In Defense of Love and Criticism

Cause I'm a Man Tame Impala‘Cause I’m a man, woman / don’t always think before I do” sings Kevin Parker on one of the latest singles from Tame Impala’s forthcoming album Currents. On the surface, it seems as if Parker is embracing the old “boys will be boys” mentality. Some may even go as far as to call this song misogynistic. But, for me, Parker’s velvety falsetto suggests only a sense of playfulness, affection, even vulnerability. Either way, I love this song unconditionally. I can’t stop singing. I can’t stop dancing.

Parker describes the song as “tongue-in-cheek,” but in a recent interview with Under the Radar, it is clear that he’s not yet comfortable talking about these songs, and he seems particularly sensitive to how people may interpret this one:

“When I say it’s tongue-in-cheek, I’m not saying it’s insincere. The apology is sincere, but the excuse of saying, “Oh, it’s because I’m a man” is the tongue-in-cheek bit. I hope people don’t see it as sexist in any way. That would upset me, but I wouldn’t put it past people to interpret it like that because people have wack interpretations of things sometimes.”

In addition to the content concerns of some of these songs, Parker also worries that, because Currents takes a hard turn from 2012’s Lonerism, these songs will struggle to find an audience. He has always made it clear that Tame Impala is not a “guitar rock thing” and has never once concealed his love for pop artists, particularly Kylie Minogue. Nevertheless, in response to “‘Cause I’m a Man,” many are already asking, where are all the guitars?

“Do any of you wish they would make something punchier with fuzzy guitars and crazy drums like Apocalypse Dreams?” one YouTube listener asked.

“I’d rather see this released as an EP or a different project instead of under the Tame Impala name—not only is it a different style, but it’s missing the change of pace, groove, and melodies that the earlier work has,” another stated.

Kevin Parker has continuously dismissed the opinions people form about his music. He has been most resistant to those who have applauded Tame Impala for bringing back the Seventies or moving forward with the music of Led Zeppelin. After the release of Lonerism in 2012, Parker confessed to Vulture’s Zach Dionne that he doesn’t pay attention to the reviews of his music.

“No one’s going to really get your music the way that you get it. Even they’re trying to be positive, like, ‘Aww, Tame Impala: They really know how to dig up those classics and rock out with delay pedals’—Well, that’s not really what it’s about, but thanks anyway…That world [music criticism], for me, has gotten further and further away from the idea of falling in love with music.”

Typically, I don’t have much patience for those “they just don’t understand me” kind of arguments nor insistent rejections of critical acclaim or deserved success, no matter how sincere these statements may be. However, Parker’s discussion of love has made me reexamine my own approach to criticism. As a music critic, I spent a lot of time thinking about music—how it sounded, what it was made of, what it should have been compared to, etc.—but I realize that, in the process of critiquing the music, I rarely allowed myself to fall in love with it. In fact, when I first began writing music reviews in college, I was under the impression that music criticism involved objectivity—as if music critics possessed some godly power to distinguish a good album from a bad one. I also assumed that my personal response to the music was fairly insignificant. I used to listen to albums over and over again, trying to figure out if I was listening to them “the right way.” I walked away from these albums both confused and depressed. Only now do I understand that criticism and objectivity are not good companions, and I feel rather silly having not understood this sooner.

Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed Dean of American Rock Critics, holds no trust for an objective critic. In the introduction to his memoir Going into the City, he writes:

“I write what I’m proud to designate my journalism as a specific individual whose identity is out front, a thinking human being with all the contradictions, limitations, and biases mortality entails.”

Christgau has explained criticism as an expression of “aesthetic insight, moral passion, and palpable delight,” among other things. Furthermore, he refers to criticism as the act of “conjuring order and beauty” from whatever order and beauty the artist has created from nothing. In other words, criticism is a statement of appreciation—of course it involves judgment, too. As I continue to define what music criticism means for me, I find myself looking to Christgau’s explanation, especially those concepts of “moral passion” and “palpable delight”. I see moral passion as whatever we value in music, whatever we are willing to demand of it. And palpable delight, I see it as the love Kevin Parker was talking about.

Too often I read reviews that seem more like press-releases. Some are painfully ostentatious or simply cruel (beyond the point of mere exaggeration). Others are lifeless, dry discussions of technical aspects of the music or crowded with lofty, usually unmerited, comparisons, i.e. Father John Misty is the next Bob Dylan or Jim James is the next Jesus Christ. What I appreciate in Christgau’s reviews is that, while laden with sarcasm, he always involves his immediate and personal reaction to the music. The music critic Ellen Willis (Christgau’s former lover) was always direct and intelligent in her writing. And I think she possessed an even greater understanding of “palpable delight” than Christgau. She understood how music affects us both emotionally and physically. She also understood music as part of history, part of culture—the fantasy it conjured or how it progressed from one thing to the next. Not only were Willis and Christgau critics, they were adoring fans. Being an adoring fan allowed Ellen Willis to believe that the Rolling Stones never made a bad album. It allowed Christgau to forgive Television for borrowing from Foghat when he deemed Marquee Moon The Greatest Album of All Time. I think they both understood that criticism was never intended to be wholly separate from love.

I have been playing “‘Cause I’m a Man” endlessly for days now. I love it’s sugary, smooth, and infectious melody. I love the soft groove of the bass and all the intricate percussive effects. I love that I catch myself with the chorus in my head and the satisfaction I get from the sudden impulse to sing it—when I’m in line at the grocery or when I’m driving downtown. I love how I didn’t have to think about loving it—I just did. My response was “palpable delight.”

I wonder if this is a kind of love that Kevin Parker would be willing to accept, something he could read in a review. Or is everything committed in writing—whether it’s from someone he “doesn’t know very well” or “someone from a newspaper from the other side of the world”— problematic? Partly, I think that if Kevin Parker were to read this piece, he would tell me that I have something wrong or that I don’t understand what he is doing. Parker may be right when he says music criticism is moving further away from the idea of love, but I suspect that many musicians are moving further away from the understanding of how to be loved.

 

 

 

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