mute music

15 Albums in 15 Minutes, or What Does the Mute Music Column Want?

By Jon Bywater, 30 November 2010

In the second installment of his music column, Jon Bywater explores the uncanny overlaps between Facebook 'liking' and music criticism

Despite being a pioneer in user recommendations and its overall leadership in the online shopping sector, Amazon has been slow to embrace social shopping. But a new feature launched yesterday allows Amazon shoppers who connect their Facebook account to Amazon to get recommendations from their Facebook friends on what to buy. Numerous studies have shown that a friend's recommendations have the most weight with shoppers, and the Amazon Facebook connection places the users' friends right inside the buying cycle.

- Hypebot, 28 July, 2010


Most of the information that we care about is things that are in our heads, right? And that's not out there to be indexed, right?

- Mark Zuckerbergi


Given the fact that the music industry is in nearly as bad shape as journalism, the only sensible course of action may be to make a case for what matters personally.

- Charlie Bertsch, Music Editor, Zeek, December 2009


1 - ‘Upbeat & Conventional'

The ‘death' of the neighbourhood record store, reconfigurations of touring and merchandising, a global market for thousand dollar rarities on auction sites and their simultaneous unprecedented availability through file sharing sites, and so on - the impact of the internet on the consumption of music is extensive, various and widely discussed. At the same time, in the era of user-generated content, the ‘end(s)' of journalism (as doubtless more than one symposium title has punned) have been drawn into question, provoking discussions of new ‘crises' in criticism. After the net, the conditions for both music and writing trouble genre in writing about music in some obvious ways. In terms of the simple 'what you may like', for example, what can I write up that, Pandora or Grooveshark cannot, at least in principle, already hip you to? (As with Deep Blue versus Kasparov, it may not be clear cut that specialists are outflanked by algorithms yet, but the networked intelligence of something as simple as Amazon's or Rate Your Music's users' lists - that keep intact the rich irrationality of human ordering - already looks like the endgame.)

Of course Mute readers are not looking for a Christgauian 'consumer advisory'. Here, a quick answer to the question of writing's continued role seems evident. It can offer descriptions that are potentially transformative, persuasive beyond an extrapolation from and affirmation of one's prejudices; modelling ways of thinking about music, for one thing. In his last column, Ben Watson seems to advocate that we give our attention to Takayanagi over Haino, for example, but his adoption of a macho critical form ('My cool is cooler than your cool.') might be read as ironic (bogus!), a play on the conventional posture of the ‘hip priests' in response to whom he makes his provocation. His real offering is a way of bringing the recordings in question into certain intellectual connections. Likewise, Howard Slater's reading lists and listening lists are more than the sum of their contents, they are their product, an application of the things in combination. Nothing in Tchicai makes us adopt a speculative realist ethic, but if we follow the critic's account of his own listening, we are invited to share his sense of insight into the sensual reality of sounds amenable to such sophisticated conceptualisations of things beyond language.

Buy, hey! That's just me. These things involve you, gentle reader, (or me when I'm reading, as above) as well as the columnist, of course. How are you reading what's posted here? Contrary to my line of thinking above, you may well be browsing to glean information about recordings 'you may like', quite reasonably allowing your general sympathies with Mute to lead you to things that people who like that sort of thing will like. In fact, that seems to me at least as likely as the possibility, for example, that you are looking for that familiar critical sleight whereby the most interesting current ideas about culture and politics are conjured from the very music (or art, or whatever) already to hand as an articulation of their value - the 'ways of thinking about music' on offer just happening to align quite neatly with established affects and resources. The question of what desires might be in play here is large and complex, but it does seem a compelling one to touch on in this open-ended context. How do your interests in reading and mine in writing interrelate? How and to what end could mine shift yours, for instance? In other words, what does the Mute Music Column want?

2 - ‘Energetic & Rhythmic'

As at least 500 million of us may be aware, 'Music' is the third category after 'Activities' and 'Interests' in the 'Likes and Interests' section of Facebook's profile information, ahead of 'Books', 'Movies' and 'Television'. Anyone sceptical about the hierarchies of value and the lifestyle norms encoded in this template will be reassured by the existence of empirical proof demonstrating that the music we like is, indeed, one of the first things to come up in conversation between unacquainted people (this is provided by a statistically valid sample of the contemporary North American population, at least).ii Thus positioned, music is something of someone else's which one consumes and communicates through rather than, say, does. Music's ancient roles, in personal recreation as well as in communal rituals, segue into one as a commodity with which to construct, question and extend a self, to identify with and in opposition to others. Facebook ‘liking' is notably social in the respect that users can see and can click-through to mimic other users' ‘likes' in push-button acts of affiliation. These assertions of musical preferences, then, work as both self- and other-directed identifications -'I like to see myself as the sort of person who likes this' as much as 'I would like to be seen as the sort of person who likes this' - shorthand for practices and associated values that are clues to nothing less complex than what the social scientist attempts to measure as our 'personality dimensions, self-views, and cognitive abilities'.iii

In recent months, Facebook users may have encountered the '15 minutes' meme, viral quizzes that don't require you to give permission for any application to 'access your data', but instead operate through the site's standard mechanism of ‘tagging' ‘friends' in relation to a ‘wall' post. Tagged by someone in your social network, you are prompted to see someone's response to the cut-and-pasted instruction to list, for example, '15 albums in 15 minutes', and invited to make your own list, tagging others in turn. Extracting candour with convenience (or the public cover of such), the instructions require you not to 'take too long to think about it'. Armed with disclaimers ('These 15 could be different in another 15 minutes!'), participants then take their time to compile lists of albums 'that will always stick with' them, 'the first fifteen [they] recall', knowing that the person who tagged them is 'interested in seeing what albums [their] friends choose', and so tagging them in turn to share their choices. This spread of opinion offers a conspicuous example of the information-gathering power that pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell does allow to the new tools of social media.iv Those things listed alongside things you already know in a web of 'weak ties' are a music fan's dream, surpassing mailing lists as an upgrade from the mythical 'older friend' required, in the 1980s in my world, to tell you about the Stooges or (the) Can. What interests me more, though, is the way that the prescribed nonchalance intensifies an aspect of the acts of identification already discussed.

My point, perhaps, is autoethnographic, because it derives from the way this game caught me out. Even as someone well rehearsed in making public assertions about music - from publishing reviews to wearing the occasional band t-shirt - the task struck me as strange and difficult. No doubt partly in reaction to the list I was looking at, and its particular position between understandable and not-me, the number of ways the condition 'it will always stick with me' might be understood would be hard to enumerate. For instance, the sense of the present (or 'always', if you like) implied seemed hopelessly ambiguous. Should I provide a snapshot of this week's listening interests, of this year's, of those of my adult life to date, or even of my entire history with music? The idea, quite obviously, is that the spontaneous answer is truest to self. Thus it may be precisely the 'not thinking' that reveals those things that are shared or not shared, and so relate to individuation and fraternity. In realising that I needed to inspect the framing assumptions that would shore up this underspecified task into something coherent, I recognised my indecision as consistent with rather than in contradiction to my experiences of writing about music. The exercise suggested itself as analogue for music criticism; the need to follow instinct on so many parameters is something like the need to conform to genre.

3 - ‘Intense & Rebellious'

One thing this experience did was to throw into sharp relief the pleasures of self-assertion and self-recognition in the expression of evaluative judgements, at the same time as highlighting the way they make sense within communities with loosely shared assumptions about how to relate to music. It is a reminder that the informational and theoretical generosities of music criticism have as their corollary a similar exhibitionism and self-regarding aspect, and of the potential violence in making similar assumptions in a more conventionally ‘public' context. Further, as a use of music in itself, the quiz also prompts me to consider what we do with music, simply because its popularity makes more people's expressions of taste unusually visible to me. All this refreshes a familiar demand of reflecting, of being mindful of the critic's relationship with the object of critical reflection. The potential difference of my own practices from others' makes vivid the ethical dimension to the task of translating between systems of value. For example, in so far as they are made from the perspective of a record collector (as I was indirectly discussing in my last column), can my judgements transcend this practice to offer something to those for whom collecting may be irrelevant or impossible? I wonder about the tone of the exchange with the reader, from deferential to coercive, and the shades of irony that coerciveness may bear. What right do I have to suggest a way of thinking or feeling, given the interconnections between uses, abilities, and privileges of access, leisure and education?

If '...15 minutes' and music criticism both belong to a subset of uses for music that intersects with, but exceeds, that of the performance of personal identity, what might the superset illuminate and how might we begin to delineate it? In one dimension of the array, the experience of listening to music, might be differentiated between uses like something to share while you eat, drink and talk with friends, something that you use to start your day, to fix or ramp up your mood before going out, something to sit down with alone and to follow closely, to lose yourself in, to get beyond thinking with, something to play on the way to work, or at work to reclaim your own space, something to play for someone else, to share with someone by emailing a YouTube link or adding to a mixtape, something to DJ with, something to write about, or something that you listen to at home anticipating and planning one of these other uses. In another, what the music does may depend on how it is represented, such as by a line of text in your iTunes interface or by a 40-year-old assemblage of card and vinyl. In yet another, its relative personal novelty or familiarity may bear on its effects. So, something you downloaded a couple of weeks ago, something that's just arrived in the post, something that you've owned since before you lived here, that you know well, or think of yourself as knowing well, that you haven't played for ages, could be a fresh variation on something you're hungry for at the moment, or a welcome shift from familiar territory.

Image: Diagram of standardised parameter estimates for Model 2 of the music preference data in Renfrow & Gosling's study

Beginning reflexively and empirically along such lines, thinking use in its complexity, offers one way to keep in view music's entanglement in material conditions. The triangle formed by the conditions of reception, the music and its originating context is reasserted, defending against the false hope, which sometimes seems to express itself in criticism, that the abstraction of 'the work itself' will work particular effects on its own. Considered in this way, alignments between aesthetics and politics might be made out in greater specificity, discerning connections between the properties of the music and its situated effects (acknowledging that some things are better for some uses, but that there is always what is to hand). Arguments that reduce to equivalences as tired as 'the popular is good because the difficult is elitist', or 'the esoteric is good because my own political ambitions are invested in my identification with the complex and reflective', might be avoided. A sensitivity to uses for music thus might avoid that terrible fate for any critical writing, to curdle into an adolescent sulk that the ills of the world are due to the difference of others ('if only everyone had my sensitivity and IQ, the world would work better, so I will brandish them as a covert signal to those smart and sensitive enough to agree with me'), and contribute to a criticism that respects, sustains and invents diverse, worthy pleasures and values.

Coda - ‘Reflective & Complex'

When the request first reached me, I did post '15 albums...' on Facebook. My self-consciousness in the moment stopped me from following the rules all the way to making the demand of anyone else to do the same, but the time restriction was no problem, thanks to many previous hours contemplating similarly masculine, shorthand bulletins of musical taste. To begin to write in an interpretation of this selection would be another essay again. Suffice it to say that after the fact, I quickly saw that the inclusions followed a logic more conscious in my music criticism. Here then - an artefact of a particular trajectory through certain traditions, at certain temporal and cultural distances - is my list which, of course, may or may not say something to you more or less than what I was saying to myself and meant to offer:

Milford Graves - Babi

Sun Ra & his Solar Arkestra - Magic City

Skip James - Devil Got My Woman

Joe Hill Louis - The Be-Bop Boy

Rick Morano - At the Top of the Marq

Peter Grudzien - The Unicorn

Space Dust - Beatle!

Night Kings - Increasing Our High

Tone Deaf & the Idiots - Catastrophe Rock

Guru Guru -UFO

Sir Lord Baltimore - Kingdom Come

Michael Hurley -First Songs

Mayo Thompson - Corky's Debt to his Father

Jacks - Vacant World

The Outsiders - CQ

Jon Bywater <j.bywater AT> is a critic and a teacher who once wrote for The Jewish Beatle, 'New Zealand's only rock'n'roll magazine'


i Quoted in Jose Antonio Vargas, 'The Face of Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg opens up', The New Yorker, 20 September, 2010.

ii Peter J Renfrow & Samuel D Gosling, 'Message in a Ballad: The Role of Music Preferences in Interpersonal Perception', Psychological Science, 2006, Vol. 17, No. 3, 2006, pp.237.

iii Renfrow & Gosling, 'The Do Re Mi's of Everyday Life: The Structure and Personality Correlates of Music Preferences', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003, Vol. 84, No. 6, pp.1251.

iv Malcolm Gladwell, 'Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.' New Yorker, October 4, 2010, accessed by