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Friday, April 11, 2014

Dolly Parton - A Review

The music critic has always fascinated me. He is the professional variant of something many people do continuously: talking about their musical experiences in an evaluating way.

I guess the music critic uses three ingredients: descriptions, judgments, and emotions. He describes what has happened: who was where when with whom, why, with which backgrounds, which history, et cetera. Then there are the judgments and the emotions. They are the equivalents of what I elsewhere called "judging talk" and "liking talk". Together they make up the discourse in which we describe our personal relationship to music. Music touches us - hence the "liking talk" with which we describe our emotions. And on that basis we pick the music we like to listen to - which leads to enormous amounts of "judging talk", in which we try to rationalize our musical choices. Of course that rational story is never convincing, precisely because it is the rational counterpart of the emotional process of liking music, a process which remains inexplicable and only expressible through - mostly material (often bodily) - metaphors: "It really entered"; "It touched my heart"; "It shook me"; et cetera.

All this  is just a prelude to what I am going to do now: write a little review of hearing "I Still Miss Someone", written by Johnny Cash, as performed by Dolly Parton. You see, I start with the who and the what. So let's do some more description. I didn't hear it live, but from the CD "The Grass is Blue" in which Dolly returns to her (?) musical roots - rather than slick country or outright pop the idiom is bluegrass. I heard it driving in the car, returning from a rehearsal with my shanty choir.

Now some judging talk. Dolly is a fantastic singer. Her glissandi, her ornamentation, the use of dynamics, they are all of the highest quality. Of course I am talking from within the genre here; she is not at the level of Maria Callas, but then again, Maria Callas will never reach the level of Dolly Parton (and I guess neither of them had any ambition in those reciprocal directions). In "I Still Miss Someone", Dolly does to my feeling what not so many artists are able to do: she sings a very sentimental song (the song starts: the leaves are falling, a cold wind comes, sweethearts walk by together, and I still miss someone), uses a wide dynamic range and all the vocal tricks she knows, but all in a completely serious manner (she takes serious what she does), and by that doesn't sound oversentimental but precisely honest. And what is especially important: she never sounds 'camp' or tongue in cheek. Because that is the worst thing that can happen to this type of repertoire (or any repertoire, I guess): people singing a song in order to make fun of it and take the piss out of people who happen to like this song. I know, I know, a good laugh is a great thing, also musically; but singing a repertoire you don't really like in a way that shows that "we" all know this is meant in a funny way and not to be taken seriously seems such a waste of time and energy to me.

Sorry, I was carried away. Anyway.

Now the emotional thing. I drove in the car and listened to Dolly, and couldn't help feeling that this song was the song I hád to listen to at that moment. It didn't so much catch the moment as that it formed the moment; it shaped my feelings, my drive home, my experiences of the rehearsal, my general outlook on life, my being, at that specific moment. It "really entered", as it were.

And there we are: description is easy. So is judging. But for me the interesting thing is the liking talk. And that liking talk is so much bound to person, time and place, that it is never exactly replicable, never really explainable to people, it is never really possible to convince others to feel what you felt. Probably that is the reason why I read the work of music critics with a mild disinterest. Yes, I like the descriptions. The judging talk sometimes is really knowledgeable and well expressed. But the emotional core - íf it is there at all in the review - is so personal and so principally untransferable that it takes a Marcel Proust-like writer to become convincing.

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