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My 12 Favorite Problems
A dozen things that drive my writing, research, thinking & actions
Most people look for solutions. But few seek out problems.
There are exceptions. Physicist Richard Feynman, for example, liked to keep a list of his dozen favorite problems. These were big open-ended questions that could guide his life’s work.
“Every time you hear a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!.’”
Feynman realized that genius is not having all the answers. Everything starts with asking the right questions.
I’ve benefited in my own life by asking the same questions over and over—for a period of decades. Maybe that sounds like futility to you, but it’s energizing for me.
So I will share a dozen of my favorite problems, and they cover a wide range. I don’t claim to have final answers on any of these. But I think about them every day.
And—this is the key—I have better answers to each of them now than I did 20 or 30 years ago. The progress I’ve made on my favorite problems has enhanced my life in many ways, and not just as a writer.
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My 12 Favorite Problems
I will start with problems that I constantly ask myself as a scholar in music and the arts. But the scope will widen as we go down the list, and vocational concerns will overlap with personal matters.
(1) How can music change people’s lives?
When I started asking this question, it energized and revitalized how I pursue my vocation. I might even say it defined my vocation.
I began looking at what music does. And not just what it is.
It took a long time before I could even formulate it correctly in words. But once I managed to do that, it transformed everything. At least five books have resulted—and that only begins to measure the impact.
This question came to the forefront of my thinking around 1990, almost exactly the midpoint of my life to date. I was 33 years old, and that’a a good age for defining your mature work. From that moment on, songs weren’t just songs for me. They were change agents in human life and a source of enchantment.
After this shift in my thinking, I would do things I’d done many times before—attend a concert, talk to a musician, teach music students, etc.—and notice things I’d previously missed. My writing improved, even my decisions on what to write about got better. My efforts became more holistic, more distinctive, more efficacious, and more aligned with my core values—hence, more satisfying.
“Songs weren’t just songs for me. They were change agents in human life and a source of enchantment.”
This is a perfect example of Feynman’s thesis—just identifying the problem was absolutely decisive. It gave me a sense of mission, and growing confidence in how I pursued my vocation.
(2) How do I deal with situations when great art is created by flawed artists?
This has always been a problem in arts and society, but especially during the last decade—hence all the arguments over cancel culture. You would have to go back to the 1950s to find a comparable level of scrutiny and judgment focused on the private lives of artists (and others).
This problem isn’t going away—because there are no easy answers here. (That said, I think some solutions and approaches are better than others.)
Grappling with this has made me a better critic, a better judge of artistic works. But it’s also had a larger effect of making me think more about forgiveness and redemption. And when I look bravely and honestly at the personal failings of my most beloved artists—and the price they (sometimes) pay for this—it makes me more aware of my own responsibilities and shortcomings.
To some degree, this helps me nurture my own capacities in everyday life for kindness and compassion (although probably not enough—but that’s why it’s wise to keep coming back to the same problems).
All that’s a big deal. And it’s a great example of how a narrow problem of my vocation—in this instance, assessing a musician’s work—can have a positive impact on me that transcends my career.
(3) How can creativity, intellectual vitality, and learning be maintained in the face of inescapable obstacles—such as earning a living, or aging, or financial hardship, or residing far from major cultural centers?
No matter how creative you are, you need a supportive environment in order to flourish. But what happens if you don’t have that support?
Do you just give up?
My creative life is rich and vital right now, but I wasn’t always as well situated as I am today. So I spent a lot of time grappling with how to maintain creativity in constrained and demanding situations. And even now, I have to face the inevitable challenge of anybody active in the arts above a certain age—namely, how to foster creativity and self-improvement as I grow old.
Here, again, it’s been useful to formulate the problem in clear terms. That’s because a lot of the battle here is fought on constantly shifting terrain. The demands in your life are always changing—sometimes it’s the job, at other times family responsibilities, or illness, or something else that’s in the forefront of your life.
By facing up to the trade-offs, I’ve learned to find degrees of freedom in situations that otherwise might seem intractable. (For example, how I dealt with arthritis in my early 30s, when I was focused on my jazz piano career.) Every time I survived as a creative person in the face of these obstacles, it made me more resilient and more aware of my capacities and potentialities.
And on a few occasions, I’ve found ways to turn an obstacle into a creative boost—over the years, I’ve exercised endless ingenuity in doing just that. Pulling it off can be remarkably transformative and empowering—but it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t focused on this a defining mission in my creative life.
(4) How can we avoid cultural stagnation—especially given the obsession with remakes, reboots, spinoffs, and brand extensions of old works by the dominant corporations that control most of the creative economy?
I love the tradition, but it’s not healthy when everything new is old. The whole culture is currently obsessed with brand franchises that are carryovers from the previous millennium. I’m convinced that audiences want something fresher than this—but risk-averse corporations won’t even give it a chance.
As a writer and culture critic, I operate at the intersection between these corporations and the mass audience. My influence is limited, but if I don’t play a part in trying to revitalize and refresh our artistic idioms, I will have wasted much of the potential of my vocation.
This is why, for example, I listen to so much new music and read so many new books. At my age, I have every excuse to revisit my favorite works from days gone by. I could easily spend my time in peaceful reveries inspired by familiar songs and traditional classics. But my concern over this problem prods me to think more about the future, and less about the past.
I just wish others with more power and influence would join me in this.
(5) How do I avoid becoming a narrow specialist or a superficial generalist? Is there a third way? If so, how do I get there?
Philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once said that a smart person can either be a pedant or a dilettante. Both results are unfortunate—and there is no in-between.
That’s a sad dilemma. I don’t want to be either.
But I see the trade-offs all the time. Some smart people become specialists and know lots and lots about less and less—and this turns them into pedants and obscurantists. It’s almost impossible to avoid this in some settings (e.g., many tenure-track university jobs or research positions).
And if you push in the opposite direction, you become a dabbler, with a tiny bit of knowledge in many areas, but no depth. And as a great poet once said: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
I’ve tried to find a third way. I do immersive deep dives into new subjects—reading 40 or 50 books in a particular area. Then I move on to a different field of inquiry, and do the same thing all over again. This allows me to achieve a degree of specialization in many areas, without getting lost in any of the rabbit holes.
Over time, I have become a specialist in a few areas (jazz and blues, for example), but I have refused to let these turn into all-encompassing pursuits, or push me into debates over minutiae. This has forced me to fight against editors and organizations who decided many years ago that I should only write about one subject.
There’s a lesson there for everybody. The economic engines of society want to make each of us a very narrow person. The ruling institutions will almost always resist our efforts to develop into whole human beings.
That can’t be healthy, can it? So I battle against the constant pressure from powerful forces to narrow and constrain my life. I suspect many of you do too.
It’s hard work. But it gets easier if you accept that resisting these pressures is one of your main recurring projects, and hence give it the energized and informed response it requires.
(6) How can I protect or nurture local styles and perspectives in an increasingly globalized and homogenized culture?
I devoted a lot of my early years to studying regional music styles. My second book West Coast Jazz was a project of love and loyalty to my home state. And I later expanded my scope of allegiances, for example in my Delta Blues book, or in various writings about music in New Orleans or Brazil or Africa or other places.
But I can’t hide the fact that music (and all culture) has become much more homogenized and interchangeable over the course of my lifetime. I still remember vividly traveling to Indonesia in the 1990s and walking into a record store, where I asked where I could find recordings of Indonesian music. The clerk looked at me like I was crazy—his shelves were filled with Madonna, Michael Jackson, and the same hits that I’d find everywhere else in the world. I actually had an easier time finding interesting new Indonesian recordings back in California, where I had access to specialist importers who served fringe consumers like me.
I traveled a lot back then, and encountered the same thing in many places. I went far from home to find something new and different in music, but so many people I met on the road sought a closer cultural alignment with the United States.
And all that happened before the rise of the Internet. Nowadays, the homogenization is far more pronounced. I spend a lot of time seeking out music from different countries and regions, and with each passing year the challenge of finding something distinctively local increases.
This is a tremendous loss for everybody—akin to losing a species or an entire ecosystem. I feel I’m fighting a losing battle, but I refuse to walk away from the challenge.
(7) How can I operate honestly as a critic without absorbing all the negative psychic energy involved in criticism? How do I reconcile this vocation with my desire to act kindly and compassionately at all times?
Critic is an odd job title, when you think about it. One of the definitions of the word, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “one given to harsh or captious judgment.”
Who wants to do that every day?
I’ve heard all sorts of suggestions on how to soften the blow. And you will often find the adjective “constructive” added to the noun “criticism.” That’s all well and good, but it seems to suggest that most criticism must be destructive—otherwise, why specify?
I’ve worried a lot about this over the years.
My initial response was to focus more on becoming a “music historian” instead of a “music critic.” And this helped a little. But I still felt (as you can see from the other problems on this list of twelve) that I couldn’t just spend my time thinking about the past. I needed to focus my critical intelligence on what’s happening here and now—and on what we can create in the future.
This has forced me to develop a number of tools and rules for my writing. For example, I only review albums I genuinely love nowadays. Life is too short to do hit pieces—although those are often very popular with editors and readers. Also, I try to focus my most intense criticisms on organizations, institutions, policies, and attitudes, and avoid direct attacks on individuals.
You may have noticed that I’m very harsh when writing about organizations or core principles. But I’m soft on individuals. That’s not a coincidence—it’s my aim.
I still need to work on this. I still imbibe some of the poison that comes with the critic’s vocation, and the toxicity of our our general culture. But I have made progress over the years, and I’m determined to continue to improve on this metric.
(8) How can we find balance and cohesion in a culture where the supply of creative work (100,000 new songs are uploaded every day) outstrips audience demand, which is at best static and perhaps shrinking.
Every institution and business in the arts aims to increase this supply. Most arts non-profits never even question the wisdom of focusing all their money on creating more and more works. Many show zero interest in the audience.
Let them eat content!
This has troubled me for a long, long time. And it gradually has shaped my priorities and projects. My own creative life, which started as a jazz pianist, has shifted almost entirely to nurturing, educating, and inspiring the audience for music, books, and other artistic products.
I’ve also tried to find ways to bring isolated artists into a more interactive and fruitful nexus with their communities. Sometimes this even blurs the dividing line between between artist and audience—making music, for example, more participatory and less like passive consumption.
Few music writers address these issues. Many seem blissfully unaware of them. But, to my mind, addressing this problem in constructive ways may be the single most important thing I can do for the cultural ecosystem.
(9) Is criticism objective or subjective?
I frequently hear smart people claim that arts evaluation is just a matter of opinions—which are purely subjective, and frequently worthless.
At first blush, this seems persuasive. We live and breathe in a society of worthless opinions. Do I want to add to that noise?
On the other hand, anyone who has listened to musicians at an audition—or master class or group recital or competition—knows that there are huge gaps between the best and worst performers. This is an objective difference. I’ve served on judging panels, and can attest with 100% confidence that the gap between the top performers and the bottom rung is as wide as the Grand Canyon.
So both sides are true in this debate. There are objective differences in creative talent, but they aren’t so dominant that subjectivity isn’t also a factor. And even in the realm of opinion, a hierarchy exists. There is a huge difference between the assessment of an educated person who has devoted a lifetime to a pursuit (music, cooking, wine-tasting, writing, etc.), and the off-the-cuff opinion of a newbie.
This is an eternal problem for someone in my position. And unless I take it seriously I will never make progress in doing what I need to do, namely
Improve my understanding of the objective elements at work in any creative effort;
Improve the quality and reliability of my subjective assessments;
Find ways of making even my subjective experiences of use to others;
Handle the trade-offs between the two honestly and without self-deception; and finally
Know when to throw out all the familiar rules, because the work at hand demands different terms of engagement.
This is never easy. But by facing up to the challenges, I do get better.
(10) How do I handle the divide between highbrow and lowbrow culture?
I don’t even like those terms, but they refer to something real, and I’ve found no better way of describing them. The chasm between them is much larger than the elites will admit. We pay a price for this divide.
Lowbrow culture is mostly mainstream entertainment. Businesses love it—because they can make a buck. Serious people often scorn it, and not without reason. But the best of it is outstanding, and I have a responsibility as a critic to engage with it, and celebrate the most successful populist works.
I’ve tried to do just that. This is why I’ve written so much about horror stories and science fiction, pop and rock, TV and movies—even though some people tell me that I’m wasting my time. They aren’t completely wrong. I would probably have a higher hit rate in finding artistic excellence outside of mass market pop culture.
But my view is that I have to be scrupulously honest. And even if serious people mock me for praising Frank Herbert’s Dune one week, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace the next, or devoting months to analyzing locked room mysteries, or defending Milli Vanilli. . . well, that’s the price I’ll pay.
That said, I probably have an even greater commitment to highbrow culture. But I have good reasons for that—economic forces are relentlessly attacking various highbrow traditions. Dune doesn’t really need my help, but maybe William Gaddis or Robert Musil do. The system (and editors) will support me when I praise pop culture, but fight against me if I try to keep the older works alive. However, I can’t let the system dictate those terms to me.
The bottom line here is this: I aim to praise excellence wherever I see it, and this means I have to operate comfortably both in the populist and elitist camps without giving full allegiance to either.
(11) How can I thrive while operating contrary to dominant social and cultural trends?
The experts all agree: the trend, they say, is your friend.
All you need to do is identify it, and then you ride it out. And, true enough, I’ve watched thousands of people make a buck doing just that. If you are active in the arts, that may be the single most obvious thing you see every day.
But what happens if you don’t feel aligned with the dominant trend? What if you feel that many of the prevailing trends are banal, or actually dysfunctional? What if jumping on the bandwagon feels like selling out? Sure, you can just ignore them—but sometimes these trends go on for decades.
This has always been a huge issue for me, because I am a contrary thinker by nature. I stir up my own creative juices by the friction created in moving against groupthink and conventional wisdom. Yet resisting these forces is rarely a wise career move, and going to war against them is typically futile.
I’ve wrestled with this for decades. And I’ve found some solutions. I’ve learned that, sometimes, I need to find a way to get inside the belly of the beast and change it from within. But other instances require that I keep a distance from centers of power if I want to have an impact.
These are huge issues. And, again, progress is slow, but whatever gains I’ve made have come by clearly formulating the problem, and seeking out creative means of engagement.
(12) How can I have a positive impact?
I think about this all the time nowadays. That wasn’t always the case, but here is another example where a negative (aging) can lead to positive things.
Some people have an easier time answering this question. If you’re a social worker or medical professional or counselor or in some other similar situation, you help people every day as part of your job.
But for the rest of us, it’s not so easy.
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How can a music writer have a positive impact? That’s not a straightforward problem to solve. And some of the ways other journalists handle this—for example, turning into propagandists for a cause—strike me as wrong-headed and probably even dangerous. The solution can be worse than the problem, and poisonous to the person who pursues it.
I’ve learned that if I think about this problem on a daily basis—what positive impact can I have here and now on this day?—I start making better decisions. I begin doing better things. Even the smallest matters of daily life provide an opportunity for this. That’s reassuring—because those are constantly at hand and don’t require changing the whole world.
But none of that would happen without first formulating the problem.
Those are my dozen problems. And they are plenty. I don’t think I have bandwidth to handle a dozen more. But I’m confident that these will keep me busy for the duration.