Scene: Dick Clark, any day, the mid-60’s through the mid-70’s. You could have found me watching American Bandstand. I would sit in front of the TV, watching teens dance, observing their actions, studying their clothes, listening to the music, hoping to imbibe whatever it was that made one “cool”, something so unobtainable to me that I didn’t even know how to describe it. I suppose it is still that way: like jazz or pornography, you know it when you see it. But I can’t define it.
Rate-a-record was my favorite part of Bandstand. Two selected kids would listen to a record and then rate it. It was the part I was afraid to leave the room during commercial for fear that I would not return in time.
“Its got a good beat and you can dance to it”.
Yet, Rate-A-Record always disappointed on some level because I did not understand the opinions. In seeking “coolness”, I wanted to have the clues so that I too could rate records and know whether they were good or not, if they were worthy of some unknown-to-me, yet still subscribed to, teenage rating system. “It has a beat….”
I never learned to dance.
Sometimes, I think I feel the same way about performances that I attend. Last night, husband and I went to a chamber music concert. T knows far more about music than I would ever care to know. Yet, I enjoy going to hear music performed. After the first piece, he asked me whether I liked it. He went on to comment about how unusual a portion of the piece was for that type of music — let’s just say it was an adagio, or something like that, because it would have made as much sense if he used the word fettucini. My response could only be some equivalent of “It had a beat and …” I nodded my head and shrugged my shoulders.
At intermission, we stopped to talk to a professor I have known since I was 19. Frequently, we see him at this particular concert series, and we often exchange stories of what musical or theatrical events we have seen recently. Since this was the first concert of the season, it was the first time we had seen Bill since we went to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performances in NYC last summer. “What did you think about the plays?” he asked. “I loved them” was my husband’s exuberant reply. But he quickly followed up with this: “But what do I know? I’m not a critic.”
In many ways, his response was much like mine was to him earlier regarding the violinist. But, whereas I simply said that I couldn’t discuss the music using his critical tools, it seemed to me, in retrospect, that he may have been apologizing for not having the equivalent theatrical and literary tools with which to assess. I could be wrong — we did not discuss it afterwards — but today I’m thinking about how often, as an audience member, it is easy to fall into a trap where we either only give the unsupported “I liked it” or we don’t comment at all because our experience seems less meaningful than that of a “real” critic.
How do you rate something if not on some internal continuum ranging from “Hate it” to “Love it”? I’m not talking about critical analysis but rather viewer — or listener — analysis. How do you talk about books, or theatre, or music, or art if it isn’t on how you respond to it?
I had intended to write about the plays I saw in New York last summer, but each time that I began to write, I felt that I couldn’t describe the experience in appropriate terms. I think what was stopping me was that I felt that I needed to do a critique of the performances. And I lacked the vocabulary and the expertise to do that. Besides, of the seven plays I saw, only two of them were not in their closing weeks. What was the point? It wasn’t as if I would be recommending these to someone who might choose to attend.
But maybe the point should be something else. It isn’t like the critics always review things in ways that are meaningful to me as an audience participant. Before we went to the RSC plays, we read several of the reviews. One that stands out was that King Lear was described as being a pretty good Lear for someone who hadn’t seen it before. What does that mean? Would I expect something different if I had seen Lear three or four times? Lear was the one play in the series I didn’t see. I knew when he returned from the theatre, because we had joked about the review, T would say that it was pretty good…for a beginner. The reality was that he still didn’t know what that reviewer had meant, but he did enjoy the performance. Likewise, I enjoyed the four RSC plays that I saw (Romeo & Juliet, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Ceasar), and although I can tell you which was my least favorite was Julius Ceasar and that Romeo was my favorite — even though as a play I like As You Like It better — I don’t know that I can tell you why in any sort of way that isn’t outside of my experience. Maybe I can tell you something more that “Its got a good beat…” but, like any theatrical performance, it would be up to each person who sees it to know whether she can dance to it.