(It’s been a while since we received a guest post from Dane Prokofiev (who writes everywhere and has his own blog at Zetalambmary), but today he returns with an argument about why it’s worthwhile to use band comparisons in music reviews.)
I used to dislike comparing a band whose album I was reviewing to another band in my written reviews and only resorted to doing so when I found absolutely nothing interesting about the band’s music to be worthy of description through the use of metaphors. Ever since my exposure to Saussurean semiotics, however, I have changed my mind.
Saussurean semiotics posits that there is no intrinsic connection between words and their meanings. That is to say, it is not natural for the word “dog” to refer to the concept of dog-ness. The word “dog” is a linguistic construct, something that is distinct from the concept of dog-ness. What English-speaking people label as “dog” is labeled as “الكلب” by Arabic-speaking people , “chien” by French-speaking people, “hunder” by Icelandic-speaking people, “犬” by Japanese-speaking people, and “狗” by Mandarin-speaking people. The fact that people use different words for the same object in different languages means that there is no particular connection between the word “dog” and the thing that we refer to as a “dog”.
The product of this arbitrary relationship between the signifier (“dog”) and the signified (the concept of dog-ness) is called the sign, which is the mental image that is conjured in a person’s mind when he or she sees the signifier and understands that it is referring to the signified, aka certain properties that constitute the thing-ness of something.
The sign, however, does not possess any meaning in and of itself. This is because the meaning of a sign is produced through its relations with other signs. For example, the sign or mental image of “dog” is what it is because we know that it is not the sign or mental image of “cat” and/or the sign or mental image of “hippopotamus”. Additionally, what people associate with a word is strongly culture-bound. For instance, there is a subtle difference between the sign or mental image evoked by the word “dog” and the sign or mental image evoked by the symbol “الكلب” (Arabic for “dog”), because the English people and Arabic people attach cultural-specific qualities to the thing that they refer to as “dog” and “الكلب” respectively. Even for an English-speaking Arab, he or she is not going to perceive the thing that is called “dog” in the same way as an English-speaking English person. Hence, the sign or mental image that is conjured in a person’s mind upon seeing a signifier and understanding the signified that the signifier is referring to is highly contingent on his or her cultural background. And since it is very likely that one’s readership base consists of members from different cultural backgrounds, using metaphors to describe the sound of any music record without referring to specific band names is extremely inaccurate in conveying what the album being reviewed sounds like.
This is due to a phenomenon described by prototype semantics, which is a construct that postulates that some members of a category are more central than others in the same category. For example, while the mental image of an “ostrich” might be conjured in most Australians’ minds when they see the word “bird”, the mental image of a “penguin” might be conjured in the minds of most scientists working in Antarctica when they see the same word. So suppose I write this in a review of a Cannibal Corpse album:
“The meaty hooks will grab you by the right nostril and yank you into a gore-splattered butcher’s shop.”
English-speaking readers from a Chinese cultural background might conjure the sign or mental image of “pork” when they see the word “meaty”, while English-speaking readers from an English cultural background might conjure the sign or mental image of “beef” when they see the same word. After seeing the word “hooks”, English-speaking readers who are fans of the Peter Pan franchise might conjure the sign or mental image of “Captain Hook’s artificial left wrist”, English-speaking readers from a Norwegian cultural background might conjure the mental image of “fishing hooks”, while English-speaking readers who are fans of the Diablo video-game franchise might conjure the mental image of “a gigantic metal hook used as a weapon by a quest boss”, etc.
The reference to specific band names, however, is much better at avoiding such wretched ambiguity. Regardless of which cultural background someone comes from, any reasonably well-informed, English-speaking reader who sees references to, say, the metal bands Death and Fleshgod Apocalypse knows for sure that the writer who made those references is referring to the sound of the music of a now-defunct American death metal band and the sound of the music of an active Italian symphonic technical death metal band, respectively. Suppose I write this in a review of a Cannibal Corpse album instead:
“A filthy marriage of Slayer and Autopsy, this record absolutely kills it.”
Whether or not you are a reader with an Arabic or British cultural background, as long as you have heard the music of Slayer or Autopsy before, upon seeing the word “Slayer” or “Autopsy”, the phenomenon described by prototype semantics is going to make your mind conjure the sign or mental image (which can be a particular album style, trademark chord progression, clothes that the band members wear, etc.) of either the band that we refer to as “Slayer” or the band that we refer to as “Autopsy”. So long as you are immersed in metal culture—and I’m assuming that just having listened to any metal band before imbues one with this quality—there is no way you could misconstrue the words “Slayer” and “Autopsy” to be referring to things other than the metal bands we call “Slayer” and “Autopsy”, and then conjure a mental image of something not related to the metal bands we call “Slayer” and “Autopsy”.
Of course, which particular album style or even chord progression that constitutes this sign or mental image conjured in the reader’s mind when he or she sees the word “Slayer” or “Autopsy” differs from individual to individual. But compared to the greater arbitrariness of metaphors that do not contain specific references to band names, the less arbitrary comparison of Band X to Band Y is more accurate in telling the reader how the particular album being reviewed might sound.
Some people argue that with onomatopoeia, one can establish an intrinsic connection between the signifier (word) and the signified (sound). But just because certain arbitrarily spelled words are chosen to imitate the sound, why should we then assume that there is an innate, universal connection between the signifier and the signified? Even sounds are perceived subjectively. For example, the sound a rooster makes is put into words differently by these three cultures:
Similarly, whoever used onomatopoeia to coin the word “djent” might have done so thinking that there is an intrinsic connection between the signifier “djent” and the sound that the signifier “djent” refers to. But I could very well think that the sound that the signifier “djent” refers to could be word-ified as “jgnow”, and the person who labels the same sound “djent” can’t say I’m “wrong” about it, because his or her choice of spelling for the onomatopoeia “djent” is every bit as artificial and arbitrary as mine.
So in summary, comparing Band X to Band Y in music reviews is justifiable. But this reviewing technique only works the way it is described in this article based on three assumptions:
(1) The sole purpose of music reviews is to convey the sound of the piece of music being reviewed to readers as accurately as possible.
(2) The writer in question has already listened to Band Y and has strong reasons to believe that Band X is similar to Band Y in certain aspects.
(3) The postmodern notion that, after the conclusion of World War II, every piece of cultural output is essentially a product of recycled and repackaged ideas from the past. If not, it would be nonsensical to think that a particular band can be similar to another particular band in any aspect.
Making assumptions necessarily means making room for potential flaws in the argument presented here. And of course, since the argument here rests heavily on Saussurean semiotics, it is far from being watertight. After all, as with any other theory, Saussurean semiotics has its fair share of criticism, with a major one pointing out that the signified is actually just another signifier, because the interpretation of a signifier is always made through another signifier. But this is a topic for another day (and article).