On Ranking Music

Rob and Alice sit at a café, in a trendy section of downtown Ottawa, enjoying biscotti with their coffee.

Rob: After we finish having our coffee did you want to go to “Make Mine Vinyl” and pick up some records?

Alice: I would be down with that, but I don’t know if I will get anything while we are there.

Rob: Why is that? There are always interesting records to check out. If you don’t have money on you, I can front for you.

Alice: No. That is not necessary. The issue is not that I don’t have money on me, or even that I don’t want to buy a new record. I just find myself overwhelmed by the amount of music I already have; I can’t find the time to truly listen to all of it.

Rob: I guess that makes sense. I have run into this problem myself in the past, but I have a found a way to deal with it.

Alice: How do you deal with it?

Rob: I make sure to set aside a certain amount of time per week to listen to new records, and rate them on Rate Your Music. This way I don’t get behind schedule and find myself in a situation where I have not heard all of the new releases that I want to listen to.

Alice: You rate the records right after listening to them? How many times do you listen to them before you put in your rating?

Rob: I usually listen to them once or twice before ranking them to be fair, and I typically put in the ranking right after I complete my listening. It is kind of part of the process.

Alice: That seems like an efficient approach. How many records have you ranked since starting this?

Rob: I have 1500 records logged on Rate Your Music. How many do you have?

Alice: I don’t use Rate Your Music, but I keep track of my thoughts on each record and have ranked about 300 or so.

Rob: Only 300 or so? I know you have listened to far more than 300 records. Why have you only ranked 300 or so? Do you feel like you have no time for that as well?

Alice: To some degree I feel like I don’t have time, but I also struggle with ranking every record that I have listened to. It feels somehow artificial to put in a ranking for a record just because I have listened to it a couple of times.

Rob: I don’t understand. What feels artificial about it? If you have listened to the record you would most certainly have a judgment on it. Wouldn’t you?

Alice: If am going to rank a record I want to make sure I really understand it, and have given it the opportunity to present itself to me. This will sometimes happen after the first listen, but in other cases the record will seem opaque and I feel I have not really understood what this record is. In these cases, I could just ascribe a ranking to it based on some arbitrary criteria, but that would seem to devalue the record. If I am going to make a pronouncement on a record I want to feel as though I have really figured it out.

Rob: That is interesting, but isn’t any form of ranking of records just selecting a numeric value for the record based on some arbitrary criteria? Some people might attribute more of their rating to their sheer enjoyment of the record, while others might look at originality, musical innovation, lyrical profundity or cohesiveness in order to make their ranking. But in the end, isn’t all of it arbitrary?

Alice: You’re right that people typically rank records in this fashion, but isn’t there something troubling about this? If we rank records just because we can pronounce judgment on them, doesn’t this mean we are ranking records for the sake of ranking records?

Rob: I don’t think so. What do you mean by ranking records for their own sake?

Alice: I mean isn’t music supposed to be something that speaks to us? If our main goal in listening to records is to rank them then aren’t we treating records as objects to be organized into a hierarchy, rather than looking at them and trying to grasp if and how they speak to us? Are records a plaything for our creative amusement in organization and categorization? Or are they unique pieces that call out to be fully grasped and understood?

Rob: I don’t see why records can’t be both. When I sit down to listen to a record and rank it, I do so with an open mind.

Alice: It may be true that you so do with an open mind, but if you are using the method you described earlier and ranking a record after one or two listens what happens when a record does not speak to you after those one or two listens?

Rob: It means that the record deserves a low or mediocre ranking. My view could change if I listen to it again and realize that the record does something well that I had not noticed during my initial listens.

Alice: But how often do you go back to listen to records that did not speak to you upon the initial ranking? If you have to keep up with listening and ranking a bunch of new records where do you find the time?

Rob: It is hard to find time, but I think it is very unlikely that a record would not speak to me on my first couple listens and then somehow speak to me later, so I tend not to go back and listen to them. But I am comfortable with that.

I think the issue is that you don’t like the idea of ranking all of your records because then it might leave you open to ridicule for your rankings and you would have to commit to your rankings.

Alice: Or maybe I am interested in grasping and understanding records, rather than viewing the fact that I listen to them as a badge of my status as a music scholar?

You recognize that you do not go back to records if they do not grab you after one or two listens. Isn’t this precisely viewing music as something not to be grasped and understood, but just to be ranked, organized into a hierarchy and thrown away?

Rob: I am not like that at all! Just because I rank every album I listen to and post it to a website does not mean that I am doing so for the sake of establishing some kind of status as a musical authority, or that I don’t try grasp the record. I just happen to really like to rank records and it is good way to keep occupied when I am not at work, or with friends.

Alice: You know yourself better than me, but I still think my general point holds and that there may be better ways to keep occupied than keeping up with, and ranking, new releases.

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Melancholy, Angst and Music

I, like many others, am very attracted to angst ridden, melancholic music. But what is it that draws me and others to this kind of music? It would seem that this music would be unattractive as it seems to glorify suffering, loss and pain, and it seems bizarre that a seemingly normal person would be drawn to an art form that is devoted to displays of misery. Furthermore, why would anybody want to listen to such a form of music, as how could such an art form be anything but depressing? In answer to the preceding questions I can think of two sources of the attraction that many have to melancholic, angst ridden music. For the sake of brevity I will refer to music that is either angst ridden, melancholic or depressive as “dark music”. The first source is the more obvious fact that dark music can help people who are dealing with certain feelings to recognize that they are not alone in having these feelings, and in so doing help them to deal with those emotions. The less obvious source of the attraction of dark music is the sense that dark music discloses a significant truth about human life that is ignored by society and most other forms of art. It should be noted that I am not arguing that these are the only two sources of the attraction of dark music; rather the argument is being made that these sources contribute to our attraction to dark music.

When a person is melancholic or angst ridden their melancholy or angst is not some additional feeling added on top of their regular feelings and way of operating in the world. Rather, both angst and melancholy shift our entire way of seeing the world. For example, angst makes us see life and the world as void of meaning. For the angst ridden nothing seems worth doing, but when angst ridden people are confronted by music that objectifies their angst this has the therapeutic quality of making that angst ridden person realize that there are others who see the difficulty of seeing anything as worth doing, and this can help people deal with their angst. Recognizing that others deal with angst shows us that there is nothing peculiar about feeling this way, and thus allows us to recognize that angst is a typical human feeling, and one that we need to deal with. Similarly, in the case of melancholy, any person who has been mourning a loss and then listens to a captivating song that represents this loss in an interesting way will know that through listening to this piece of music one will feel that one’s melancholia has been alleviated to some extent, such that it is easier to continue living one’s life. Consequently, it seems that the first source of the attraction of dark music lies in its ability to perform the therapeutic function of helping us to deal with our angst, melancholia or depression. In a way, this is simply a restatement of conventional wisdom, but that fact should not prevent us from recognizing it as a source, as it seems to fit with our experience.

The second source is not recognized as commonly as the first. This source is the fact that dark music reveals some truth that most of art and most of society does not want to speak about or acknowledge. There are many unpleasant truths that are revealed through dark music. They range from the truth that the only thing we can be certain of is death and that we are born and die alone, to the less melodramatic idea that the cosmos is utterly meaningless. Whether these “truths” are actually true is an open question, but for many who are attracted to dark music, one of its most attractive qualities is that it confronts these truths head on rather than trying to avoid speaking about them. Put slightly differently, dark music does not try to comfort its audience by telling them pleasant stories about life, rather it says to them “as much as you do not want to hear this, life is miserable in many regards.” Music with this sort of meaning is attractive because it is not deceptive; instead, it is deeply authentic as it will not shy away from saying things that are horrifying, unsettling or upsetting. People are attracted to this authenticity as it means that the music that they listen to is more than a commodity, because even though the music is a commodity it is also something more in that it speaks honestly about the world.

There are surely other sources of the attraction that many have to dark music, but the two sources elucidated above surely help explain why so many seemingly normal people find themselves drawn to music that seems committed to glorifying loss, misery, pain and dread.

Prostitution, Puritanism, Commodification and Wage Labour

A little while ago the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws as unconstitutional. While this act by the Supreme Court never suggested that prostitution should be legal, it did argue that Canada’s current laws needed to be replaced as the current laws endangered the health and safety of sex trade workers. As a result of this the whole issue of prostitution’s status under the law has become a topic for public discussion.

The interesting element of these discussions of prostitution is the earnest piety with which both left leaning and right leaning politicians condemn prostitution as necessarily exploitative and immoral. I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that currently sex trade workers are exploited, victims of violence and subject to being connected with human trafficking, and I am not sure if the connection between these criminal activities and prostitution can easily be cut. But, the fact that currently sex trade workers tend to be subject to these dangers, does not necessarily show that prostitution is exploitative, but only that prostitution is exploitative under the particular conditions under which it exists within the contemporary Canadian context. And yet the partisans of both left and right seem to act as if the current state of prostitution in Canada means that sex trade work is necessarily exploitative and needs to be condemned by means of law. There are of course some contrasting voices that want to reform the sex trade industry such that it becomes a legitimate form of economic activity, but these are a very small minority. Thus, the Canadian public discussion of this issue is dominated by a very broad condemnation of prostitution.

I suspect that this condemnation of prostitution is due to the idea that there is something particularly degrading about prostitution such that even under the most perfect egalitarian conditions engaging in prostitution would be a sign that someone was mentally ill or depraved. This idea is rarely expressed clearly, but it seems to fit with the fact that we are the heirs to a tradition of thought and practise in which sexual purity was a central element of morality, and the fact that many people will say that they cannot see any reasons for engaging in prostitution other than poverty, desperation or mental illness. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that there is a strand of thought in Canada about prostitution which sees prostitution as necessarily degrading. Let us call this perspective `Pious Puritanism.` For the remainder of this entry I will argue that the ideas underlying pious puritanism are valid, but that they imply a broader critique of commodification and wage labour itself.

Pious Puritanism suggests that prostitution is deeply degrading under any condition. This raises the question of why prostitution is degrading, One reason to think that prostitution is degrading is that it represents the infiltration of norms of economic activity into a sphere in which norms of romantic affection ought to dominate, and economic norms should be barred entry. Just as it would be absurd and degrading for someone to treat their romantic partner as someone who they exchange goods and services with on the basis of a binding commercial contract, so too it is absurd and degrading to sell sex to another. Underlying this thought process is the idea that our sexual and romantic capacities should not be rendered into commodities that can be traded for money. Let us call this objection to prostitution the romantic criticism.

One other reason why someone might object to prostitution in principle is that prostitution treats a person merely as a sexual object to be bought and paid for. The problem with this form of objectification is that it renders the sex trade worker into an instrument of another`s pleasure, to be used. Even though this form of objectification does not actively coerce the sex trade worker it fails to positively appreciate that the sex trade worker is more than somebody to be paid and used. Let us call this objection the sexual objectification criticism.

While I find both of these criticisms compelling they point beyond the target of prostitution. In the case of the romantic critique it might seem as though prostitution is unique in that it commodifies aspects of us that should not be commodified. But it seems equally degrading to commodify one`s character traits such as loyalty, leadership or amicability, and yet when people apply for jobs they typically have a list of traits on their resume that they intend to sell to their prospective employer in order to get a job. In this way those who apply for jobs and work in the mainstream post-industrial economy are not merely selling their labour, they are selling themselves. Consequently, just as the sexual aspect of persons should not be commodified, so too it seems that the virtues that people have should not be commodified. It seems deeply demeaning to have to sell traits that are fundamental to who you are in order to get a job. As a result, the romantic critique seems to point to powerful reasons to be suspicious of prostitution, but it also point to the fact that there are other problematic forms of commodification within post-industrial societies like Canada.

The sexual objectification critique also properly sheds light on some of the problematic aspects of prostitution, but it doing so it also points to a broader critique of wage labour. If there is a problem with failing to positively appreciate that sex trade workers are more than sexual objects, than isn`t it also problematic for employers to fail to properly appreciate that their employees are more than a mere paid resource with particular capacities? This latter case seems to be a case of objectification as much as the former case does, and thus it is hard to see why objectifying someone as a sexual object is problematic, while objectifying them as a technical IT resource for instance would not be. We tend to be more comfortable with the latter form of objectification as we actively participate in it, simply by calling someone for IT support, but that does not render it any less of a form of objectification unless we treat the IT worker as more than just a resource that we have to pay. Thus, it seems that the sexual objectification critique points to the fact that wage labour itself is problematic. Thus, it seems that the romantic critique and sexual objectification critique of prostitution actually point towards a broader critique of practises of commodification and wage labour.

If the two critiques elaborated above point towards a broader critique of commodification and wage labour this means that anyone who finds prostitution problematic for the reasons associated with these critiques should also find certain elements of the economic systems of post-industrial society deeply problematic. I am certainly someone who finds both prostitution and many elements of the economic systems of post-industrial societies problematic, but it seems that within our culture there is a general tendency to have disdain for prostitution, while ignoring the fact that many of the reasons behind people’s condemnation of prostitution point to a broader critique of commodification and wage labour. It is important for us to recognize that this perspective is deeply in tension, if not contradictory, and thus problematic.

Facebook’s Newsfeed, Recognition and Friendship

On Facebook’s newsfeed people often post everything from pictures of themselves and their food, to news articles and videos, to facts about their daily lives and seemingly profound quotes. In this sense the newsfeed on Facebook serves as medium of self-disclosure wherein people choose to share facts about their lives, their thoughts on politics or simply their taste in cuisine. The question that this raises is what drives people to disclose themselves in this way through the medium of Facebook’s newsfeed? It seems that one reason for these forms of activity is that people desire to be valued by others. The desire to be valued by others, or put differently the desire to be recognized as valuable is not inherently problematic, but posting to Facebook’s newsfeed because of this desire is problematic as it constitutes a form of disrespect for others.

Typically on Facebook, people have many contacts which range from close friends to relatives to distant acquaintances. Generally, the vast majority of ones “friends” on Facebook are merely acquaintances with which one shares very little connection. Anything one posts to one’s newsfeed will show up in all of one’s “friend’s” newsfeeds. As a result of this fact when one posts to the newsfeed one is sharing not only with one’s actual friends, but with the broad range of contacts that one has collected as Facebook “friends.” Consequently, it seems that, in some cases, a legitimate explanation for why people disclose themselves through posts to their newsfeed is so that they are seen by others in a particular light and in turn valued by them. For example, there is little difference between talking about your recent breakup on Facebook’s newsfeed, and talking with a cashier who you are acquainted with about your breakup. In the latter case we would say that the person needed someone to hear them out in order so that they felt valued by others. So, in the former case (Facebook’s newsfeed) it seems that we should also think that the person is searching for valuation by others. Consequently, I think it is plausible to think that in many cases posting to Facebook’s newsfeed indicates a desire to be valued by others; in such cases we expose ourselves to others in hopes that they see the post and come to recognize our value.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the recognition that we look for while posting on Facebook’s newsfeed is not the desire to be recognized as a human being with dignity, because someone can accord this to another, without valuing any particular features of the individual. Consequently, we can recognize another as having equal human dignity if we think that all individuals should be treated with respect, even if we do not value the particular nature of certain human beings. This is clearly not the kind of recognition we seek through posting on Facebook’s newsfeed. Rather, the recognition we seek in the context of Facebook’s newsfeed is to be seen as valuable not as a human being in general, but as a particular human being with particular features. For example, we may want to be recognized because of our profound intellect or our exquisite taste in music, or some other particular feature. For the rest of this post when I refer to recognition I mean this latter form of recognition of particularistic value.

The problem with posting to Facebook’s newsfeed in order to achieve recognition is that this act seeks to achieve recognition without any interest in forming a deeper relationship with the others who are being asked for recognition. When one is forming a friendship one discloses oneself to others in hopes that they will recognize the particular value that you have, but you also have an interest in forming a relationship with that person and sharing in their life in some way. When we post to Facebook’s newsfeed in order to gain recognition on the other hand we do so to get as much recognition as we can, but without actually taking an interest in developing deeper relationships with those who we are asking for recognition from. In this case, there is a tendency to see the others that we are asking for recognition from as a source of “likes,” rather than as other particular individuals. We want these others to affirm our value, but we have little interest in forming a consequential relationship with them, whether it be a friendship, or simply a spirited sharing of interests. Seeing others as mere sources of “likes” or recognition in this way is deeply problematic as it objectifies the person who is being asked for recognition, and consequently disrespects them.  Now it is true that objectification is a large part of most elements of contemporary society. We are objectified in our work place as we are “resources” rather than persons. We are objectified by the store owner who merely sees us a source of money, but nonetheless we need to take a critical eye to all forms of objectification, if only to better understand if it is a necessary element of all developed societies, or if it is something that we can overcome.

 

Edit: April 20 – 5:43 MST