By Cherie Hu
This is the second in a series of summer blog posts where the author reflects on her experiences as a summer intern in the music journalism industry. You can find the first post here.
Have you ever thought about Kanye West’s greatness while visiting an art museum?
What a ridiculous question to ask.
Yet, that is precisely what happened to me during my recent visit to the Met Breuer in New York City. The unassuming concrete building housed a series of exhibitions under the title “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” exploring how artists throughout history embraced an intentionally unfinished aesthetic, also known as non finito.
For instance, Franco-Polish painter Roman Opalka decided one day to paint every single number from one to infinity, in quintessentially postmodern fashion. The result, titled 1965 / 1–∞ (pictured above), is a minimalist, dizzying gradient of digits that, needless to say, never reaches infinity.
As the Met Breuer aptly described, however, “ it was this necessary failure to fulfill the project that brought it to completion: Opalka saw the finality of his work in its unfinishedness.”
If you have been following Yeezy’s recent career, you will understand that his creative state of mind is the musical equivalent of non finito. The rapper released The Life Of Pablo on Valentine’s Day 2016, exclusively on Tidal; the album surfaced on Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming services a few weeks later with significant modifications to the original version, including several new songs (such as “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission”); just last month, West added yet another track to the album, called “Saint Pablo.”
Like Opalka, West is searching for infinity through his art. In a statement, Def Jam Recordings asserted that the rapper “ will [continue to] release new updates, new versions and new iterations of the album” in the months to come. In response, TechCrunch called The Life Of Pablo “the first SaaS album,” Fortune commented that West was “patching his music like software,” and NYMag suggested that the rapper was “treating art like an app.”
Indeed, West is using technology to upend traditional definitions of the album, which the music industry previously had to manufacture one at a time on CDs and LPs without the opportunity for modification after the fact. On a higher level, as a result of continual technological disruption, the process of creating a song rather than an end product is becoming more attractive to consumers.
The destination is now more important than the journey; in fact, the destination is the journey itself.
As I stood in the museum pondering Opalka and West, I soon realized that my own role as a music journalist would also being dragged along for the ride. When albums turn into software, journalism turns into a futile quest for accuracy and permanence.
Longform music criticism’s traditional value proposition — comprehensive, relevant reflection — becomes a direct antithesis to the artistic revolution unleashed by streaming economics. Such a revolution feels less at home in traditional magazines than on Snapchat stories, which, like The Life Of Pablo, are meant to be created and consumed piece-by-piece, obfuscating the whole.
Some journalists see this disruption as a problem because art takes time to understand. “ Imagine being tasked with writing an insightful, definitive obituary for a person you once fidgeted beside for two hours and forty-five minutes on a midday flight from Tampa to Chicago,” joked music writer Amanda Petrusich in the New Yorker. The result would be untruthful and untrustworthy.
Apart from West, however, more and more celebrities are embracing unconventional release strategies, without any warning to the public media. Kendrick Lamar announced the release of his recent EP, untitled, unmastered., in a short tweet. Electronic duo Exmag premiered their latest album not on streaming services, but rather on a national tour.
While following this trend can sometimes be stressful, it is also quite thrilling. Yes, the best art takes time to understand, but the most memorable art disrupts its own home, and those fortunate enough to write the story of this disruption will certainly impact its legacy.
In a few years, perhaps even museums like the Met Breuer will become irrelevant, as the digital age enables artists to make their thoughts uncompromisingly visible and exert more control over music criticism’s evolving, unpredictable culture.