Against the Breaking Wind: Dialogic Musical Criticism

"Criticism is a study by which men grow important
and formidable at very small expense."
-Samuel Johnson

"Talking loud and saying nothing."
-James Brown

Within the hallowed halls of the Temple of Criticism there dwells a sect whose only requirement for membership is the ability to state the obvious. Members of this select group spend their every waking hour formulating terminology in which to cloak the various observations that drift through their transoms, in order to present impressive-sounding pronunciations which, when scratched, reveal truths which are plain to all.

Such a one is George Lipsitz. In his tedious essay, "Against the Wind: Dialogic Aspects of Rock and Roll," Mr. Lipsitz attempts to enthrall the reader with his own revelation that popular music reflects a dialogic progression of musical styles and that, lo and behold, said progression points up historical and cultural vicissitudes hitherto ignored by other critics. The intellectual condescension of the piece is surpassed only by the author's preoccupation with his own back-biting agenda; he seems more concerned with attacking his contemporaries than in actually discussing the critical theory which he has put forth. This is understandable, in that one can only state that the sky is blue and the grass is green so many times before he reaches the point where even the protective armor of jargon is penetrated.

Mr. Lipsitz states, "It is one thing to assume an unproblematic relationship between musical expression and social experience, and quite another to see music as social, as part of collective historical memory and continuing social dialogue." I disagree. The latter statement is simply a more elaborate wording of the former, an attempt to put a redundant, ideological stamp upon an accepted fact, namely that music is a continually evolving process wherein the march of time and the diversity of cultures play pivotal roles. Elsewhere we are treated to insights such as "No articulation has meaning by itself," "Musical forms have meaning only as they can be interpreted by knowing subjects," and "By looking at the music itself, we can find dialogic traces of the past, and discern their enduring utility in the present." In all candor, I didn't need George Lipsitz to tell me these things. They are truisms, evident to anyone who gives the concept of popular music half a thought.

Finally, as an English language major, I found Lipsitz's misuse of words somewhat distressing. He uses "interpellation" for "interpolation," "affect" for "effect," and completely inverts the meaning of "reify." This concern might seem a bit pedantic, but the appearance of such errors does tend to undermine the credibility of a writer who, I assume, wishes to be taken seriously.

To sum up, it is my opinion that the stating of the obvious should be left to politicians; such rank populism has no place in the Groves of Academe.


Chomsky, Noam, Terrorizing the Neighborhood: American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era, San Francisco, CA, Pressure Drop Press, 1991.

Mill, John Stuart, Essays on Politics and Society, (J.M. Robson, editor), Toronto, Canada, University of Toronto Press, 1977.

Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty, Arlington Heights, IL, Harlan Davidson Inc., 1947.

Mill, John Stuart, "Utilitarianism" (excerpt), Philosophy: A Literary and Conceptual Approach, second edition, B.F. Porter, editor, New York, NY, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1980.

Schiller, Herbert I., Culture Inc., New York, NY, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1989.

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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