May 11, 2008

The Importance of Music Writing

I would like to start by saying, no one critic is right. My personal philosophy is that everyone is a critic. Of course, every critic has their preferences.

Mine is predictability. If I feel like the music isn't challenging, or at least melodically interesting, I generally (and I use that term loosely) don't like it.

I believe that professional critics and writers often serve as "taste makers", if you will. Critics are generally people who put in the time and effort to study music and writing for years, so therefore they have a bit of more expertise in formulating an opinion.

Writers and musicians should be held to a standard. Writers are there to report and write truthfully, and musicians are there to produce quality music. One simply can not work without the other. However, I hate that music writers are often written off (no pun intended), as hacks who only want to write their personal opinions. The objective of good music writing has nothing to do with that.

When I got into music writing I became bombarded with a complex question: If I become a music writer, what I am really contributing to society? I am basically some music geek who wants to write about bands that I like. That does not save lives and that does not change anything in the world I kept thinking. That also led me to the question why have music criticism at all?

Rock journalist Chuck Klosterman wrote in his memoir Killing Yourself to Live, “Whenever people argue the importance of ‘[music] criticism’ –they are not arguing about [it]. They are arguing about the definition of the word important.” Some do not find reviews helpful –and logically so-- they have ears; they can hear and decide an opinion for themselves. If an album gets bad reviews does that mean the album will sell less? No, it will sell sometimes even more so than if it got bad reviews.

However, upon closer inspection I become conscious just how much music writing has to offer philosophically and culturally. I understood that with writing I could capture the essence of music for readers and reveal a meaning beyond its surface value. Writer Glenn McDonald echoed this sentiment in an interview with, "I think the worthwhile thing you can [do]... is [to] write about how music moves you, about the ways you find to connect with it, and how you contrive to allow it to affect your understanding of the world or yourself.”

Chicago-based rock journalist and author, Jim DeRogatis once said, “Writing about music is writing about music, and it’s goddamn hard’s easier to write about the history of the song or the background or the gossip…than it is to write about the music.” You must have an opinion when you are writing reviews and criticism. You must also empirically prove the reasoning for your opinion.

New York Times music critic, Jon Pareles said in an interview with, "My job is… [to] tell the truth about it, offer a judgment, and give a sense what what’s behind that judgment. I feel it is your responsibly as a writer is to surpass the first, second, and third adjectives, and enlighten the reader." Music writers are a there to be a trusted opinion, the letting the chips fall where they may, and this responsibility at times comes at a hefty toll. Critics and journalists must write what they believe to be the correct evaluation of the music.

Standing up to public opinion is another thing I believe that music writers must do relentlessly. Some writers have been blackballed for standing true to their music beliefs. In 1993, Jim DeRogatis wrote a piece in which he cited a Smashing Pumpkins song as having ‘sophomoric’ lyrics and this angered lead singer, Billy Corgan. On a live radiocast concert, Corgan referred to DeRogatis as “that fat fuck from the Chicago Sun-Times.” Undeterred by Corgan’s resentment, DeRogatis reviewed the band by listening to their performance outside the concert venue. “I phoned in a report for the newspaper on deadline, and the notion that he could not control everything really got [Corgan] mad,” he wrote in his book Milk It!.

As I ventured into music writing, it became important to me to discover what makes a good music writer. I realized I needed to define my philosophy on music journalism, and define why it is aesthetically important. A music journalist must be able to discuss, interpret, and analyze aspects of music. This undeniably, contains a certain method of thinking. From reading and studying writers like Chuck Klosterman, Cameron Crowe, and Lester Bangs I have learned a psychological process about writing music.

In an e-mail interview, rock critic Ralph Berrier wrote: “Music fans, real music fans, still want to hear from trusted writers and opinion-makers. As the world gets noisier and noisier with all the opinions and buzz and hype out there, the very best music writers will always stand out from white noise.”

It is my hope as a writer to achieve this.



Chris said...

all. so. true.

i think the reason a lot of writers first get into music criticism, or any writing at all, is because it makes them feel important, and it makes them feel heard. let's face it; they're usually geek heads with nothing better to do than bask in the delight (or misery) of other people's lives. and of course, free music is a perk too, but it's not long before the writer finds it's a whole other monster.

when i sit down to write about music, i aim to look at more than just the music, the chord progressions and the lyrical unfolding. i don't WANT the reader to know what i think about the music; i want to show my readers what the music thinks about me and what it would probably think of them. i try to put myself inside the songs, to unearth the world the music comes from and comes out of and goes into. i live in the song as best i can, and if i can't even get my fingers in it, it's probably not a good song. it's one-dimensional, and flat, and un-receptive. but music you can fit into like new shoes, that is something worth writing about, because that is what writing is best meant for, is it not?

some people need to hear sirens before they can hear what the siren is blaring for. and that's why i write.

mark saleski said...

interesting stuff. this thing about "the truth" has always been a sticking point with me.

i wrote this piece once called The Nasty Review(er), after being accused of always leaning toward "the sunny side".

one of the reasons i got into writing about music is that i've always hated the super-snarky kind of review. you've read them...the writer has always hated band xyz and goes ahead to trash their latest release. it's all sort of pointless if you ask me.

to take an example from my own likes & dislikes: i've never liked Elliott Smith. there's just something about the vocals that i can't i would never write a review of his stuff because, well, what would the point be?

from my side of things, it's much more fun to be an evangelist...finding cool & interesting music and point people toward it with my writing.

and yeah, writing about music IS hard. fun too.

Claire said...

HA! Hey, I found ya. Nice blog!

Lexy said...

I just stumbled upon your blog whilst writing something similar of my own about the state of contemporary/mainstream music journalism, and I'm really impressed.

I really like how you clearly articulate your personal motivations in relation to music journalism, and more importantly the way you justify why you do it. To me, that is one of the hardest parts of this whole business - finding a reason why someone should take 5 minutes or so out of their life to read what I have to say about something.

Anyway, thanks for your enlightening read!

xXx Ne'er-Do-WellxXx said...

wow. we should talk music sometime, because I have a feeling you could teach me a thing or two about it! anyway, check out my blog and leave some comments if you feel so inspired!