Glenn McDonald on Breadth and Depth: I’ve got a bit to say about this and it may well involve quoting. Glenn does The War Against Silence and is probably the most individual voice reviewing records online. I generally only read it when it’s pointed out to me, though, because apart from a couple of shared reference points – the Magnetic Fields, the Clientele – the styles of music Glenn has decided to specialise in are pretty much the ones I’ve decided to avoid.

This may be worth considering when you read the intro to his latest column, which talks about why he doesn’t listen to the various musics that come under the umbrella “black music”. I think it was quite a brave column to write, and though I disagree strongly with his arguments I don’t think he should listen to any music he doesn’t think he’ll like. “I don’t like it” is reason enough, but I’d have been a lot more interested in why McDonald doesn’t like it than in why he’s not going to try and like it.

Why isn’t he going to try and like it? “Do I feel bad about all the styles of music I’m missing the chance to enjoy? Sure. I also feel bad about not learning Danish and Sanskrit, not reading Finnegan’s Wake and Gravity’s Rainbow, forgetting how to do derivatives, never having played professional soccer and never having had sex with this girl named Rachel I went to high school with who had the most incredible ankles I’ve ever seen.” This is footling. It would take sixty minutes to listen to Stankonia once and decide whether to proceed, during which time you could have got no more than a tenth into the books mentioned and have given yourself a very basic grasp of the Danish or Sanskrit systems of inflection. And the football and sex are contingent on other people’s decisions, not yours. So there’s no equivalence. Luckily there’s more to McDonald’s arguments than that.

At the centre of his not-going-to-try argument is the idea that “Breadth and depth are each other’s prices”. As homilies do, this makes a certain immediate sense. What is not argued, but simply asserted in a number of flowery ways, is why McDonald’s choice of “depth” is the right one. “I eat as a tourist; I listen as a pilgrim. I know more about certain kinds of music than most human beings know about anything.” So? The idea seems to be that McDonald’s expertise in “twee Euro-pop bands” means that his aesthetic sense for those bands is sharper and richer: a quick look at his Best Of The 90s, though, reveals a thicket of familiar names, which in itself proves nothing but suggests to me that a critic coming from a “breadth” rather than “depth” angle would probably have ended up liking those albums too.

So, okay, why is “breadth” better? Well, the last thing Glenn McDonald says, before he goes on to review Chelseaonfire, is this: “Black History Month is sort of about Black History, naturally, but its meta-message is about recognizing cultural legacies. Black History is a proxy for any thread you can disentangle from the warp of General History, for any method of filtering the universes of the transpired, and by extension the possible, in such a way that you can find in them the contours and hues of your own shape and aura.”. But as a historian I say that you can’t understand a historical thread without an appreciation of the whole: cultural history and acts of self-definition take place in a context, or else they’re meaningless exercises in positivity or egotism.

And as a hip-hop fan I would say that criticism works in similar ways. From my experience, understanding a music goes deeper when you understand the music it isn’t, and when you see the threads that histories – cultural and musical – have in common. Listen to hip-hop and reject it and say why, by all means. But to be so aware of it and to refuse to even make the attempt lessens a critic. As Sterling put it: “Never before has the intro to one of Mr. McDonald’s columns inspired me so thoroughly not to give a damn about any of the music he’s writing about, and in fact, to actually avoid even bothering with the actual reviews.”