Rock music, like sex, doesn’t really require being written about. Best to enjoy it if you can and shut up about it afterward.
… writes Joseph Epstein in The Weekly Standard (I found it via Arts and Letters Daily). I assume that when he writes „rock music,“ Mr. Epstein doesn’t mean rock music exclusively (c’mon, rock is dead, and the world’s probably a better place because of it) but rather all types of non-classical, non-avantgarde, more or less popular contemporary music. Or, looking at the sex analogy, maybe the more precise attempt to narrow it down would be: all types of music produced to move bodies and allow people to enjoy themselves.
I can’t say I agree with this notion, though Mr. Epstein voices a common sentiment. It’s important to note that his is not a complaint about the current state of publishing and the media system. He doesn’t say these days rock music criticism isn’t required anymore – e. g. because of the accessibility and abundance of music and opinion on the internet – but that it never was required, that in fact within the essential nature of rock music (or sex) there is nothing that’s longing to be verbalized, that desperately calls for mankind to finally adress it in writing.
Yeah, well, uhm, OK: as a writer I think the impulse to write about something should come from within myself (or maybe more realistically: from within my editor’s office), not from within the abstract object of my writing. He who hears voices from objects and topics calling him is he who crossed the thin line between genius and insanity in the wrong direction.
(… which doesn’t necessarily make him or her less enjoyable as a prose stylist, I’m just saying.)
Still, you may object, if to write is to communicate and to communicate is to share information between one person and another, isn’t it utterly complicated if not impossible and/or outrageously naive to put into words a sensation that is as subjective as that which you experience during sex and rock music?
Yes it is, and I think Mr. Epstein is spot on when he ridicules the thinking of sloppy critics:
If a porn movie, a rock performance, a book feels good, it must, ipso facto, be good. Feeling, which must never be betrayed, is all.
„Feeling“ is a problematic category to say the least. And yet. Argueing along the same lines as Mr. Epstein, somebody came up with the phrase „Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.“ That sound’s smart but really it’s stupid. For once there must be quite a few ballet productions that have been inspired by architecture. After all, central objectives of both artistic disciplines – e.g. examining how bodies move in man-made spaces – aren’t all that different. But that’s not even the point.
The point is that writing about something that has at its heart an ecstatic experience doesn’t mean you have to be able to capture the gist of that experience and put it in to words in order to be able to write about it. That has been tried, e.g. in Jack Kerouac’s „On the Road“, Tom Wolfe’s „The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test“, Rainald Goetz‘ „Rave“, Marcel Maas‘ „Play. Repeat.“ and many other books about ecstacy and sound. But it’s possible (and potentially even more relevant) to address not how that experience feels, but how it is produced, consumed, shared, remembered, contextualized, missed, etc.
There are ways to write about the biology of sex, the chemistry of sex, the marketing of sex, the ethics of sex, the social dynamics of sex, the hype about sex, sex on film or sex in literature, even about the absence of sex (I’ve just read the German translation of Beatriz Preciado’s Pornotopia that makes the argument that each space can be read as a pornotopic space, that is, a space defined by sex. My first reaction to that would be: d’uh).
All this is possible without relying on cheesy metaphors or getting into the potentially embarrassing situation of trying to express how your first or last time felt – or even worse, how it should have felt.
I’m almost certain that the idea that you can write about literature or the opera but not about rock music or porn stems from a high to middle brow cultural bias. You may object to rock and porn, but that doesn’t mean that writing and reading about them is impossible or a waste of time, no matter what. And if you’re not even suppossed to write about things like sex or rock music, how can you write about lofty topics like truth, love, history, religion?
If you’re not comfortable with the books people write about sex or rock music (or if you are not comfortable with the way these people write) just treat them as non-required reading. There’s no such thing as non-required writing.