There’s a good piece by Bill Friskics-Warren in the current issue of the Oxford American, about our tendency to lean too heavily on words when reacting to music – something that Bill’s book (linked to above) deals with brilliantly.

Here’s an (very slightly tweaked in the first paragraph) excerpt:


The practice of logocentrism, of romancing words at the expense of nonverbal forms of expression, has marred pop criticism for decades. Among other lapses it has contributed to the reviling of disco as mindless dance music; it’s led to the dismissal of a hypnotic vamp like James Brown’s “Licking Stick” as repetitive, and of the willful inanity of the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat” as artless.

This exegetical mindset, this need to take hold of works of art and get a logical handle on them, isn’t confined to the way people hear music. Take anime, the sometimes plot-indifferent Japanese medium to which my son introduced me a few years ago. Initially, just about every time he’d gauge my enthusiasm for a new series or movie (all of which were dubbed in English), I’d shrug, “It’s all right,” before adding, “but what’s it about?” A similar attitude is at work when people look at a painting by an abstract expressionist like de Kooning and ask what it means instead of letting the piece wash over or assail them. The same goes for anyone who sees a film by a surrealist like Buñuel and seeks to locate its storyline rather than pausing to take in the harrowing sensuality of the images moving across the screen.

The parsing of music into verbal and nonverbal categories is also one of the hallmarks of “rockism,” the logocentric attitude that subscribes to a host of false dichotomies such as hip vs. square, hard vs. soft, raw vs. slick, authentic vs. fake, and rock vs. pop. Rockism tends to favor white, macho guitar music over dance-oriented idioms of black and Latin origin. It favors the playing of one’s own songs over the spinning of records made by someone else. It lies behind the veneration of artists who write their lyrics, those with something to say, over performers who merely sing words supplied by others. Rockism is what prompts people to ask, “Beatles or Stones?” as if they couldn’t imagine that the answer could be, “Both, and James Brown, Martha Reeves, and Dusty Springfield too!” Rockism induces people to size up, canonize, and suppress music instead of abandoning themselves to its pleasures and powers. Rockism betrays a divide-and-conquer mentality rooted in phallocentrism, the hierarchal identification of the masculine with logic, and thus as the animating and grounding force in the universe. They don’t call it “cock rock” for nothing.

This isn’t to say that words don’t matter, or that we should abandon our minds entirely to our senses. But as our word-obsessed, increasingly fundamentalist world persistently reinforces, they also can cause damage, and often on a cataclysmic scale. All of which is merely to suggest that we not give words, or the meanings and ideologies that we attach to them, so much power, and that we engage the world with greater immediacy and let fewer things, conceptually or otherwise, come between us. And, when it comes to music, that we never stop hearing the likes of Little Richard’s world-historical “A-wop-bop-a-lu-bop” — as transcendent an expression as any uttered, and utterly nonsensical to boot. An eloquent reminder, as Talking Heads later bid us, to stop making sense.


2 thoughts on “Logocentrism”

  1. whoa, am i the only one that feels like this author has completely, utterly missed the point? it seems to me like the distinction is between simply absborbing the entirety of art versus parsing out the meaning. i don’t think words are key to the issue – the same problems would arise if i was using colors or some other non-verbal system to describe meaning.

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