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Autobiography in Music Criticism

There is a sense in which music critics cannot help but speak their past when they pass judgment on music, for their judgment is itself a product of that past.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #44, June 1999

I know a lot of people who disdain the use of the first-person in music criticism, particularly when it moves beyond declarations of taste — "I liked it" or "I hated it" — into the realm of storytelling — "This is what I was doing when I first heard this band" or "I remember the time I saw this performer in a tiny club before anybody knew who she was." Looking at the title of this piece, such people will hope that it is a denunciation. They would like me to excoriate critics for getting away from the music, for getting self-indulgent, for forgetting their rightful place. Unfortunately, I have to disappoint them, for it is precisely this prejudice against first-person music criticism that I wish to confront here.

I'll begin with some history. For the sake of useful over-simplification, I am identifying two periods in which the use of autobiography in music criticism has been most pronounced. The first dates back to the early 1970s, when music critics like Lester Bangs exploited the same autobiographical mode as Hunter S. Thompson and other writers of so-called "non-fiction." In this era of experimentation, the illusory effect of the critic's "objectivity" was called into question to an unprecedented extent. Not coincidentally, this was also the era in which many writers in the first-world literary scene had shifted from explicit political engagement to a "new subjectivity." Although Bangs wrote a famous essay titled "James Taylor Marked for Death" critiquing the musical equivalent of this inward turn, he was more closely connected to it than he would have liked to admit. Bangs' profligate invocation of the "I" can easily be read as one response, however deviant, to the post-60s maxim "The personal is political."

Writers like Bangs got their start in the underground press of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the second major wave of autobiographical music criticism has similar origins. The punk and post-punk scenes of the late 1970s and early 1980s provided an impetus for personal criticism. But it wasn't until the late 1980s and early 1990s — the era of "alternative culture" before its fall from grace — that the second wave came on really strong. By then, the increased clout of alternative weeklies — many of which date back to the '60s counter-culture — and the ascendancy of "zine" culture had made it possible for a lot people to write regularly about music in less formal, more personal ways. Although mainstream newspapers and magazines continued to publish reviews and articles written in a third-person, "objective" style, first-person writing that foregrounded the subjective quality of its author's opinions no longer seemed so strange. These days, it has become almost normal for writers in Rolling Stone and Spin to place themselves within the scene that they are describing as "participant observers." While popular music is undergoing one of its periodic recessions, I do not believe that this second wave of first person music criticism has come to an end. In other words, there are still opportunities for music critics to make the most of it.

I think there are good reasons for music critics to make their writing more autobiographical. This may seem counter-intuitive, considering the objections that many have to first-person criticism. But it is exactly this resistance to the use of the "I" that motivates my conclusions. Fans of popular music invest an extraordinary amount of energy — and money — in the music they love. They are passionate about it. While it is true that people can feel passionate about the books they read, the TV shows they watch, and the films they see, I believe that music is particularly conducive to inspiring passion. The reason for this is simple. Music lends itself to repetitive consumption. It is unlikely that most people will read the same book, or watch the same episode of a TV show, or see the same film more than five times. Yet it is completely normal for even casual listeners to hear the same song many times in a single week. When a book like The Lord of the Rings or a TV show like Star Trek or a film like Casablanca becomes the object of cultish devotion, it has attained a status that is normal for popular songs. We may give our favorite book ten readings, but will listen to one of our favorite songs hundreds or even thousands of times.

The secret to understanding the power and possibility of music criticism is to be found in this repetition, the fact that songs are not merely heard, but are heard over and over and over. What happens when Jim listens repeatedly to a favorite song? The song remains the same. Yet Jim is affected in some way. He is happy to hear it again, sad because it reminds him of an ex-boyfriend who has passed away, or annoyed because he never liked it to begin with. In this sense, listening to music is not an action, but a passion. When we hear a song, it is we who are transformed, not the music. This is what makes repetitive consumption so interesting. I may think that I'm the center of my music universe, that the songs I love orbit around me like so many planets. But it doesn't work that way. Relative to those songs, it is I who am in motion, each song a sun to revolve around. It is my songs that center me. When I hear McFadden and Whitehead's Philly soul classic "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" on my local V-Town AM radio station, I remember walking the picket lines with my fellow graduate-student employees at UC-Berkeley with the song distorting out of a boombox. I remember the avocado-green '45 I purchased from the "black" record store in a Maryland strip mall back in 1979. I remember hearing the song blare out of countless sports arenas in the 1980s. Hearing songs in a new context makes them sound different. But it is I who have changed, not the songs. They are the fixed points of reference with which I measure how far I've come and how long it has taken me to get there.

author In recent years, intellectuals have paid a great deal of attention to questions of identity. Building on psychoanalysis and post-structuralism, theorists like Judith Butler have sought to show how not only our sense of self, but the self to which it refers is a function of language. I don't have the time to explain their work in much detail here — I do discuss it at greater length in my article "Useful Fictions" — but I want point to out that they place great emphasis on the role that repetition plays in the stabilizing of identity. The basic premise is that identities are prone to disintegrate unless they are reinforced regularly. For example, a woman's identity as a "woman" depends on her being reminded that she is one. Or, as Butler puts it, "woman" is itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or end.

According to arguments of this sort, people think that they "are" members of a particular category of identity — that they are "women," "homosexuals," or "Asian-Americans" — because they are always being "called" to identify themselves with it. It is commonplace to speak of people who have "found their calling." This phrase is normally applied to a person's work. Theorists like Judith Butler turn it on its head, implying that to be "anything" at all is to have found — or been forced to find — a "calling" and made it one's own, to have responded to the cacophony of directives, both explicit and implicit, that bombard us in our daily lives: pleas from advertisers, demands from our parents, orders from our teachers, suggestions from our friends — the list goes on and on. Some directives are more forceful than others, but it is deceptive to think of them in isolation. The work they perform takes time. The call must go out over and over in order for people to take it to heart and know that it's directed at them. Repetition is integral to identity formation, because identities can only be secured through an endless construction project.

There is clearly a sense in which popular songs "call" listeners to a particular identity. In fact, a large percentage of the work in cultural studies is founded on this assumption. But I think there is something else going on when we listen to popular songs. We are much more conscious of the music we listen to than we are of the words and images we take in passively. I may get the message "Be a real man" in hundreds of forms throughout the course of a single day, but the vast majority of them will be indirect. Unless I've had considerable training in "reading the signs," and unless I make an effort to reflect on the directives calling me to act like the person I'm supposed to be, I'm unlikely to realize that I'm getting the message in the first place. Listening to music is different. We choose to listen to particular songs or a particular radio station. And, while the messages in a song may be indirect and possibly unknown to its performer, the song itself is direct to the extent that we realize we're listening to it.

burroughs Because songs are fixed points of reference, because we relate to them through repetitive consumption, and because we are conscious that we are listening to them, they lend themselves particularly well to explorations of identity. There is a lot of talk these days about the ways in which our identities "oppress" us. Yet it is hard to imagine that all identities are bad. If there weren't so much incentive to have stable identities, people would be much less likely to find a calling and make it their own. No matter how much our identities constrain us, they also provide us with security. Although they frequently seem like prisons, they do provide a kind of home. Conversely, most people experience a great deal of unpleasureable tension when they aren't sure who or what they are. Our identities bring us pleasure as well as pain, for without them we would experience the distress that comes with mental "homelessness."

This is the key to understanding the importance of music criticism. The pleasures we derive from listening to music are inextricably bound up with the pleasures of identity. I'm convinced that the animosity fans direct at music critics can be explained by this relationship between music and identity. If the music we listen to plays a significant role in stabilizing our identities — I know who I am because I hear a favorite song and remember who I was — and if our music "fixes" us in a particular place within the social order, then it is only logical that we should have strong feelings about words that interfere with our listening. So long as music criticism lavishes praise on the music we love, we like it. We are pleased with it until it forces us to interrogate our pleasure. But when it makes us regard a favorite song in an unfavorable light, we start getting upset. For it is not just the song that we must re-evaluate, but ourselves.

If everybody had the same taste, we wouldn't have to experience the displeasure that comes when a music critic dislikes a band that means a lot to us. We also wouldn't need music critics. We need criticism because we are different from one another. This brings me to the topic of taste-preferences. Whatever else they do, music critics are expected to pass judgment on the music they write about. Music critics who are self-conscious about this task face a profound dilemma. On the one hand, they have the authority to make pronouncements about the relative value of a song, band, or album. On the other hand, they cannot help but realize how their own taste contributes to the formation of taste pure and simple, taste that pretends to be absolute in some sense, autonomous from the opinions of individuals. In other words, these critics are aware that they are authorities. They recognize that they have the upper hand within what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes as the field of "struggles between agents who are unequally equipped to reach an absolute, that is, self-verifying vision."

Bourdieu's analysis of taste illuminates what's at stake here. He reminds us of the constraints our social order imposes on consumption. The choices consumers make cannot be divorced from their relative position within that order. As Bourdieu puts it, people "classify themselves, expose themselves to classification, by choosing, in conformity with their tastes." In sum, "this means that nothing classifies somebody more than the way she or he classifies." No expression of taste originates outside of power relations. Individuals are not simply free to choose what they like and dislike. Rather, the choices available to them are largely determined by how they are positioned, by their class, gender, sexual preference etc.

derek walcott Analyzing taste in this way allows us to unmask all pretense of disinterestedness. Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to do this at the abstract level of theory than it is in the practice of music criticism. The advantage of writing in the first-person is that it makes it possible to do so without resorting to complex theoretical formulations. But there's more involved than merely shifting from the third-person to the first-person. If the word "I" is not linked to any context, first-person criticism can sound every bit as authoritative as criticism from which all traces of personality have been effaced. Gods, after all, usually speak in the first-person. It is only when the first-person is coupled with autobiography that the author's social position comes into focus. We need to know more than a music critic's taste in music. We need to know where that taste in music comes from. Every person's taste has a history.

In discussing the function of psychoanalytic therapy, Jacques Lacan emphasizes that it is a talking cure. Patients come to self-understanding by telling their stories. He writes that if a particular event has been "recognized as the cause of the symptom," it is only "because the putting into words of the event (in the patient's 'stories') determined the lifting of the symptom." But it isn't enough for patients to merely talk about themselves. Lacan makes a sharp distinction between mere "recounting," in which the patient can reel off memories without coming to any awareness of their meaning, and "remembering," in which the process of integrating those memories into a story makes them meaningful. In doing the latter, the patient "brings back into present time the origin of her or his person."

Interestingly, Lacan uses a theatrical metaphor to clarify this point. Although the patient remembers her or his past "with all the animation of the actor," that past seems "like an indirect discourse, isolated in quotation marks within the thread of the narration and, if the discourse is played out, is on a stage implying the presence not only of the chorus, but also of spectators." To put this more simply, patients must "play" or "perform" themselves as characters in their own life stories. This makes those characters seem strangely detached. it give them the appearance of objects divided off from the subjects who speak of them. It is this process of self-estrangement that Lacan considers to be the goal of therapy. Building on Lacan's work, film theorist Kaja Silverman describes this process as "assuming one's history."

There are obvious differences between therapy and music criticism. But I think there is a sense in which music criticism can function as a kind of therapy, both for the person who writes it and the people who read it. Music critics who use autobiographical details in their criticism put their own taste-preferences in context. This affects their readers in two different ways. As I have already noted, it helps make them aware that the music critic's position of authority does not make her or him an arbiter of absolute taste. In this sense, autobiographical music criticism can be described as "consciousness-raising."

There is also a flip side to this process. When we read first person writing, we realize at a conscious level that their is a disjunction between the person who did the writing and the person who is doing the reading. But as linguist Emile Benveniste points out, "I" is a strange word. It only makes sense within the immediate context in which it is used. It is not bound to any particular person. For this reason, texts in which the word "I" is prevalent solicit identification with peculiar intensity. When I read a piece of music criticism written in the first-person, even though I know that the "I" is meant to signify the critic who wrote the piece, the abstractness of the word "I," the fact that it refers to no one in particular, makes it much easier for me to confuse its meaning at a less conscious level, to feel that it refers to me as well as the critic, or even instead of the critic. This confusion is most likely to arise when there is some correspondence between the critic's taste-preferences and my own. Still, I would argue that there's always a tendency for this confusion to occur when the word "I" enters the picture.

In light of this capacity for readers to identify themselves strongly with first person writing, the therapeutic dimension to autobiographical music criticism becomes a lot more interesting. Music fans find it distinctly unpleasureable to read criticism that runs counter to their own taste-preferences. But what do they feel when they identify with a music critic who actively seeks to show the particularity of her or his own taste-preferences? I can't claim to have a definitive answer to this question. Nevertheless, I'm willing to bet the experience is confusing in a good way. It's not that the reader's own taste-preferences are being measured against an apparently absolute standard of taste. Rather, on some level the reader must confront the realization that taste-preferences are relative to the social position of the person who holds them.

For Kaja Silverman, assuming one's history is bound up with acknowledging the particularity of one's "passion for the signifier." The signifier could be just about anything that has become meaningful in a person's life: a shoe, a handbag, a certain slant of light. For the purposes of this article, it is easiest to think of it as a song, such as "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." However universal the structure of the passion for the signifier may be, every person experiences it in a slightly different way. It is conditioned by nation, class, race, and gender, but also by more specific factors such as family, locality, and education. And this particularity of a person's passion for the signifier is what determines her or his taste-preference. In a sense, people assume their history by acknowledging the particularity of their taste-preferences instead of projecting them onto others. Silverman argues that this is the step we must take if we are to take advantage of the little freedom we have to make our future different from our past. Broadly speaking, we can never avoid repeating the past, for it is only through repetition that we have an identity in the first place. The idea is to repeat the past with a difference by realizing that we are repeating it. We do this, not by reliving the past, but by "remembering" in the manner Lacan describes, by making it into a story. Silverman calls this "performative repetition." As she puts it, "I perform myself with the way I speak my past."

There is a sense in which music critics cannot help but speak their past when they pass judgment on music, for their judgment is itself a product of that past. But there are different ways of speaking it. When music critics fail to acknowledge the particularity of their passion for the signifier, they magnify their own authority at their readers expense. The result is a criticism perfectly suited to informing people what to buy. If I want direction in my life, I go to a person with the power to give directives. This power comes from a number of places. In the context of music criticism, it is a function not only of a writer's experience — the schools she attended, the shows he had the privilege to attend, the scene in which she was able to participate — but of the publications for which she or he writes. Different magazines and newspapers confer different kinds of authority on the writers they publish. While a fan of independent art rock might turn to Puncture magazine for consumer advice, a devotee of West Coast rap would look instead to Murder Dog. The more readers value a particular publication, the more willing they are to take its recommendations seriously.

The deployment of autobiography in music criticism will certainly not stop this from happening. People will still decide what to buy after reading their favorite publications. But I do think that autobiography has the potential to unsettle the music industry a bit. The use of the first-person can certainly be self-indulgent. Yet when it is coupled with an attempt to contextualize the pronouncements of the "I," it helps to bridge the divide between writer and reader. It can alert consumers to the fact that the person providing consumer advice does so, not on the basis of absolute standards of taste, but on the basis of a particular passion for the signifier. By making us conscious of their own authority, music critics who write autobiographically have the potential to reshape our sense of who has a right to speak authoritatively about music.

Charlie Bertsch teaches at the University of Arizona. He is working on a book that explores the relationship between post-WWII American literature and political theory. His own fitful attempts at music criticism can be found on the Bad Subjects website. He welcomes your comments. Contact him at

Copyright © 1999 by Charlie Bertsch. Drawings Mike Mosher 1999. All rights reserved.