I don’t fully understand music criticism. When I read (good) criticism about a book or a film, I feel like I learn something – either about the book or film itself, or books or films in general, or about politics or culture or the world. Most of the music criticism I’ve read either validates my opinions without helping me learn anything about them, or else it makes me feel stupid. A huge amount of music criticism is underpinned by a dichotomy between what is Good and Okay to Like and what is Dumb and Bad that Only Dumb and Bad People Like. What falls into each category is supposed to be obvious to the reader, because it’s never explained. (Robert Christgau is one of the most acclaimed music critics in America, and he operates on a bizarre and complicated system combining letter grades and emojis.) Declaring something good or bad is the critic’s job, of course, but even when I disagree with a film critic, they’ll still be interesting to read if they’re any good. Roger Ebert was wrong about Midnight Cowboy, but he was wrong in a way that made me think more deeply about the film.
Five years ago, Andy Samberg made his final appearance as a cast member of Saturday Night Live. It was the end of a seven-year run in which he and his comedy partners, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, not only helped to save the show from cultural irrelevance but redefined popular culture for decades to come.
We gather today to remember their impact, their accomplishments and their dick jokes.
We live in a time of great crisis and upheaval. The contradictions of the grotesque global atrocity known as capitalism continue to tear holes in the fragile fabric of the post-war liberal consensus that has guided the political culture of the western world for over seventy years. Each tear creates a new opening for resurgent fascists and other far-right extremists, who march openly in the streets of major cities for the first time in decades. The liberal centre offer no resistance to their rise, while conservatives, who have always been craftier and more pragmatic, prove eager collaborators.
After decades of failure by the professional political class, the dispossessed and disenfranchised of the world look elsewhere for solutions, and every attempt by the left to offer a more compelling alternative vision of the world than either the capitalists or the fascists is scuppered either by our own disunity or the constant treachery of centrist elites more afraid of a tax hike than eugenics. Meanwhile, poverty tortures and kills us, and the state tortures and kills us, and we torture and kill each other, and the greatest fear of all is not that some great and terrible calamity will happen, but that nothing will happen at all, and the only future is the violence and oppression of this present moment stretching infinitely forever and ever.
But let’s not talk about any of that today. Instead, it’s time we addressed another plague of modern civilisation, a malady that infects both our artistic and political culture, and threatens to consume everything that lays before it like a horde of rats.
I speak, of course, of the hit musical Hamilton.