Unlike you, I have never worked as a music critic—I’m a magazine editor, writing when I feel like it. And I have always written as a fan, using reviewing primarily as a means to make me think a little harder and more clearly about why something commands my interest and sometimes stirs what I can only call my love. So, I’m not all that troubled by the corporate aspects of the pop-music biz. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want my sons to grow up to be record execs, but 1) music creation, production, and distribution have not been carried out more freely or more justly by Communists, Democratic Socialists, or theocrats; 2) the music business is no more dreadful or cruel than the art market, the dance world, book publishing, or Hollywood; 3) it is the only one of these systems that extends power of some kind to people of color and those under 25. Technology will do the record biz in as surely as it did in the sheet-music business. Until then, keep the CDs coming.
Your description of the film Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony was vivid and compelling: Your powers as a critic assured that this reader will find a way to see it. That said, it seems to have put you more deeply in touch with a yearning for music to have meaning in (to quote from later in your letter) “a collective sense”—which I take to mean music that challenges the social and political status quo, brings people together, shakes things up. It’s a yearning I’ve never had. Protest music, at least of the Anglo-American sort, has always struck me as mostly corny, insipid, condescending. I vote, and I like to read, meet, and even march about politics, but I did not like at all listening to Steve Earle’s agit-folk Jerusalem. (America with a “k”?!?) And in a world that has recently enough witnessed genocides promoted in part by a Rwandan folk singer and a rock-fest in downtown Belgrade featuring Serbian prog-rock bands belting out anti-Muslim anthems, I’ll keep my collective utopian musical experiences on the smallish side. This year, as for the past few years, that has meant a first Thursday night of the month or two down at S.O.B’s for a few hours of “Basement Bhangra”—the DJs mixing their Punjabi folk-dance music and hip-hop, and the Sikhs and B-boys and computer geeks squeezed on the dance floor with women unafraid of being hit on. The American Experiment doesn’t get any steamier or bubblier!
I, too, had one powerful music experience at the movies this year: watching Caetano Veloso singing an old Mexican song at a party in Pedro Almodóvar’s lovely and provocative new film, Talk to Her. And this gets me back to my essentially being a fan. Caetano is one of those artists by whom I want to hear everything, not least because one of the many pleasures I derive from his music is its very unfolding, over time, over years. The departures and recapitulations, album to album; the sonic and thematic leaps; the way his voice changes; the way listening to this new song sends me back to listen to that old one; the way all this gets me pleasurably thinking and re-thinking, and moves me—this, I believe, is how most music lovers relate to what you called “discrete units of sellable sound.” And, like most fans, I’ve got my dozen or so artists who I’m on these terms with and whose releases any given year matter to me, whether or not the particular album was a great one. So, this year, for example, I was happy to wade through Björk’s Family Tree box set. Those classically arranged tracks and that song she composed on her flute when she was 15 have me hearing fresh things in Vespertine, which is to my mind the best album of 2001. And I am eagerly anticipating next spring’s scheduled release of a new album by Radiohead, who matter to me maybe more than anyone else making music just now—and whose Kid A (my favorite album of 2000) seemed to have mattered a lot to Joseph Arthur, whose Redemption’s Son you (and I) have been charmed by.
And right up there for me with Radiohead (and Björk and Polly Jean Harvey) among the thirtysomethings is Beck. I’m running out of space here, and I pretty much said all I have to say about Sea Change in a Slate piece in September, but I will say the record has not quit on me—that it still strikes me as the most finely crafted and sustained album of his career; that it still makes me feel so melancholy (which I like); and that it’s something I’d declare without hesitation the year’s Best Discrete Unit of Sellable Sound.