Dave Stelfox‘ stuff on music and cultural context got me thinking a lot towards the end of last year — since he’s brought the subject up again lately, time to reply. Stelfox’ basic point — more attention to content and context please — I don’t disagree with: the definitive word on grime is unlikely to come from a middle-class thirtysomething with a blog and a P2P connection. But who wants to claim their words are definitive anyway?

What I don’t buy is the opposition Dave seems to set up between the people who get in there and really understand the cultural context (or come out of it) and the people who distance themselves and just treat it as sound. I don’t think it’s that simple. If you’re going to write about anything critically your first duty is to be honest about your own context and background: do that and you give the reader a fair chance to work out whether what you say is worth reading.

For instance: I’m a 30 year old white bloke, open-eared but musically lacking commitment, fairly comfortably off, married. I know next to nothing about grime: I bought the Dizzee album like everybody else and I have a few MP3s, Toby very kindly did me a CD-R, that’s about it. Whose writing about grime do I want to read? Someone who has dug into the context or someone who I can relate to as a listener? Easy — I want both. I want Heronbone and World Of Stelfox AND Woebot and Skykicking. What I don’t want is people pretending they’re the former when they’re really the latter. But on the blogs there’s less of that about than you’d think.

(This is why Simon R is so respected, I reckon — he is both. He’s a polite indie kid who threw himself completely into the ‘ardkore continuum but has never tried to deny or disguise his background and his limits.)

I have come to really loathe the idea that writing on music should always be about knowing more than your readers – not cause knowledge is bad but because the attitude leads people to fake ‘authority’ out of a kind of fear of being found out, and to dismiss the stuff they have no expertise in. Admit who you are and where you’re coming from and what you don’t know and the rest of criticism is easy. You don’t have to be self-deprecating, you just have to respect the readers and give them the means to figure out whether they can use what you say. Be better-informed if you like, but be honest first.

There’s bigger, nastier questions behind all this, too – if there are people who don’t have the right to write about a music, are there people who don’t have the right to listen to it? Well, maybe, but they’re going to anyway.

(Stelfox made another point way back about the way the whole dilettante listening culture is P2P-driven and how the economics of that are particularly harsh on people putting out white labels and 7″s. That one cut a lot deeper and I don’t really have an answer for it.)