In Response to WCP

As per dialogue concerning This Piece

Dear Jon & WCP~

You seem to have acknowledged the full dress of the issue, addressed it with articulate and consultative dialogue, than stitched it all together once more into a nice hat that more closely resembles a burlap sack then crammed it back over our head.

My problem, after all, is how the term singer-songwriter is presented as a sonic signifier as well as a genre dismissal. Not that all recordings begin or end with a song, but most do. And regardless of what that song is saying and how it’s being said, anything with lyrics is a written song whatever the genre. And someone is singing that written song.

To name a mere few: Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Coldplay, Bowie, Beefheart, Band of Skulls, Lola Jesus, Junip, Jesus and Mary Chain are each and all songwriters or bands with songwriters. Take your pick of most any recordings, and unless it’s strictly instrumental--and sometimes even then--you’ll see a song with lyrical content in there.

Are some edgier than others textually or sonically? One might easily neglectfully overlook one while knowingly dismissing the other. Some more pop-ier? Some folk-ier? Folksy-pop, maybe not an established genre--but what does that exactly mean?

If WCP is referring to acoustic, folk, spare or simple 3 to 4 chord starkly accompanied performing songwriters, you might state so more articulately, more specifically. You clearly wax colloquial in a time when labels are so blurred (you do acknowledge the mix tape/album ambiguity) that we’re ever-compelled to clamor for descriptive certainty. So this could be a discussion of semantics, but I fear it concerns something more formidable and more consequential. 

Is one to perceive WCP’s reiterated policy statement as an unwillingness to write about, promote or cover any artist whose principal element purveyed through their art is lyrical content? Should WCP then recuse itself from critical regarding the lyrical content within any of the genres they do cover, or at least admit that lyrics are the least and last aspect worth regard?

It would be refreshing to sense a more positive eagerness to welcome a field of potential critics to cover “singer-songwriters”, rather than beholding your skepticism-laced frontloaded naysay based on your two-year history with the paper. In any vibrant arts city--especially this Capital one—any apparent ongoing intransigent policy or a status quo smells very uncreative, inartistic, unadventurous, unliberated, stodgy— etc. and ew.

Art reviewers--music reviewers in particular—can sometimes understandably frustrate and unnerve an artist for they enjoy the privileged license to impart the first and last official word regarding works whose very creation was something in which they had no direct hand. That’s not meant disrespectfully, or as a dismissal. Critical review is essential to a healthy artistic process, within and without, published or not.

Many a critic’s names have become household words. The great Edmund Wilson was a well admired and respected writer, although mostly known for his abundant critical reviews and pieces. He had enough inherent and cultivated taste and judgmental skills as well as earned erudite credibility to be a trusted source for literary appraisal. He, too, had a dismissive side. He, too, felt some types of writing were not worth consideration. He also believed that all writing--even critiques—should be good enough to be considered literature.

I’ve heard other music critics state proudly that their primary concern is to provide their readership with something colorful, enticing and entertaining. H.L. Mencken, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis (certainly a novelist first) each discerning to barbed degrees, always manage to be fun to read.

Yes, a critic’s job contains multitudes. It should never be taken lightly. Perhaps you feel that critical commentary on the work of singer-songwriters doesn’t offer enough fuel for that sort of fire.  

Critics have the ironic power of the written word with which to express an informed, informing and seasoned opinion of a work with the intention of aiding and influencing the audience’s approach to it, possibly hastening a decision whether to approach at all. It can and often does pass as entertaining reading. In fact, words and their crafted scan and sequence combine for an eerily powerful commodity.  Any songwriter known for their songs would more than likely attest to them being if not the most important aspect of their work, than the one requiring the most focused and intensely invested effort.  

The creative process is a painstaking and subjective one. So is the act of critically reviewing, assessing and assailing, praising or poo-pooing the resultant work. Each process can be fulfilling, endearing, gratifying and righteous or unsettling, dyspeptic, vindictive and torturous.

But for WCP to proudly brandish categorical and sweeping subjectivity as a policy statement (furthered in the guise of speculation that no one with “the chops” will likely come forth to mollify the situation) is pure bigotry, somewhat poorly articulated, at that.

Today’s social networking platforms can create the unfortunate illusion that one’s proximal and encircling universe is the only universe. A newspaper (a City Paper) has the task (and you largely rise to it) of transcending that phenomenon and unifying—magnifying-- a city’s diverse art scene into our one proud corner of the sky. Within that though, exclusionary policies based on vague terminology will prove counterintuitive. You notably and generally do excel at this mission--the title of your piece was the inviting inquiry, “so how’d we do?” which is, on one hand, amiable, admirable and encouraging--unmistakably in the spirit of convivial inclusion and pluralistic awareness. One the other hand, it contrasts into an unfriendly and unbecoming light the reiterated intent to banish a huge--and I believe legitimate--faction of our arts community to the literary elsewhere.

‘What is hip? Tell me, tell me if you think you know…”

I’ve been around long enough to know what isn’t: bigotry and uninformed dismissiveness. We might all strive to be cooler in that regard.

Thanks for indulging my far too many words, and many thanks for all you do! I’m digging the 2011 list of salient artists and recordings from 2011.

I can also chime, apart from this bit of a blip, job well done!

May yours and other area publications along with the efforts of all the artistic players in the Washington DC area continue to be a hearty, mindful and soulful collaboration toward an ever-more realized, flourishing and thriving artistic community.  

~Jon Carroll  Songwriter, Musician