Tom Ewing on “The Test of Time”

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.

5 thoughts on “Tom Ewing on “The Test of Time”

  1. As I have actually figured out how to bend the folds of space and time (hint: it involves heavy drinkin’… but I’m holding out for a buyout from Bill Gates rather than disclose my technique), I actually KNOW what records will stand the proverbial “test of time” — 5, 10, even 20 years from now. Hell, I even know what I myself will be listening to 20 MINUTES FROM NOW!!

    All that aside, I’d just like to say that in recent years I have increasingly found myself having this kind of dialogue with editors and certainly publicists. It typically involves some scenario where I might want to write about this or that shitty new major label baby band that just got plucked out of indie obscurity, and it also all-too-often involves a scenario where (a) the label is doing an ad buy with the magazine, or (b) the publicist will get a nice little paycheck if she can “place” a story about her client.

    Editor/P.R. Flack: “But why don’t you want to write about the band?”

    Me: I’d rather write about someone that I think will actually be around in another 5 or 10 years…

    E/PRF: “What difference does that make? They’re making quality music right now!”

    Me: I call it the “stand the test of time” test. Plus, why should I waste readers’ time and money on another shitty little band that will make an album or two and then disappear?

    E/PRF: “You can’t know if their music will stand the test of time. You can’t predict the future.”

    Me: I’ve been listening to popular music since the early ’60s and writing about it since the late ’70s. I’ve got a pretty good intuition about these things by now.

    E/PRF: “*splutter, gargle, choke, fizz*”

    Me: *click*

  2. >>>I’d rather write about someone that I think will actually be around in another 5 or 10 years…>>>

    See, this is what I just don’t get, Fred. Why does this matter to you? And how is knowing it (or assuming you know it) going to enhance your enjoyment of something right now? I mean, no offense, but the idea to me smacks just a little bit of a race to be deemed “right” as far as these things go, but to me there is no “right.” (Also, except for the most obscure of the obscure, what *won’t* be around in another 5 or 10 years? It seems like there’s an audience for pretty much everything now.)

  3. Actually, of course there is a “right,” I think I’m just uncomfortable with the notion that there is some *universal* right insofar as this stuff goes.

  4. Good points. But I’ve never been one of those writers — unlike many who shall remain nameless — that has a vested interest in being “right”, e.g. some self-anointed arbiter of taste. I just like what I like, and I don’t even necessarily feel vindicated if some band I dig from day 1 (say, REM) winds up being deemed classic. At the same time, I don’t like to feel as if I’m wasting my “time” on a band that clearly has no staying power, based of course on my own subjective instincts.

    Ultimately, I think what I was also trying to get at is that all music is not created equal — I’ve often said that rock ‘n’ roll should be exempt from any notions of affirmative action, and that just because you CAN make music (in this day and age, everyone has the tools at their disposal), doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

  5. The Naked Critic: I thought of one more thing that is kinda relevant to what I said earlier; I happened to be soaping myself up in the shower at the time, so you can hold that mental image for a few moments if you like.

    I said I’m not the kind who feels a need to be “right” — but time and time again, I have had a similar-but-different feeling on those occasions when an early fave does hang in there, does stand the test of time, is judged classic. It’s more of a shared communal feeling, that anyone who thinks he or she is part of a community of music lovers (or dare I say it, a community of rock writers). It’s that feeling we got when, just to cite one example, the Replacements broke out of the indie ghetto and became one of the greats. It’s that feeling that I like to call — “We won.”

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