January 27, 2008 by sw00ds
Tom Ewing’s latest Pitchfork column, which employs an old Dave Marsh Smiths vs. Lionel Richie dichotomy as a launch pad, contains a lot to chew on, examining as it does the dubious critical fallback position of “20 years from now, people will still be listening to this [i.e., this record that I'm praising] whereas few or no one will still be listening to that [i.e., this record that someone else is praising but which you yourself don't care for].” I bet there’s not a rock critic on the planet who hasn’t written from this vantage point at some time or other, but even to call this position “dubious” is rather charitable. As Ewing points out, it’s a position that can’t really be argued with (unless, perhaps, your name is Mork).
Myself, I fear that I have too often relied on the opposite tack, which Ewing mentions only briefly:
“What strikes me is that the test of time card is played to win internal arguments as much as external ones. It’s often the justifier for something being top of a list, not fourth, or it turns up ruefully acknowledged when talking about a pleasure-perceived evanescent: I’m sure I won’t be listening to this next year but… Posterity here is a cop in the listener’s head.”
“Pleasure-perceived evanescent” — I think he means the sort of pop that is often labeled “ephemeral.” It’s almost the anti-test-of-time argument, and I’ve used it frequently myself, as a means of justification and as a means of acknowledging (a bit too proudly, perhaps) that I have no hangups about this “test of time” business. It’s about admitting, “Yes, I know no one, myself included, will give a damn about this a year from now, but never mind that — right now it’s hitting the spot and that’s what matters.” I do actually subscribe to this for many reasons (not the least of which is that my primary concern when reviewing something, either on paper or in my head, is how something sounds to me right now), but as a critical device, it’s probably as false a position in a way as the test-of-time argument, because the truth is: a) I know my own tastes well enough by this point (God, I hope I do) to know that the stuff I often label “ephemeral” is obviously not ephemeral in regards to my own ears and brain (i.e., the Paris Hilton songs I loved in 2006 hailed directly from a tradition of certain types of dance records I’ve been raving about for years — so why should I be acting so surprised at my liking of them?), and b) it’s a slightly disingenuous method of playing it both ways — that is, it’s a way of acknowledging what others say in dismissal of something you like is true, while arguing that the very reason for their dismissal (“no one will care about this 20 years from now”) is why it appeals to you, never mind that 20 years from now there’s a very good chance that you will still care about it.
Maybe “disingenuous” isn’t the right word; maybe it’s something more like passive-aggressiveness? I’ll have to think about this some more. The point is, it feels like a bit of a too-easy device at times, a way of arguing for something by refusing to really argue for it, to not really delve into why something which others have dismissed has value for you personally. It’s a bit of a distancing-yourself-from-your-own-responses routine.