As an added bonus, the website contains blogs by both Alden and Blackstock. I've come to especially appreciate Grant Alden's blog because of the questions it has recently been making me ask about music, the history of music, and how we evaluate both as critics and/or listeners.
A couple of weeks ago, he wrote an entry about a question that had been posed to him:
If the Rolling Stones released Exile On Main Street today, as greybeards, and, say, Voodoo Lounge, back when they were rising lions, would Exile still be judged a great and landmark album. Would they still be judged one of the greatest bands of all time? "Take any '60s or '70s icon who is still making records (Dylan, Young, McCartney)," he asked, "and instead of judging their recent work against the greatest thing they've done (i.e., their most influential LP), just flip them. Take some time and really think about your answer; it's not as easy as you think, that is, if you are totally honest about it."
As he says, it's not an easy question and it's one I've been puzzling over since I read it. For Alden, it becomes a question of whether it is possible to make vital rock after 40. For me, however, it becomes a question about how we make judgments about music and about how much context matters in making those judgments. And context here is complex -- our own changing contexts as listeners, the contexts (both musical and social) in which the music was originally made, and the contexts (both musical and social) in which the listening is done. Change one or more of these contexts (as is implied in the original question) and the regard we have for that music, the very way we listen to it, changes drastically.
Of course, it's always hypothetical, a "mental gymnastics" as Alden calls it. The reason it's useful, I think, is that it makes us think about our contexts and about how we come to decisions about music. Context matters and we can't get around that. The problem lies when we pretend that we listen in a vacuum and make judgments on some kind of objective criteria. We can't and we don't.
Think about your reactions to any recent (or classic) album. What shapes the way you listen, your reactions, the way you talk about it with your friends? Why, for example, do I now have an appreciation for Bettye LaVette's new album, The Scene of the Crime, that I would not have had at twenty or if I had listened to it in the context of the kind of music that was coming out in the mid-1980s? Or, to go back to Alden's question, what if LaVette had not toiled for all those years, but had instead had immediate success? If this album were coming out at the beginning of her career, would it have the same resonance? What if Amy Winehouse's Back to Black came not at the beginning of her career, but at the end? My point is, change any of the musicians' contexts, any of my contexts, or any of the larger musical and/or social contexts, and the listening experience and the judgments to which we come also change.
Mental gymnastics? Yes, of course, but useful, I think, for people who care about music and consider themselves more than just casual listeners. Think about it the next time you listen.