I have a crush on phenomenology, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines as “the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning (which represents the object) together with appropriate enabling conditions.” What I care about is the structure of first-person consciousness, the intentionality of an experience. The object around which that structure is built could really be anything. Even sportsball.
Finally, and in conclusion, I want to make some emphatic epistolary proclamations.
Dear humans: I care about your thoughts and feelings, even when they are occasioned by subjects and events that are not of particular interest to me!
Dear Dad: I have tried my best to answer your question!
Dear music writers and fans: I know we’re supposed to talk about the music and leave ourselves out of it, but I for one am much more interested in why and how you love the music you do, and I do want to hear about the first-person structure of consciousness through which you intentionally experience music!
Dear lovely readers of this blog: my goal is not so much to tell you about specific music—you can hear about it so many other places—but to communicate some part of my interior experience in relation to music, in the hope that you might be interested even if you don’t care about the subject of music per se, and when I fail to do this it is my failure as a writer, not the failure of interior experience to be as important as information!
P.S. Sorry I had to talk myself back into believing in this blog by writing a post that was not exactly about music. But, you know, see above. (For the record, my crisis of faith was caused not by my dad’s question, but by larger questions about my relationship to writing, communication, and life in general.)
P.P.S. Goodbye Poly Styrene. You and your braces were so fucking beautiful. As a teenager, you had the voice of ten grown women. In honor of where you’re going, here’s Mo Tucker to drum you out as you exit, with all of us standing to cheer. (Sorry about the visuals. Headphones recommended!)