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They put the world off at a distance
koganbot
Tom asks over on his Blue Lines tumblr:

People make statements all the time about which music they like and why they like it.

Some of these statements will be false.

Is there any advantage to trying to guess which, or in assuming that certain people or groups are lying? Rather than simply assuming good faith?


I said in response that emphasizing motive has more risks than advantages. Not that - if we're aware of the risks - motive should be off the table; motives can matter, but their relevance is greatly exaggerated.** These were my reasons***:

To complicate your question further, there are two parts to it:

(1) People say they like something.
(2) People say why they like something.

One could tell the truth about the first but not the second - or, I suppose, the second but not the first: "I LOVE this song" (which I actually barely like), but then I give a reason that actually is true to my bare liking.

And also, we don't always know that we're not "telling the truth"; e.g. a woman believes that she somewhat likes her husband's favorite band - until she belatedly realizes that she never did much like it at all. And as for someone's not knowing all about - or even much about - why he or she likes something, well, that's all of us a lot of the time.

But here is my crucial point: we may know very well that what a particular person says may be influenced by a number of motives - he may be trying to impress us, she may be praising her best friend's band, he may be a publicist, she may be trying to shock - but nonetheless, as intellectuals, our speculation about or knowledge of someone's motives absolutely does not give us the right to dismiss what that person says. We ALWAYS have to pay careful attention to the actual words that someone uses, the actual argument that someone is making. For the argument itself may be strong, may illuminate the music, may make us rehear and rethink - whatever the person's motives for making the argument. Also, if we don't attend carefully to someone's arguments, we can find ourselves going, "this is his motive for saying X," when actually the person said Y. And without knowing what the person actually said, we can hardly claim to know the person's motive for saying it.

"There are always two reasons for anything," Michèle Bernstein told Greil Marcus. "There is always the good reason, and there is always the real reason." I'd say, more accurately, there is usually a "good" component, which may well be real, but there are other real components that go beyond the good reasons. But what I'm saying is that, if a thinker is any good, generally that thinker's good reasons matter far more than whatever is left over as motive or "real" reason. It is the good reason that can travel, as it were, can affect people and move people. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't probe into motives, into all reasons; sometimes subterranean "real" reasons can turn out to be better than the merely good ones. But our understanding must begin with close attention to what someone actually says and does, rather than with our speculations as to why the person is doing it.

There are writers like Plato and Nietzsche where you don't always know what ideas they're committed to, what they're just trying out, or when they're playing their own devil's advocate. But we don't get to ignore an idea just because we can't tell if the person who proposes it is serious or not.

Simon Reynolds once suggested to me what my motives for praising the Paris Hilton album were before he'd read a word I'd written about it.* And when Jim DeRogatis reviewed Chuck Eddy's heavy metal book, Stairway To Hell, Jim said that Chuck Eddy's shtick was contrariness, and he later told rockcritics.com that Chuck's including Teena Marie in the book was just an in-joke for rock critics. But Jim never addressed what Chuck actually said about Teena Marie's Emerald City or what Chuck said his reasons were for including it in the book, or what Chuck was saying about heavy metal by including Emerald City (the first side of which rocks like a motherfucker, by the way).

In this way critics like SR and JD seriously cripple themselves. They put the world off at a distance without realizing they're doing so.

*EDIT: Simon originally did this in an email. Checking it, I surmise that he might have read a sentence, maybe even two, though I don't think those sentences were about why I liked Paris's music. Also, looking at the artifacts, it's bizarre to me, given my actual ideas, that Simon and I weren't allies, or at least colleagues.

**EDIT: Actually, I think there's something crucially important - in a lot of my thinking, anyway, which is an attempt to tunnel down to insights and impulses that are half-expressed and half-masked by the actual reasons we give and arguments we make - ...something crucially important that I hesitate to call "motive" but that I might end up placing in the category "real reasons" or "more reasons." That's what I'm trying to suggest in that cryptic sentence, "sometimes subterranean 'real' reasons can turn out to be better than the merely good ones." But most people who focus on motive don't care diddly-squat about tunneling down to insights and impulses. I elaborate on this thought down in the comments.

***The reasons I give in my post hardly encompass all my motives for making the post, however.

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concur this (indeed have been wrestling with similar ideas all afternoon)^^

except to note in parenthesis that bernstein's important comment to marcus is actually already a quotation, which she knew certainly knew as she said it, whether or not he spotted it -- unfortunately i forget where i quite recently came across the earlier expression of it

Well, I'm still wrestling, in that I've rewritten my top sentence three times in the last five minutes, and may stick an edit in at the end. After all, a lot of what I explore is the social force of ideas that, if you stated them, would be bad... but that the bad ideas, the not fully spoken "bad" reasons, the extraneous "motives," may have potential good ones unborn "beneath" them, as it were, so if we dismiss rather than tunnel through the bad reasons we fail to find our way to good ideas that have yet to come into existence. I'm being vague, and I think "motive" is probably the wrong word when we get to this point. An example would be my friend Nathan's saying, "The Backstreet Boys don't even play their instruments." This seems and is a pretty dumb complaint, but my hope in exploring such complaints is that we work our way down to the not necessarily dumb impulse that pushes such statements up to the surface and out of people's mouths. And then, if we liberate the impulse from the dumb complaint that represents the impulse but suppresses what's potentially intelligent in it, we arrive at good questions that may eventually result in strong ideas to match the strong impulses.

Sort of tangental, but...

...your mentioning Nathan's Backstreet Boys comment has made *me* pay careful attention to the exact words he uses in the phrase 'they don't even play their own instruments'. I know this topic has been well-worn over the course of the rockism debate, but rather than saying 'they don't write their own songs', he says 'they don't play their own instruments'. Taken at face value that's such a strange complaint! Leaving aside the 'voice is an instrument' thing, surely this would mean a band like Nirvana that did play their 'own' instruments but then used a cello player or Butch Vig or whomever to beef up their palette are less credible than my old punk band who didn't even use effects pedals? (NB my band were not credible). So by using that phrase Nathan is shooting himself in the foot when all along he really means something else (the 'organic' process he describes the Beatles as having).

Re: Sort of tangental, but...

Er, sorry, my mistake; I was typing fast. He'd actually said, "They don't even write their own songs." But there is that complaint about not playing their instruments in regard to a lot of pop (going back to the Monkees, where it really was a kind of fraud, since you saw them performing the songs on their show, but for the first two albums all the playing was by studio musicians) and about a lot of hip-hop, etc.

Re: Sort of tangental, but...

No worries! But that exact criticism did get bandied around an awful lot when I was a teenager (often by ME!), esp during the boyband/girlband saturation of the UK charts in the mid to late 90s - hence Busted and McFly often being 'acceptable' where Boyzone and Westlife might not be.

Google isn't helping here. I only get one hit for the quotation (through Google Books, some article called "Concrete, So As To Self-Destruct").

OK, slightly more dexterous searching gets - allegedly - John Pierpont Morgan and Thomas Carlyle, but no sources given.

i think carlyle, yes! -- not sure where the fuck i've been reading abt carlyle, though

if i'm not too busy at work tomorrow, i will write up my thoughts on this

Just wrote about 2001, the year I Officially Got into Music over on my blog, and some of these anxieties come up, in a way. There is something somewhat dangerous about putting your ideas rather than mere taste (the why rather than just the what) out into the world, and there's often a sense that I have of the inadequate WHY undercutting the simpler WHAT altogether. But this is also in part what makes music worth writing about rather than just listening to with the assumption that you have nothing to say (no one genuinely has nothing to say -- this is impossible -- but many feel "unqualified" to articulate reasons for liking or disliking, certainly, as I did back in 2001): there is a richer process of discovery in being WRONG about liking and disliking; the key is, as you say, to stay in the world of the arguments (when arguing) because more often than not mere speculation on the more visceral moment of taste-making simply isn't very interesting, even when it's not totally off-base. (As when someone essentially claims you're lying about what you like, which has happened to me more than once.)

At the same time, I don't think this is actually a major issue (referring to Tom's original question of whether or not we should "guess at motivations"), if the issue at stake is "is someone being honest or not when they say they like or dislike _____." A better question is, "do the reasons someone gives for liking or disliking this make any sense? Are they interesting? Can I do anything with them myself?" But none of these questions have much to do with the mere assertion of taste, they have to do with the justification of taste. (This is one reason why lots of recent conversations about the "nature of taste" have left me so cold -- it's pretending there's some less messy step before that world of arguments and justifications that we can argue about with any satisfaction, when we're kind of stuck with our words as far as talking about this stuff goes.)

"richer process of discovery in potentially being WRONG about liking or disliking" is what I meant there -- the risk of being argued with in the first place is what makes music worth talking about.

I was talking to an alt-country guy last night (he'd never heard of Taylor Swift!) and I was explaining to him that one of the great benefits of writing about music is that music is hard to describe and impossible to convey and that you can never adequately explain why you like something or adequately justify why you think it's good. So you're always describing the indescribable and understanding the incomprehensible.

I don't know how this comes across but I don't have "a good instinct for deception" (to quote something else I read recently) - I would never assume someone was lying when they said they liked something, even if the music were awful IMO, or the opinion seemed somehow out of character, or they're transparently trying to impress me. How do you keep up your side of a conversation about "music you like" if you don't assume the other person is telling the truth?

(Though, actual deception is different from not really knowing why you liked or disliked something and therefore rationalizing - IMO that's just how people think.)

Well, the subtext of these posts is that Tom and Dave and I etc. tend to be the accused here, rarely the accusers; that is, people simply can't believe that someone like me can actually consider Britney or Ashlee or Paris to be really really good. A slightly more "subtle" argument (going from the zero percentile of subtlety to maybe the 5th percentile of subtlety) is to tell us that, while we're not exactly lying, we, say, like the idea of liking Paris's music more than we actually like the music itself, and we really need to examine this since we could not possibly have pondered our own motives until questioned about them. As opposed to, say, my having heard this shit for the last 37 years or so: I think the first incredulity I ever encountered in regard to my taste was when I liked Alice Cooper in 1972 and began plumping for old garage bands and bubblegummers like the Troggs and the Ohio Express and Tommy James; and then it was how could I possibly like the Dolls and the Stooges? And after all those performers were OK to like, then it's how, if I like the Sex Pistols, can I also like Donna Summer? And on from there.

Of course we can and are opened up to liking something by our social motives, by wanting to give artist X a chance and wanting to dismiss artist Y out of hand. Wanting to like what our friends like is a motive. Wanting to stand out from the crowd by liking what everyone dislikes is another. But our ears won't necessarily cooperate, if what they hear doesn't match our desire. Our desires can open or close our ears, but they can't counteract our ears.

In any event, people mostly tell the truth - which isn't to say that someone can't be intimidated by you and want to impress you, hence gear what he says to what he thinks you want to hear, or someone can praise your favorite band so as not to hurt your feelings. But you're one hundred percent right that there's no way to carry on the conversation if you're just going to decide that the other person is lying and use that as an excuse to discount or ignore what the other person says.

Looking again, two-and--half years later:

People mostly tell the truth.

No wait. Most people believe, sincerely, what they're saying, most of the time. But to tell the truth you have to know the truth. People who continually express strong opinions on subjects they make no effort to understand are much more deeply dishonest, despite their believing their own opinions, than are people who temper their opinions out of politeness or uncertainty or self-interest but who nonetheless are capable of noticing counter-evidence and of imagining alternative explanations.

my having heard this shit for the last 37 years or so

I.e., people telling me my motives but ignoring my ideas, and making no effort to understand the music I'm plumping for.

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