The Melting Pot is a recurring feature where I cover miscellaneous topics related to country music.
As I’ve stated before, I think music criticism is at its best when it’s personal – when you understand where the writer behind the screen is coming from in regards to explaining their connection, or lack of. It’s what, to me, explains the appeal of YouTube critics. Tone matters in conveying sentiments, and it’s easier to say what you want to say and how you want to say it there without it getting misconstrued; I just love and prefer the general ease of writing so much more. Really, I think good musical discussions will resonate no matter the medium, so long as they’re honest and passionate.
So for those that care, I’ve developed something of an “insurance policy” for this blog, a way of communicating my general thoughts toward the writing process and how I approach it, perhaps to erode common stereotypes that surround “critics” (or try my damnedest to, at least), or perhaps to reveal some of my own personal quirks in the process. Niche, I know, but perhaps you’ll find something relatable in there yourself, as a fan and lover of music.
1. Subjectivity Always Wins Out Over Objectivity
I strongly dislike when music critics – or, as I just like to call them (us?), thinkers – approach their discussions from a condescending viewpoint; one that talks down to the reader or assumes that there’s some hierarchy in which they assume they have access to this exclusive piece of music that the reader doesn’t. If that sounds confusing, I’ll discuss it more later on. For our current purposes, I’m referring to just one supposed role of the critic – to offer an objective viewpoint of what they’re listening to and communicate to the reader, as if they’re some connoisseur in cultural importance or a guide for people who need to know how to think about music.
Granted, I do think there’s a way to approach certain discussions objectively, perhaps for historical analysis or to explain the widespread appeal of something (among other examples, of course), but those discussions can’t be had until more subjective ones come into play, where people tap into why they do or don’t connect with something. There are no guilty pleasures – there’s always a reason for you like what you like, and it’s sometimes impossible to tap into or focus on what triggers that emotive response in others.
Plus, with the wide-open tent presented to us through streaming services and the like, it’s tough to find actual consensus on anything now. I know that even just from mostly reviewing country music. No matter what, though, while sometimes the technical elements – the hook, the instrumentation, the lyricism, etc. – provide a good explanation for our likes and dislikes, it’s so much more interesting to hear the raw, personal aspects of that connection. That’s what fuels music’s power to begin with, really. There is somewhat of a fine line, however, which leads us to …
2. It’s Personal, But It’s Not That Personal
Ultimately, as I said, all of my own discussions stem from a curiosity of my likes and dislikes and the “why” behind them. Music criticism is a profession, but it’s also one where it’s OK – expected, even – to play favorites. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t escape our own biases when it comes to how we view music, though it’s important to always try and move past them. We’re humans first and foremost – fans. Be objective in approach, in other words, but be subjective when taking it all in. Which is to also say that we have certain sounds and styles that aren’t our cup of tea; it happens. While I would argue it’s important to stay open-minded, again, we can’t escape those biases. While there are artists I don’t look forward to covering, for example, at the end of the day, it’s just music, and any criticisms are directed toward it, not the person or band making it. It’s a personal exercise, but not to the point of obsessing over what I don’t like. It comes, it goes, and I either find a surprise I wasn’t expecting or just go back to what I love, though I do believe it’s also important to engage with what we don’t like, heresy as it is to say (and for my true musical nerds, that’s a discussion for another day). For as complicated as the exercise is, as far as that goes, it’s really as simple as that. Hey, that’s a good segue into the next topic …
3. Genre Informs the Conversation, But Rarely Drives It
I’m careful not to call The Musical Divide a country blog, given that, for one, I’ll always cover what I feel like covering, and two … I’m sure many would disagree with me if I did. I have this weird mental thing where I continue covering artists who may have moved away from the “country universe,” so to say, but started somewhere within it. That’s because, ultimately, while my main love is country music, I try only to let genre loosely inform the conversation, not drive it. Maybe it’s because I’m caught somewhere in the middle of that big-ass Venn diagram of sounds and styles that comprise it and like/dislike a little bit of everything within it. Ultimately, I believe in genre and find that words have to mean something, and while genres may have started as business categorizations and nothing more, over time they’ve come to inform different musical cultures. I emphasize “different,” too – not better or worse, just different, and the worth of them all is equal, even if major publications still treat country music as a genre that can only conjure up something brilliant occasionally (I say, knowing it bothers me more than it ever should). Anyway, I find that it’s healthier to reframe the all too common question of “is this country?” to “does this or could this fit within the country music tent?” I find the list of discussion and debate points expands, for better and worse, admittedly, but mostly for the better. Observe the merits of the music at hand, rather than just its surface-level elements, in other words. On that note …
4. I Work to Inspire Discussions, Not Offer Recommendations
Ultimately, I’m flattered by anyone who finds their new favorite artist from this website, as I know I have from reading and watching other thinkers. But I also know what critics of critics think in the modern era: “Why bother?”; “Why do you need someone to tell you how to think about music?”; “Why do you rely on them for recommendations when streaming services offer everything for free?”
Perhaps it’s because I’m just an amateurish hobby blogger, but I actually sympathize with some of that. After all, the Internet age offers everyone a platform, and while that comes with plenty of negative consequences, a small benefit comes in the expression of different ideas and thoughts … that, you know, are actually worth engaging. It’s true that streaming services offer a plethora of options previously “locked away” to the average consumer, so to say, while critics get free links to new music, and that the average music consumer likely listens to more than most professionals these days. But I’d argue not much has changed, at least in theory. For one, people have a tendency to buy what’s mass-marketed, ever since the dawn of radio. Replace “streaming playlist algorithms and payola” with “radio payola” and nothing changes, critics be damned.
Now, in simpler terms, I guess what I’m saying is that, I’ve never agreed with the notion that music criticism should be about consumer-guide consensus. As previously stated, one person’s trash is another one’s treasure, and vice-versa. I think the modern era just helps expose the obvious, that musical discourse should refocus itself to offer analysis and help people engage with ideas, not just scores or rankings or recommendations. Granted, I do understand that timing is still an issue when it comes to hearing everything (because you can’t possibly hear everything) and that some people look to others to understand how to possibly best use their time when it comes to personal listening habits. But it’s still better to engage more with someone’s ideas and wonder for yourself if it’s worth it, rather than those aforementioned things. Plus, I just believe more in the thrill of the hunt itself, which is one thing that’s been lost in the age of endless consumption. Lastly …
5. Ultimately, It’s Just All One Perspective
Most sentences here – as well as nearly every one in the reviews I write – come with the addendum of “in my opinion.” People just tend not to continuously type it because … well, things would get repetitive fast. And it’s one of those common sense things that’s easy to forget and important to reinforce now and again. We need more voices right now – certainly not less – and remember that every one’s voice counts for something. I guess my ultimate hope with an outlet like this is to help, albeit in an incredibly small way, others care more about what they’re listening to and learn to appreciate the little nuggets within. We’re all capable of that, and I’m happy to operate a space that puts me on an even-level playing field with you all.