Whiplashed: Objectivity in Music

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I had the pleasure of seeing Damien Chazelle’s highly quotable Whiplash last month, a truly mesmerising film that I’m glad is receiving the praise and awards it richly deserves. But for all of its deft qualities, it was not the dazzling cinematography, the electrifying live jazz sequences or even the terrifying, abusive performance of JK Simmons that still has me pondering. Instead, it was the exchange between young drumming protégé Andrew Neyman and his Football-playing cousins at a fraught family dinner. After a heated exchange over the need for friends, the drive to reach memorable greatness, and Charlie Parker’s ability to duck in double-time, an eye-raising question gets raised by Neymen’s cousin: “How can you win a music competition. Isn’t it all subjective?

No. It’s not.”, Neymen replies sharply, full of the disdainful scorn drilled into him by his tyrannical mentor at band practice. A non-negotiable full stop, a definite fuck you to a relatively reasonable question. I’ve been considering this fascinating response in the days and weeks since I left the theatre – not just for its blunt conclusion but for its sheer conviction – and I’ve been trying to form a solid standpoint on objectivity in art, music and creative expression ever since.

In contemplating this minefield of a topic, I’m immediately drawn to the various standards of which differing genres might be held, both by their communities and their critics. Neymen, remember, has signed up for a jazz band with the intention to actively compete, therefore within that band-on-band paradigm there must be rules and points of objective scoring for it to have integrity. Technical skill makes sense in binary — is the music in time and in tune etc — but how do you grade feeling, which surely forms the basis of all artistic expression? Measures which might even seem quantifiable on the surface — composition, for example — are surely determined by individual perception and taste? Take jazz out of that microscopic environment and it’s still a genre in which astute technical proficiency is generally regarded above all else. It is a badge of honour. But, as with all other music, it is still not enough on its own.

So why is Neymen so sure that one jazz band can be objectively rated above another? He’s young of course, and being the absolute best is akin to what he knows; school exam cards and bleep tests, not ideas and certainly not subjectivity. A lot of it also has to do with that competitive vacuum, where prize money is awarded and scholarships earned on the basis of a performance. His tunnel vision mission to impress Fletcher becomes an obsession in black and white thinking; play faster, play harder, play better. But what strikes me about that is lack of appreciation for an honest mistake. An imperfection is not endearing to him or those he plays for or with, it is a black mark and a humiliating shortfall that must be corrected. This is not the way I think of music at all, but I can empathise with Neymen’s viewpoint that for him, these are firmly objective truths that paint the line between success and failure.

Yet it’s clearly not unusual to ignore such ‘objective’ flaws in the wider musical spectrum — even in a lot of jazz — and often these’ll end up acceptable and even moving byproducts. How many times have you heard “Bob Dylan can’t sing” or “Ringo Starr was a shit drummer”? They’ve got pretty decent legacies. Even in non-live performances, a creeping imperfection on tape can tell a story on its own. Maybe your band has a drummer that occasionally drops a beat in the heat of the moment, or your singer can’t quite reach those high notes when they’re straining. But what if they’re straining because of the weight of the words? What if that strain is befitting, beneficial or even essential to a record’s narrative and emotional resonance? Then again, a soprano’s power comes in hitting that high note, and missing it is an undoubted mistake. Perhaps the argument lies purely in matching intent with delivery.

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So, I’m still writing this thing and I’ve been trying to make distinctions between all the facets and nuances of music (a fool’s errand to be sure), and I keep coming back to the same question: does subjectivity only take over once a certain threshold of objectivity has been observed? Or put another way, do we as listeners have an acceptable line just above the ‘obviously’ bad (out of tune, not in time), and then consider everything else with either praise, indifference or contempt? Or, as above, do we look for expectations of a specific type of music to be met first? A lo-fi record might have washed-up production, but we expect that and so we’ll marginalise it and look for other qualities instead. A top producer might argue it’s objectively bad because of this, but might have a tough time trying to argue that it has no musical merit. At a hardcore punk gig, you’d expect a certain amount of minor ‘mistakes’ in such a fast-paced, impassioned environment — it’s what makes it real — and to an extent you might be suspicious if it sounds too synthetic. For Neymen this is heresy, but it makes sense in this construct because the expectation is that he performs a set task to a set level, judged on set criteria.

I’m drawn to forge a parallel between Neymen’s pursuit of objective brilliance and photo-realism. The common reaction to the latter is on how it’s created and not what it says. Impressive but perhaps not moving. The kind of art that would more likely fuel a Buzzfeed headline rather than start a movement. Neymen’s destructive worship of perfection is directly tethered to his own self-worth, and as a result creative expression is beaten out of him in favour of prosaic empiricism. A photo-realist agonises over ensuring each detail is faithfully recreated, and we as viewers wonder how, like buffoons at a magic show. But at the end of the night we go home and forget.

Maybe your band has a drummer that occasionally drops a beat in the heat of the moment, or your singer can’t quite reach those high notes when they’re straining. But what if they’re straining because of the weight of the words?

Whilst much of this ramble has been squarely focused on Neyman’s initial rebuttal, his own fiery culmination at the end of the film is actually rather startling in its rejection of his early rhetoric. As he finally ignores the barking dictatorship of Fletcher following public humiliation, he embarks on an extravagant, impromptu drum solo — all the while looking his mentor in the eyes as he takes command of the audience before him — and proceeds to finally play at his own tempo, unburdened at last from sheet requirements and unwarranted abuse. In the absence of acceptance, raw expression is all he has left, and it’s the only time he ever does something you might describe as ‘great’. It’s ill thought-out in its composition at times, and less objectivelygood if governed by the rules that imprisoned him before, yet it is distinctly powerful because it is the first he dares to ignore them. He just plays.

Much of Whiplash’s criticism has been from the jazz community for implying that genius can be paid for by 10,000 hours of practice and a hard-ass teacher driving you towards your ‘dream’, and maybe these points have a certain level of validity. But I think that Whiplash is more about the discussion of what genius really is, and whether or not being a wonderfully proficient musician is enough to create wonderfully affecting music. The fact that we’ll never be able to agree on who those people are probably provides us the answer.

Isaac Powell
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Isaac Powell

Isaac is Editor-in-Chief of Noted, and prefers his music loud and steaks rare. Lives and writes in Nottingham, England.
Isaac Powell
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