This weeks’ blog post comes from music writer and OCH Public Fellow Katie Moulton. Here, Katie explores the concept of play in relation to music and music criticism.
As a music critic, my work is a lot of play. Beyond the deluge of press emails and deadlines, awkward phone calls with indie rockers, digging grimy pink earplugs out of every pocket, and occasionally pissing off Coldplay fans—the job is fun. But it’s meaningful fun: a critical approach to culture that requires a playful attitude.
The cliché goes, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (A 1918 article in the New Republic even says it’s “as illogical as singing about economics.”) This is meant to indicate that it’s a pointless exercise that also misses the point of experiencing the thing itself. I agree that the phrase “dancing about architecture” sounds absurd—but it also sounds like a lot of fun! Imagine your favorite Art Deco building in downtown Tulsa. Now imagine a body moving rhythmically in response to its unmoving monolith: What might it look like, feel like? What could be learned or made in the seemingly vast gap between forms?
In Homo Ludens (1938), Johan Huizinga outlines the characteristics of play, which include, paradoxically, freedom and order. Play “creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, limited perfection.” Constraints are in fact necessary for play, because within those limits—imposed outside consequences of our everyday systems—the player is also afforded freedom outside these everyday systems. It’s a feeling of being forced into the present moment. The same concept can be applied to listening to or playing music: a limited system of notes and a limited combination of materials that result in experiencing the full transcendent range of human emotions.
Whether we’re playing games or making art, we accept these limitations in order to access play. It happens when we cross a threshold, whether it’s gathering around the card-table, stepping into the arena—or standing atop or beneath a stage for a concert. These special spaces are examples of what Huizinga calls the magic circle, “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” This temporary world apart is what I take into account, for example, when reviewing a show, the manner in which musicians create the space and how listeners respond/play within it.
The interplay among listeners is nearly as important as the interplay between audience and artist, and among the musicians themselves. Concert-goers are having individual experiences in response to a music performance—their own reveries, memories, preferences, moods—but they are also having a communal experience, in a dark room, shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers. It’s reminiscent of Huizinga’s concept of the “play-community,” determined by the “feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, and retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.”
The best music criticism retains this magic: It makes something more in the space between the music and the writing, not simply a stimulus and response. In Ludic City (2007), Quentin Stevens writes, “Play is a lived critique of instrumentally rational action because it discovers new needs and develops new forms of social life.” Allowing for experimentation and reinterpretation, the most effective music critique creates an active, ongoing conversation—even if the conversation goes beyond what an artist (or its diehard fans) may intend or agree with.
In my career, one memorable assignment that required a dedicated playful approach—even after the piece was written—was when I wrote a concert review of the biggest band in the world: Coldplay. The British pop group broke globally in 2000, and became ubiquitous. The band, and its likeable, if forgettably faced frontman Chris Martin, also became the punching bag for music critics. At some point, it was almost trendy among music snobs to bash Coldplay for its blandness. By 2016, when I set out to review the show, that critique was nearly as flavorless as Coldplay was accused of being. So I went into the arena accepting the rules of the magic circle: be present, see what all the fandom is about with thousands of my glowstick-toting new best friends, and be entertained. It was a feel-good spectacle!
But as one upbeat electro-pop jam bled into the next, peppered with vague calls for “good vibes” to wherever in the world that might need it, my mind wandered. I felt disconnected, not under the spell the musicians were trying to cast, the communal “apart-together” feeling of the audience. As a critic, I must pay close attention to the experience within and without me: the order/systems, freedom, play-community, and that last of Huizinga’s play elements: fun. “Fun,” he writes, “resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” And in trying to describe or analyze fun, we’re back to that initial impossible task: dancing about architecture.
In the review, I wrote that though Coldplay peddles pop to the masses, sometimes the “lowest common denominator” is, in fact, true emotion. I wrote that Martin, in his enthusiasm, exploded into an avalanche of rainbow confetti. But I critiqued the ways the flashy-yet-generic stage show felt like we were being pandered to, as though the band were trying to be everything and therefore stood for nothing. If Coldplay is truly the biggest pop band in the world, I wondered, then what are they doing with that power—artistically, politically? But as a player within the magic circle of the concert, an audience member whose interplay with each other and the artist is essential to the experience—I had to interrogate my own reactions: Why would I write about an act despite my ambivalence? Why would I write about my ambivalence? What role did I play as a critic, in trying to give my own audience whatever it might want? Only by maintaining a playful awareness was I able to find meaning and connections at the heart of the experience. How am I using my platform, small as it is? I wrote. How are you using yours?
When the review appeared, I was proud. I also received more numerous and nasty internet comments than I had ever received before. I was shocked: Who knew Coldplay fans could be so fervent and creative in their insults? But it was further proof that music criticism can fuel a living conversation around and beyond the art, the audience, me—and even beyond the magic circle.