Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, the NPR ombudsman, says (in a piece linked here) that he finds many of NPR’s music reviews “incomprehensible to some listeners, and I confess, to me.”

And then he gives some examples, one of which, from a review of Wilco, is this:

These extended explorations and others, like the five minutes of abrasive dental-drill feedback drone near the end of the disc, give Wilco’s music an entirely new dimension. The guitar isn’t here to make things pretty. Tweedy uses savage, wild lunges to punctuate the verses and sometimes to inject a little danger into otherwise lovely songs.

But what’s hard to understand about that? As long as you realize that Tweedy is somebody’s name — which is easy to tell from the context — what’s difficult about this passage? What’s hard to understand about abrasive noise injecting danger into what otherwise would be lovely songs?

The answer, surely, is that Dvorkin hasn’t thought much about abrasive noise being part of any kind of music. Certainly I’d guess he hasn’t listened to abrasive, noisy music. As he says at the start of his complaint, “For some listeners, the music sounds harsh and the journalism that attempts to explain it, sounds equally irritating (and impenetrable).” But comments, as the one I’ve quoted shows, are written in plain, simple language. (The other two are no different.) They can only seem impenetrable because the music itself comes from a place that Dvorkin and these other listeners aren’t used to — and, I suspect, don’t want to enter.

That said, there’s still a problem. How are music reviewers supposed to talk, when even things they say in simple language seem — at least to some people — to come from another planet? If they stop to explain the most basic concepts (“Wilco’s latest album may seem to be full of horrible noise, but there’s a reason for that”), they’ll sound ridiculous to the many people who do know the music. (“The Beethoven symphony that the Philharmonic played last night is very long, but that’s how classical pieces are.”) One thing this shows is that music, in spite of all the sentimental talk about it, is anything but a universal language. Instead, it seems to divide us — to mark subcultural boundaries — far more than it unites us.

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