On writing about music
Mar 23, 2014
Pop and the possibility of love
I have been writing about music almost as long as I can remember. I wrote my first record review for a school newspaper when I was ten. (The record was, as I recall, the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s ‘1,2,3, Red Light’. I predicted success.)
Now, more than four decades later, with a column in the Listener and a weekly review programme on Radio New Zealand National, writing about music is the thing that occupies most of my working hours.
Are music critics necessary? Perhaps the best, most succinct justification for their existence was offered by the late American composer and critic Virgil Thompson, who stated: “Music criticism is the only antidote we have to paid publicity.”
I would add that it can also be entertaining. It’s fun to read a good writer who knows what he or she is on about.
It can even be educational. A critic can draw our attention to things we might otherwise miss. They may deepen our appreciation and expand our thinking, and teach us to be more critical ourselves and make the experience of listening more rewarding.
And though it sometimes feels like a lonely pursuit, I’m reminded every so often that there are others who value it as much as I do.
As long ago as 1894, the eminent Irish playwright and sometime music critic George Bernard Shaw (pictured above right) was making the case for writing about music. “In the hands of a capable writer,” he noted, “music is quite as good a subject from the purely journalistic point of view as either painting or the drama, whilst the interest taken in it is much more general than in party politics, the stock exchange, or even the police intelligence.”
Shaw may have been thinking of a more elevated art form than the pop music I write about, still I take encouragement from his words.
You will still find some capable writers discussing music in the pages of a few long-established journals, but the vast majority of music writing is now online. This ranges from editorially controlled webzines, which tend to emulate the style and conventions of old print media, to blogs that arrive unedited and unfiltered.
Blogging about music – or any subject – is a great way to air and share enthusiasms and obsessions, or to vent one’s spleen. And there is much music blogging that doesn’t go any further than this.
Looking back, I realise a lot of my early music writing came pretty close to bloggage. As almost all critics do, I first gravitated to those artists and genres I already knew something about. I felt safe there, knowing I could write with some authority.
Gradually I developed the confidence to delve into music of which I wasn’t necessarily a fan, and found I could become just as curious about what made this stuff tick. It was often harder work. It involved research. It meant seeking out and listening to things I had missed; tracing the antecedents of an artist or idiom I was unfamiliar with. But it was satisfying, and produced writing with, I think, more objectivity. In a way, this marked my transition from enthusiast to critic.
But if objectivity is good, critical writing should never be bloodless. There has to be an excitement - about the possibilities of music, the artistry of musicians, the experience of listening, and the art of writing about it. And when music fails to live up to one’s hopes and expectations, those disappointments can be worth writing about too.
There are a lot of ways of approaching the disappointed review. The pithy putdown is a tradition that was perfected by critics like The Rolling Stone Record Guide’s Dave Marsh. Typical of his style was his review of a now-forgotten band called Boulder which read: “The great thing about bands who use place names for their moniker is you know exactly where to tell them to go back to.”
I emulated this style once when writing about an underwhelming album by David Crosby. The title Oh Yes I Can was a gift. My review simply read: “Oh no you can’t.”
Others have taken the negative swipe to more protracted lengths. Evidently attempting the world record for putdowns, a 2013 review of fresh-faced songster Tom Odell by NME’s Mark Beaumont began: “Imagine this – an act that’s three parts Ben Howard, five parts Adele, four parts Keane, eight parts Florence and 500 parts Marcus Mumford’s arse”, and concluded 300 words later with the words: “Be warned, you can’t unhear it.”
Some critics live for this kind of writing, treating it almost as a blood sport. And in the case of a record with a lot of expensive hype behind it, they may be doing the consumer a favour. (Virgil Thompson would no doubt have approved.)
But the putdown is also the easiest kind of criticism to write, and often just comes across as a critic intoxicated with his/her own power.
Like Keith Richards’ writing the ‘Satisfaction’ riff in his sleep, every so often the critic wakes up with a smart one-liner that’s too good not to use. But like most good music, the good review is more often the product of hours of hard labour. Don’t trust an opinion that has been arrived at too quickly or expressed too glibly, especially if it’s your own.
And isn’t writing about something you love ultimately more edifying than fretting over something you don’t? New Zealand art critic Greg O’Brien says: “As far as I’m concerned criticism is an act of conviction rather than willpower. Life’s too short, art can go on far too long.” To which I’d add, and so can Pearl Jam records.
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The blueprint for much of today’s music writing can be traced back to a handful of mostly American writers who began in the late 1960s and early 70s, when writing about rock and pop first started to be taken seriously. A few of these pioneers – Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus – are still writing today. Others, like the late Lester Bangs (above right, in ABBA shirt), succumbed to the same excesses that claimed a number of the period’s music stars.
The reason these names are remembered is partly because they were the first in a then-uncrowded house, and partly because they were very good. Each had a great pair of ears, a recognisable style, and all have been widely imitated.
Though Marsh and Chrsitgau have written essays and books, they are probably best known for their capsule commentaries. I have already given an example of Marsh’s work. Christgau, who has been writing his Consumer Guide for nearly fifty years, is both highly intellectual and musically illiterate. The former means his writing is sometimes very dense. (Here’s a typical sentence, from a review of indie rock trio Sleater-Kinney: “Everything that's right with the three-part synergy and herky-jerk dynamics of "Was It a Lie?" doesn't convince me that the media victim it bemoans died so vainly or so significantly, and in general I prefer these songs as songs when they adduce the musicians' separate lives rather then their collective mission.”) But the latter doesn’t matter, as he is such an astute listener and uses his scholarly love of language to craft precise and arresting descriptions of what he hears. And unlike many of his contemporaries, he is not sentimental about the artists he grew up with. These days he seems to prefer Kanye West to Bob Dylan.
Marcus is the originator and master of long form rock-crit. With his ground breaking 1975 book Mystery Train, a series of essays connecting such iconic American artists as Elvis Presley and Sly Stone, he set himself no less a goal than to “discover whose America we are living in… even touch that spirit of place Americans have always sought, and in the seeking have created.”
A lofty aim, yet he convincingly carried it off. And his subsequent works, mostly on artists with roots in the 60s (Dylan, Van Morrison, The Doors) have been equally ambitious. Any critic who ever wonders if they are taking their task too seriously only needs to read a page or two of Marcus for reassurance.
Perhaps most influential of all is Lester Bangs, who died in 1982. More than any of his peers, Bangs’ writing seems to capture the cadences and energies of rock’n’roll. Explosive, provocative, deliberately shocking (in one memorable piece he fantasises about gouging James Taylor with a broken wine bottle), he can seem self-indulgent, especially as his criticism frequently blurs into autobiography. But the Bangsian method of using one’s psyche as an entry-point to the critique is also an appealing one, and many subsequent writers have subscribed to it.
What the would-be-Bangses sometimes miss, though, is that, like the best critics, Lester had an extremely broad musical knowledge, and was formidably well read. Even when his writing came on like the prose equivalent of a Sex Pistols show, it was mined with references to literature and culture that reached far wider than the determinedly lowbrow records he preferred. (He loved The Troggs.) How would George Bernard Shaw have found Lester Bangs? An iconoclast and first-rate satirist himself, I’m guessing he would have liked him a lot.
But if Bangs’s writing is deeply opinionated, and normally centred on a strong personal response to a piece of music, jazz critic Gary Giddins – born, like Bangs, in 1948 – models almost the opposite approach.
In an interview a couple of years ago, Giddins proposed that: “opinions are the least part of criticism”. If that seems contrary to the whole notion of what criticism is – someone expressing an opinion - he built a persuasive case, giving the example of going to see a movie with a friend; one of you loves it, the other hates it. “That doesn’t mean one of you is an idiot. The question is not who’s right because there is no right. The question is how you articulate it.”
Of course opinion is vital. But if the tone is hectoring and monotonous, will the reader ultimately care whether he or she shares the writer’s viewpoint or not? On the page, the opposing poles of slathering fandom and critical savagery can seem remarkably close. To make good criticism, opinion and objectivity need to work together.
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Every so often someone will raise the issue of how long music critics should keep their jobs. Kirin Dass (a critic herself) addressed this question a few years ago in an essay in Landfall titled The main problem with music writing in New Zealand is that it’s not considered a valid form (whew!), in which she stated categorically: “The same few voices stay too long in their position. They only quit when they die.”
Having covered popular music for the Listener for twenty-five years, I couldn’t help but feel implicated. Dass went on to suggest that by hanging onto their gigs, writers of long tenure may have been depriving up-and-coming critics of a forum, a livelihood, and perhaps short-changing readers too.
As far as the livelihood part goes, reviewing music, even in mainstream publications, has never paid a big chunk of anyone’s rent. For me, being a music writer has necessarily been part of a patchwork of self-employment, and I’m sure the same goes for almost every other critic in the country.
In most professions – barring perhaps rugby or ballet – it is accepted that the longer you do it, the better you get. It seems to me that pop-crit is one of the few areas where anyone would dare dispute this.
And it is true, younger ears are often attuned to sounds that older listeners may not be so quick to make sense of. There can be a freshness and energy in the response of younger writers that matches the spirit of new music.
But by the same token, an older listener can call on a breadth of listening experience that is only built up over years of practice, and can apply this usefully to any music, old or new.
This wide frame of reference is one of the chief assets of the long-distance pop critic. You can make connections across decades, eras and styles that others might miss. You become more canny and less susceptible to hype; you’ve seen plenty of ‘this year’s model’s come and go.
It would be disingenuous to claim that having a gig like the one I’ve had at the Listener is no big deal. I’ve always felt it was a privilege to have a readership that is literate and curious. My writing may, for some readers, be the only popular music criticism they see. Bearing this in mind, I have always considered it important to maintain the interest and trust of those readers.
• providing a context for the music under discussion; explaining where it comes from, and why.
• Relating the music in question to things the reader might be familiar with. You don’t want to make anyone feel they are ignorant and out of touch just because they haven’t heard of some obscure figure you happen to think is a genius. Too many strange sub-genres, unfamiliar names or unfathomable descriptions and they will quickly flick to the next page.
• Checking one’s enthusiasms. Before exploding into hyperbole, ask – can you really justify recommending someone spend maybe 30 dollars on something you got sent for free?
Naturally, none of these considerations would be essential were I writing for a niche or specialist mag, blog or webzine. But in the media I work in, I’d like the reader to feel included in the discussion, not like an eavesdropper outside some temple of the uber-cool. And if you have built the trust of your readers over time, then when you introduce something new they may take you seriously enough to keep reading.
The flipside of knowing who you are writing for is remembering who you are not writing for, and this category has to include the artist or band under review. Musicians will love a good review and howl at a bad one, but you should remember that your conversation is with the consumer, not the creator. Nor should the review be written for the benefit of the record company, the publicist, promoter or anyone else with a vested interest.
That said, the fact that I have played in bands, produced records and know something of the hours of toil that go into creating even a failed recording must inevitably have some bearing on the way I approach my criticism. It doesn’t mean I will shy away from the truth when I think a record falls short of the mark on account of dreary songs, dull performances, or any other reason. But it may remind me that I should be working as hard at my task as the artist has at theirs.
Does being a musician make you a better music critic? I don’t think so. Some of the best music critics couldn’t tune a kazoo. It’s a writing gig. If they write well about music it is because they are great listeners and excellent wordsmiths.
What disappoints me is when the critic has been too lazy to hunt for interesting language with which to illuminate their subject.
And that’s the hardest part. Phrases that excite on first reading lose their potency with repetition. It might be tempting to borrow words that seemed so perfect in some other review of some other music, yet the value of each phrase is diminished each time it is recycled. How many different bands can be described as ‘hypnotic’ or guitar solos as ‘incendiary’ before these once-evocative units of language become rock-crit cliches? The challenge is to twist the terms in some original way; to write something you have never read before.
* * * *
It has never been easier for anyone to put their words up somewhere where people can see them, and plenty of music writers are now doing just that.
On the downside, the rise of music blogs – for which reviewers are rarely paid for their writing – seems to have corresponded with a decline in the amount of music journalism in paid-for publications. I don’t see as many considered and researched long-form essays or artist profiles in the mainstream media as I once did.
Is this because music writing is really, as Dass suggests, not viewed as a valid form? If she is referring to the paltry monetary rewards for music journalism, I agree. But the typical music reviewer gets paid for her/his work much the same as the typical reviewer of film, literature or visual arts. Are these not considered ‘a valid form’ either? Or is the status of the critic a reflection of the way the arts in general are taken for granted? In the case of music, is it the way recordings are increasingly seen as something free and disposable? If as a society we placed a greater value on artists and their work, would we perhaps come to value good criticism as well?
As a critic, all you can do is trust your ears, your instincts, your experience, and whatever language you have at your disposal and try and do as good a job as you can. Perhaps most importantly, the more one writes, the better one gets at writing. You refine your authorial voice; tune your language so it hits the note you’re after, and with precisely the right tone.
There’s a quote I sometimes go back to, to remind myself of what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and how I should be doing it. Charles Rosen (pictured above, centre), the American concert pianist and writer who died in 2012, said: “You do not have to love a work of art in order to criticize it, but you need to understand its attraction for someone who does. Criticism has no significance and no importance if it is not accompanied by understanding – and that implies the comprehension of at least the possibility of love.”