Silly (or stupid) as it sounds, I struggle to find the right way to operate one of these types of outlets.
Granted, I say this knowing full well that those of us hanging on to blogs in the year 2022 are the last of a dying breed, but writing about music in 2022 feels especially weirder as the world continues to expand. You’ve probably heard and/or seen the following quote somewhere before: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture: It’s a stupid thing to want to do.”
The basic crutch of that statement is that writing about music distracts from its true purpose, which is to entertain and absorb it in a passive manner, rather than like a sponge that thinks much about the deeper meaning behind it all. I know it’s a false statement – I wouldn’t have ever started one of these sorts of outlets if I didn’t have other writers and thinkers to inspire me – but this was the first year in which I was able to lie to myself and convince myself that there was merit to the sentiment.
It was the first year of operating this outlet where I felt like the “bad guy,” in other words.
And I’ve been cognizant about trying to avoid that label ever since I started The Musical Divide years ago: I make sure to state up front that I always discuss music from the perspective of my personal taste and how much I do or don’t enjoy it, rather than a wide-angled, objective measure in which I try to deduce the “best” and “worst” of the bunch, or how it fits within general popular culture; if I do criticize something, I try to do so empathetically and try to be as respectful as possible; and I always want to ensure to you all that I’m never trying to be an authority on what is arguably the most subjective experience in the world, given that anyone who tries to do so is, at least in my view, doing it wrong.
I certainly strayed from those objectives at more points than I should have. Still, my philosophy is to take an even-handed approach to what I do here – to praise and criticize in ways that simply offer my view of the fuller picture of a piece of art. I lean hard on denoting the subjectivity of the whole affair because I have no interest in trying to write about music in a way of how it conforms to current culture, or what you all should or shouldn’t hear. With an endless option of music streaming services at our fingertips, what you listen to is up to you, and chances are if you’re hungry for something more, you’ll find it yourself. I’ve always wanted to just have a corner of the internet to share my thoughts on music in ways that denote how much it means to me – to contribute to the ongoing conversations, rather than act like I’m spearheading them. “Objectivity is the mortal enemy. Now, for sure, you need a good bullshit detector, and you shouldn’t rant, and you shouldn’t cheerlead. But objectivity is dispassionate. And we’re in the passion business. We’re trying to make people feel something different than what they felt before they read our words.”
You may be wondering why those last few sentences are placed in quotation marks. That’s because mostly everything in this piece discussed thus far – from the architecture and dancing quote to my mission statement and the quote just now copied over here – stems from the wise words of the late Peter Cooper. I’ve been re-reading his own Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride work lately, my favorite book on country music that, contrary to what I said above, is something I’m definitely telling you all to pick up and read. Like, now, if you can. And far be it from me to summarize his contributions to country music not only through this book, but also through his career in music journalism and as an artist himself. But in a year where I’ve felt weird about this whole music blog thing, he’s been helping me once again remember what it’s all about. Chances are he’ll do it again at some point, too.
Now, I’m no music journalist or critic, but I fully agree with what he says regarding that aforementioned dancing about architecture quote. “Writing about music doesn’t distract, it informs. Writing about music invariably becomes writing about musicians, and musicians are among the world’s most intriguing people. Musicians can conjure laughter or regret from tone and melody, which is a hell of a trick … writing about that isn’t a really stupid thing to want to do, it’s a noble thing to want to do.”
Therein lies the paradox, though. One can’t help but discuss something from their own worldview and perspective, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that you have to take the focus away from you and remember that it’s always about those artists. Sometimes they’ll craft art that speaks right to your heart through personal experience, and sometimes you might need to put the extra effort in to understand something beyond your own frame of mind. And, of course, the best artists can find a weird way to do both – to make you care about something so easily without it directly relating to you. I never knew of fatal accidents featuring farmers, teachers, preachers, and sex workers when I was growing up, nor did I ever have to say goodbye to a partner heading off to war never to be seen again, but damn if I didn’t love songs like “Three Wooden Crosses” and “Travelin’ Soldier” anyway. Conversely, Lyle Lovett’s “In My Own Mind” is my song. It may be yours as well, but it’s also mine.
I guess it’s at this point, then, that I should address the elephant in the room and discuss what’s made me uneasy with regards to this exercise all year. I have no reasons to complain – The Musical Divide had a great year. Actually, it had an excellent year. Better than I deserve. I say this not out of arrogance, but out of genuine surprise and bewilderment, especially given that I felt less active this year overall with my writing. I finally felt the fatigue of constant new music overload. I had to stay away from social media a lot. And several features were started and subsequently abandoned by me, much to my frustration. I’m not really a great writer, but I’m always trying to learn from past mistakes. The reviews and all continued to come easier and easier with time, but I still felt like I was going through the motions in regards to what I was actually saying about these projects (if we all took a shot for every time I described a piece of music as “warm” or complimented technical aspects like its groove or melodic hook, we’d all be in serious trouble). And, to be honest, the further we go through the years, the more blogs like these feel useless in their actual importance or relevance.
Of course, this one not withstanding, that’s not true and blogs are still important. People who think about music in any capacity are important, really. And yet despite it all … this outlet thrived, thanks to you all. Several new names popped up in the comments sections, and several things I wrote years ago were given new light (for whatever reason). Again, trying to shy away from speaking atop a pedestal, but I do have to thank you all for constantly inspiring me to continue onward with this outlet. And no, that’s not me fishing for compliments. If anything, the bigger this outlet grows the more my anxiety heightens – knowing that people out there read everything here. Everything. The stuff written years ago that hasn’t aged well … the stuff I just can’t nail but decide to throw out there anyway hoping it sticks … the stuff where I forgot my mission statement and became viciously cruel toward music, of all things … the stuff where I heap praise toward something that admittedly probably doesn’t deserve it … and maybe the one or two pieces every now and then I’m genuinely proud to share.
And … there I go paraphrasing Cooper again. Anything I’ve learned about writing about music has come the hard way – I’m still often guessing where the commas are supposed to go. But for a general hobby blog hosted by some average dude, I do have to once again thank you all for indulging me in this journey. Easy as it is stray away from the human side of this endeavor and even harder as it is to find the way back to empathy – and for as much as I just really need to get out of my own damn head sometimes – I do greatly enjoy writing about music. I don’t necessarily write unnecessarily long blurbs on things because it’s what I naturally get out of them. I write to try and add greater value to what I’m hearing and try to figure out what truly makes it click for me beyond, “I don’t know, I like the beat.” At its best, it’s not a natural thing to get a handle on – it’s a constant learning exercise, and arguably the best of its kind.
And it’s as important to me to map out the current music being made as it is to make sure the past doesn’t become forgotten, which has led to a bevy of different features here over the years. Sometimes maintaining that balance is difficult, especially when I know people have found this website through various means and might value one topic of interest over another here. And it’s even harder when it feels like these days you have to like or dislike and/or group certain acts into a preconceived “good” or “bad” status based solely on social status (basically, I like hipster indie things and more mainstream-accessible stuff, and I’m fine with that). But it’s what also keeps me constantly in check with the fuller country music picture and to try and never to lose that focus – to take an objective measure in approach but a subjective measure in actual execution.
So, my goals for 2023? To try and maintain the humanity of this exercise, and to remember there’s value in it, even if sometimes that fine line between approaching subjects with measures of respect and sensitivity and offering perhaps some even-keeled balance is a messy one to navigate. But I also want to operate less robotically and hear music with the same ears again as, say, the young kid who experienced the magic for the first time and couldn’t get enough of it. The one who found new music and proceeded to wear it out until he was sick of it … and then waited a few minutes to wear it all out again. Truthfully, writing about music is a constant tango between burnout and rejuvenation, but so long as that core focus remains intact, the magic will never fade. Thanks, Peter Cooper, for reminding me of all of that yet again.
– Zackary Kephart
7 thoughts on “Regaining Perspective in 2022”
Thanks for the heartfelt words , ‘tis a labour of love, time and effort to create what you do. That book intrigues me, I should ask my neighbour if he has a copy. He wrote a couple songs that Charlie Pride recorded! “Keep on truckin’ “ and we’ll keep on reading!
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Thanks, Randy! And same to you as well! 😁
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This tracks well with some ideas that have been brewing in my head. As usual you do a wonderful job putting vague thoughts into crisp detail on pixel. Cheers on a great year and on to 2023!
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Thanks, Joe, though in terms of putting vague thoughts into crisp detail, I think you’re the current king! Always love reading your in-depth philosophy and perspective on topics relating to the writing and thinking process.
Hi Zack – I just want to thank you for what you do as I find it very enjoyable and always interesting. In prior years, I tried to keep up with a number of different blogs but found out I couldn’t keep up with any of them, so in 2022 I cut it down to your site alone and I’ve kept up to date (for the most part).
Thanks for indulging me with my sometimes extra-long comments; I appreciate having an opportunity to express my thoughts. Looking forward to whatever 2023 brings us musically!
I should note that I purchased Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride based on your recommendation from your country music books post and it’s excellent. It’s very sad for the country music community to have lost Peter Cooper this year. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to Jeremy Dylan’s My Favorite Album podcast; it’s excellent in general, but he recently reposted two separate episodes that featured Peter Cooper that are well worth a listen. I feel like you might enjoy them.
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Hey, well I’m honored! It’s sad, because by now there’s very few blogs left, so it definitely gets lonely, though there are definitely more I recommend: Country Universe, Today I Heard, Highway Queens, and a few others.
I always appreciate your comments, too! I love reading your own thoughts on things and am, again, honored that you share them here!
I haven’t listened to that podcast, but I’ll definitely seek it out, so thanks for the recommendation. I agree, sad situation regarding Cooper all around, but I’m glad you purchased and liked the book! It’s one of those ones I read again and again and love every time.
Happy 2023 – here’s to another great year of music!
Thanks Zack! I do like Country Universe as well and I’ll have to check out the other ones you mentioned. That podcast is really good – there are a number of country/Americana guests and/or subjects, but even the episodes interviewing or featuring people I’m unfamiliar with are enjoyable.
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