How A Poem Became The Best Music Criticism I’ve Read In The Last Three Months

The best piece of music criticism I’ve read in the last three months is a poem by a guy who builds cabinets in West Virginia. It is called “The Denunciation of Ricky Skaggs From On High,” it is by Steve Scafidi, and it lives on page 137 of the 2010 Oxford American music issue. The speaker of the poem is Jesus Christ, who is taking Skaggs to task over his more recent output — the subject of the music, criticizing the musician.

Skaggs has never been one of my favorite bluegrass artists, so I don’t know his work as well as I do some others. To mend that, I did a little research on YouTube after I read the poem one night earlier this week. Most of the recent stuff was about his new album, and based on the poem, that’s the stuff I wanted to judge. If you go poking around, you’ll find the same things I did: Skaggs’s appearance on Mike Huckabee’s talk show, an appearance on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and a label-produced video about the new record and Skaggs’s faith, among other things. I’m not qualified to judge Skaggs’s new record as an expression of his faith. I’m plenty qualified, as is anyone who listens to music, to judge his output. The only place where musicians’ religion interests me is in the ways faith influences their work. And based on what I heard, I have to agree with Scafidi’s Jesus: the tracks I heard off Skaggs’s most recent record do trend toward treacle (“No more sweetness Ricky. / You are not a bee.”) — especially when placed next to the giants of the genre, and when considered within the tradition of white Southern gospel music.

So why a poem? How can a poem be better criticism than an essay, and what does it get across than an essay can’t? Why is Scafidi’s poem better than a review of Ricky Skaggs’s new record in Bluegrass Unlimited? What does it do that a traditional-style review can’t?

Later on I might answer these questions, but I have to say that right now they don’t interest me very much. The easy answers are there without too much thought, which tells me that it’s probably a waste of time to bother with them right now. The harder question that lies behind the ones above is the better question, from my perspective:

What makes good music criticism?

Early on, I mentioned that I was working on a writing sample for admission to graduate school. My apps are in, so now I can tell you what it was about. The short version: by way of the art in the liner notes of Wilco (The Album) and the history and function of the nudie suit in popular culture, I argued both that criticism of American popular music sucks right now, and that by sucking, it reinforces bad stereotypes of pretty much everybody and everywhere and keeps us all from being awesome in our lives and to each other. The rest of the humanities, I argued, seem to have this criticism business vaguely in hand; why is non-academic criticism of popular music so bland, so functionally useless to anyone except the recording industry, and so flagrantly unethical — Peter Guralnick made that argument in 1979; it isn’t my argument, and the situation hasn’t changed — and why is academic criticism so full of jargon that it’s essentially useless to anyone without the vocabulary that comes with a functional knowledge of twentieth-century cultural theory? (Why is the ivory tower incapable of considering anything but Bob Dylan’s career through Blonde on Blonde? If you have access to the MLA International Bibliography, search for Lady GaGa or Kanye, and compare the number of results — none, as of October 2010 — to the number of results for Bob Dylan. Try comparing to the numbers for Joni Mitchell, Madonna, and even the Beatles. Enraging.) Why can’t we do better, when music is one of a handful of things that pretty much everybody has in common? What is it going to take for everybody to shut up, listen, and think before they say something?

And finally, I asked, how can we do better?

The answers to this question are the ones that have been occupying me for the last few years — it touches on that senior thesis about Stephen King — and assuming any school is crazy enough to let me in, that’s one of the things I intend to work on. I think the answers are important, and I also think that the process of finding those answers is even more important. More people love music than don’t; the way we talk about music should include the perspectives of as many of us as possible. It shouldn’t make us feel badly about ourselves and what we have or haven’t discovered yet. Music isn’t a race. Music shouldn’t be a guilty pleasure. If anyone is trying to make you feel badly about the music you love, they’re doing this music thing wrong.

That still doesn’t answer the questions, though: what makes good music criticism, and how can we do better than we’re doing? Andrew Bird is right when he says that writing about music is a deliberate act. It’s harder than it looks. It bears a lot of consideration and it takes willingness to pull a Steve Scafidi and throw out a form that doesn’t work in exchange for one that does. (Scafidi’s poem is a kind of ekphrasis, which isn’t exactly a new rhetorical device, but it’s still a nontraditional way to approach writing critically about popular music.) And it takes a lot of thinking about exactly what you want to accomplish. In an interview with Birmingham Magazine posted earlier this week, Oxford American editor Marc Smirnoff touched on the OA’s purpose in putting out a yearly music issue:

We don’t want to do an academic, scholarly exercise and be lecturing people about Southern music. The best way to enjoy an art form, whether it’s literature, movies or music, is through pure, natural enjoyment. Even though there are scholarly ramifications to what we’re doing, we’re trying to put out a great party mix. I purposely wanted to appeal to a wide range of listeners. People who don’t normally listen to blues, I want them to listen to it. People who don’t listen to soul, I want them to listen to it. I think people are very open minded to music if you don’t try too hard.

The thing is, though, the way the OA defines pure, natural enjoyment, it involves lengthy accompanying essays about the tracks on their party mix. And invariably, those essays are some of the best music criticism around. So what do they do that’s different from the other stuff? What do they do that’s not doing it wrong, but doing it right?

I’m still evaluating — thanks to Santa Claus, I’ve got the 2000, 2004, and 2006 issues to go through — but right now, tentatively, I can say that the good stuff tends to be writing about music that’s more about other things. My favorite OA piece is from the 2009 issue, regarding Linda Martell, the first African-American woman to play the Grand Ole Opry. (In summary, Alice Randall asks us to imagine what it might be like, and what it means to the rest of us, to be Linda Martell, stepping on the stage of the Ryman, and singing on that stage, where the balcony, in the artist’s full view, is to this day labeled CONFEDERATE GALLERY.) The social, historical, cultural, and racial politics involved, as well as Randall’s relation of her own connections to the Ryman — Randall is herself a songwriter, the first African-American woman to write a number-one country song — help contextualize Martell’s music, giving us tools to figure out what that music means, both to Randall and to us, and maybe even on a broader scale, regionally, nationally, and globally.

The best books in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series do this as well — Carl Wilson on Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love and Dan Kois on Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s Facing Future are my two favorites. Wilson uses Dion to talk about “high” and “low” art, and how we form taste, and Kois uses Kamakawiwo’ole to discuss (among other things) the tensions between Native Hawaiian culture and mainland culture. If music is a reflection of who we are, talking about music is talking about who we are and what we do. Good writing about music should do the same things.

I don’t have a shiny set of criteria that strictly defines what good writing about music should do, and I think coming up with one is counterproductive. There will always be music we can’t easily categorize. We need to be as flexible in our writing as we are in the kinds of noise we make.

And we also shouldn’t forget that good writing about music can be just as transcendent as the music itself. It can remind us why we do what we do, and why all the effort and time and money is worth it. Steve Scafidi did that for me with “The Denunciation of Ricky Skaggs From On High” this week, and I’d like to let him get the last word for now:

…Ricky you have
suffered in your life enough to know better
than to sing that stuff. It pains me to hear it.

Stick to what hurts most and mean it. Cut open
something valuable and bleed it. Hang it
upside down in your yard and let it drain

into the grass. My god Ricky I might have to
come down there and show you what I mean.
Don’t make me. I got eyes like laser beams

and a voice like Ralph Stanley but deeper
down darker. No more sweetness Ricky.
You are not a bee. There is a broken down

burning house inside the soul and someone
in the window waves. It is me. Dammit
Ricky, do something. Sing something true

the way you used to. Heaven is not a given.
Make a ladder of what happens to actually
matter to you — blood, strings, and the ear.