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Contextualizing criticism

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Surely everyone has experienced the following situation: You hear a song in one context and make a judgment, but then you hear it in different space and time, and change your opinion.

It is a tale as old as time. Music critics have often had to shift and adjust well after hearing a certain song initially as the context around a song changes. Critics didn’t particularly care for Pet Sounds when it was first released, but now it is revered as a milestone in pop music. This largely came from critics revisiting the album in a different headspace. People don’t like to discuss evolving contextualization, but this commonly used anecdote for talking about music actually reveals a great deal about how we individually assess songs.

With no empirical evidence to back up this claim, it is my belief that this subjective contextualization often works in songs’ favor. You’ll often hear people liken music to wine, claiming it grows better with time and age.

For example, as I sat in the grass waiting for my bus home from work on a crisp Monday night in June, I found myself listening to “Pulling Levers,” a song from Hot Hot Heat’s latest (and last) record. I had already liked the song for a number of reasons — it is a brisk and wistful little pop tune with an earworm melody composed around arpeggiating guitars and horn flourishes. I had been enjoying the song for weeks at the point of this story.

But on this particular evening, I was thinking about the girl I had a crush on. With this framework, the lyrics took on a whole new meaning as they wrapped themselves around the now heart-throttling instrumentation.

Ostensibly, the song is about a protagonist trying to come to terms with a love felled by distance. “You can stay where you are or walk back to the sun,” coos vocalist Steve Bays. “We’re a million miles apart.”

Yes, I excitedly thought, I understand this. After all, I was worried that the summer break would interfere with any chance of enjoying a burgeoning romance with this particular person. Suddenly all the lyrics lined up. In my mind, our romantic potential was akin to the sun (I’m naive, sue me) and we were millions of miles apart (it was actually about 3,300).

And yet, despite the obvious flaws in my logic and no changes in the song’s objective properties, I went from liking it to loving it. “Pulling Levers” is, in my opinion, one of the best songs of 2016. I’ve gone on record as such. That opinion was largely formed around one hyper-personal and individually contextualized moment.

Now I know two big questions have probably cropped up as a result of these anecdotes.

The first: Will, isn’t it true that you have a well known propensity for emotional melodrama? The answer is yes, but because music is an art form that is about as ubiquitous as air I can imagine that most people, if not all of them, tag personal memories, moments or thoughts along with the music they like.

The second: Your anecdote for how a song can be improved by contextualization was based off of how a song made your heart ache. Wouldn’t that ruin a song? Possibly, but everyone is a masochist when it comes to love so I just enjoyed the song more.

Now it is important to note that the same process can and does happen in reverse. Almost everyone has a song that has been permanently tainted by a sour memory. My list is long.

In the world of music criticism, it is amazing how often this standard of assessment turns out to be the definitive one. Yet, no one wants to acknowledge it because very few people want to admit that an already subjective art form is even more subjective than everyone suspects.

But that’s just life. Art is meant to touch everyone in a different way at different times. If you trust a critic’s words about everything and avoid or gravitate toward certain art because of their personal experiences, you are quite simply a fool.

Enjoy art. Enjoy music. Let yourself be wrapped in your feelings and let your feelings wrap around it. The process will be more lovely than you could ever imagine.

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