Pop Playground
Writing About Music: Where Have We Been? Where Are We? Where Are We Going? (2003 Edition)



for the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Music Criticism.

In 2003, Stylus asked noted music critic/magazine editor Mark Sinker to construct a questionnaire for other music writers. The questions, mostly about music criticism itself, were sent to nearly every music critic that we could think of at the time. We only got about ten answers back and we mutually decided to shelve the entire project. Those answers, however, lingered and when the idea of the Pop Playground Essay Series’ music criticism topic emerged, we felt that it might be interesting to look back at some of the results…

01. What happens to music when there's nothing strange left?

John Darnielle: Not possible! Unless the question ties in with the general societal push toward eliminating all forms of deviance (via pharmacology, “correcting” left-handed children, et al)—unless the question is “what happens to music when there are no strange things left in the world,” in which case: well, in which case even then, not possible! Lovecraft imagined the Great Strangeness under what would, to his audience, have seemed the most normal surface imaginable (New England)—ditto Robt. Aickman—and, finally and least coherently, since music itself is an exceptionally strange thing, its very existence defies the question.

Michaelangelo Matos: It's always a mistake to assume that "strange" means the same thing to everyone, and to underestimate the cyclical nature of things. In pop there's always a backlash and a retrenchment going on, in one area or other, and there's always some inspired-cum-genius kid who hears something and has his/her own version of it to add to the pot, or even better to overthrow the pot completely.

02. What happens to music WRITING when there's nothing strange left?

Michaelangelo Matos: Not especially inspired hand-wringing, mostly (though see above). But surely most music writers don't need an excuse for THAT, now do they?

Jon Savage:
1) An excess of access.
2) Nick Hornby and thus extremely reactionary attitudes presented as something (god help us) hip and even viable.
3) Servicing the PR's who service the record companies who service their shareholders. Do you want a retired bank manager in Surrey dictating what you hear? No, I thought not.

03. Actually can that even happen? (eg aliens)

Chris Dahlen: Would aliens even respond to our music? I know my pets don't (except that my cat hates Gang of Four).

Frank Kogan: No. Even without extraterrestrials, it can't happen. Mark, what's on your mind here?

04. Is thinking about aliens a good way to think about what might be wrong with music (or writing)? Or is it totally missing the important point?

Marcello Carlin: The important point about music writing is that any critical stance taken towards or against music has biologically and aesthetically to stem from the inner life of the writer. How good that writing becomes, or is, is reliant upon the flexibility of that inner life.

04a. TV dinner-dom everywhere: does it matter today that all music arrives pre-contextualised: isn't this the same as pre-pigeonholed and ready-judged?

Nick Currie: Pop Matters ended their review of The Civil War by Matmos with this thought: “we're left wondering what it is we are supposed to be listening for, listening to. And that's never good, no matter which side of the war you're on.” I personally would embrace a world where that 'wondering' (which is all about confusion of context, confusion of judgment) is good.

04b. Once upon a time "raw" meant YOU THE KID CONSUMER had to work out how to cook it: could we revive that state? Should we? Isn't tradition how we access LIKE MAMA USED TO MAKE (ie it tastes better)?

Frank Kogan: We always have to work out how to cook it. There are places and times (e.g., Anglo-America, '64-'68) when even the boring people are unsure of their footing, have to come up with a brand new dance. And there are other times and places where even the interesting dancers are struggling to find partners who'll try new steps with them. (That was my complaint in '87 about the indie-alternative-fanzine network, that it was letting the symbol stand in for the event.) But just consult your own experience: Is everyone sure in advance that he or she knows already what to expect from the new Ying Yang Twins album (or the old Dylan album) and knows already all the possible ways that anyone can use it? And do you know in advance what you're going to read about them?

05. How can you be sure that the things you liked MOST about music writing back when it got you started aren't the things which caused everything you dislike most about it today?

Marcello Carlin: It's impossible for most writers and consumers because that means having to admit that you know that things have moved on and you weren't built to move with them. It means admitting your own redundancy. Which doesn't mean ending your life; just that, as a music writer, your saddle of guilt is going to weigh you down and probably turn you into a laughing stock (viz. the Addams cartoon: "The Man Who Didn't Like Grime").

06. Isn't music writing that isn't pure promo just a kind of step back into market research? What d'you do to counter this? (Need you do anything?)

Nick Southall: Everything is market research. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, ergo does not need to be countered.

07. Which is the bigger evil: market research as a whole, or BAD market research? If punk is the use of mainstream mediation against itself - chart action, the tabloids - how would you unleash punk market research?

Michaelangelo Matos: Bad market research, probably, because it fools people into believing they're on the road to results when all they're getting is muddle. You could probably say that about regular market research, too, though, unless (I'm guessing here, I know little about how this stuff works in real terms) you mean something like "good market research = our readers don't like hip-hop while bad market research = our readers want more rock coverage and therefore hate hip-hop." As far as the punk part of the question I'm a little stymied, because it seems like its terms are 26 years old.

08. Are there any kinds of music-making which are just at odds (at war?) with the ideals of good writing?

Frank Kogan: No.

Nick Southall: All of it. Except U2. Think about it.

09. Said to Mark Sinker by a grizzled rock-crit veteran, of 'Uncut', a few months after it started: "The thing about it is that it deals with the DISTANT PAST as if it's NEWS!" There are plenty of ways this needn't just be a dismissive condemnation: outline a couple.

John Darnielle: Yes, yes, absolutely. The challenge for music writing is/has always been to somehow incorporate critical theory’s “there-is-no-such-thing-as-time” like stance. When one writes about, say, Sammy Davis Jr., there’s a wealth of directions one might go. In the early nineties, contextualizing Sammy Davis and his peers in a sort of romanticized “people-like-us-in-different-social-settings” was the favored trope, but there are as many different ways to describe what happens when you play “Sammy Davis Sings Nat King Cole” as there are to read any other text. So, again, the trick is in remembering that text-play is infinite (though critical theory has its own faddishness, and it’s not as cool to reference Barthes as it once was, but there’s nothing for it). This particular infinity 1) guarantees lasting strangeness to all things and 2) erases the line between present and past. (Future is always another question entirely, hence I think the salience of the alien question.)

10. How much music history does a writer need to know before it harms their readers?

Marcello Carlin: The overflow of too LITTLE knowledge of music history is harming too many readers at present. If anyone is going to become a music writer this is of necessity going to involve months, years perhaps, locked away, coming to terms with thousands of records. You wouldn't trust the opinion of a doctor who thought that your appendix looked a little too gaudily pink. That's why people read music writers; we do the hard slog so you don't have to. They come to us for guidance. It also means observing basic protocols, such as one is allowed to have more than one sentence in a paragraph, and one should at least have listened to a record before passing judgment upon it. Otherwise you are literally not doing your job; or you are doing a different job.

11. Which do you prefer to know flourishes: lame writing about important or overlooked music, or strong writing about lame music? (if the writing is strong CAN the music actually be so lame?)

Michaelangelo Matos: I used to think the former, now I think the latter, and maybe if I burn out and retreat back into fandom-for-its-own-sake I'll change my mind again. but . . . well, right now I'm sitting in an office and facing me is a letter, written on a typewriter on thick, almost card-stock paper, that says in its entirety: "Dear Mr. Matos: Which offbeat or even normal publications/other media will let me--a writer for music zines like [omitted]--use my skills to help all the sounds too often ignored by our media? Thank you. Yours truly, [name omitted]." I received this less than a week after I'd begun my job and it was sent to me from all the way across the country; it's amazing how fast news travels. (it's across from me because I was so mystified by it I had to keep it on the corkboard in front of me as proof that it can always get worse.) The point, though, is that this person's idea of "sounds too often ignored by our media" was and is my idea of "sounds too often deserving of being ignored by our media," mostly because the boutique-economy nature of the sounds in question (the zine is an indie-rock one) means that most of its discourse exists in a self-congratulatory vacuum. this is true of nearly all pop music, and I'm not trying to pick on any particular genre for that reason; my heart is probably closest to dance music, and the discourse surrounding THAT, generally, is stupendously bad, much worse than indie-rock or hip-hop. but for right now I'll say strong writing about lame music, because what I tend to remember in those cases is the writer, not the music. Whereas lame writing will generally make me not bother with either the writer *or* the music.

Nick Currie: Can Mark Sinker—known for his lovely eyes—still matter if his fans don't especially want to read his biography? And do I, his biographer, have to believe he still matters, even when his fans just want to gaze adoringly into his lovely eyes? (Can we make it a picture book?)

12. Can a music matter if its fans don't especially want to read about it? And do writers have to ACT as if they believe it can, even when they don't?

Frank Kogan: Of course music matters. This isn't even a question. You don't have to pretend, you just have to learn. What you're really asking is whether someone can matter TO ME even if he or she isn't the sort who reads criticism. Answer: Yes. Example: Four years ago a nine-year-old girl (a nonreader of music criticism) explained to me why she didn't like Christina Aguilera: "You can tell from the way she sings that she thinks she's just SO great." Presumably the girl was referring to Christina's show-off vocal wiggles. Other relevant information: The girl's show-off younger sister DID like Christina. And the cool show-off pop fans in the girl's fourth grade were shunning the girl's best friend, leaving the girl with a stark choice: her friend or the cool crowd. Not to reduce her taste (which has all sorts of causes) to social commentary, but her critique of Christina may also have been a way of thinking about her world. (Notice that people who don't read about music nonetheless TALK about music.) Anyway, Christina Aguilera is unquestionably important, even if she rubs you the wrong way. And I don't mean to imply, either, that Christina's music wouldn't have been important to me if I hadn't known the nine-year-old. I haven't liked much beyond "Genie in a Bottle," and the trouble, actually, is that Christina DOESN'T think she herself is so great, she thinks MARIAH is great, and what is wiggly, assertively alive in Mariah comes across as self-abnegation in Christina. And I do care whether the world's Christina’s are self-abnegating or not, as well as the world's nine-year-olds.

13. What if some kinds of music progressively adapt themselves to favour the aspects which GET written about (well/at all) and other kinds of music adapt themselves to favour aspects which are hard to write about/elusive/rebarbatively jargonish? (clue: aren't dance music and ambient music difficult to write about interestingly?)

Frank Kogan: All these questions are oddly rhetorical, and contain leading assumptions. I feel that the questions really amount to Mark Sinker writing an obscure poem that pertains to his inner life more than to my life as a critic. But anyway, to try to answer this: When the writing expresses values that music makers and/or their target audience agree with or find exciting, then the writing could inspire music makers to make music that further appeals to those values. (Punk rock couldn't have happened without rock criticism.) But I doubt that much music adapts itself so as NOT to get written about, though some music (Muzak; soundtracks to commercials, TV shows, and movies) that is designed not to take center stage rarely gets written about.

Jon Savage: Yes. Drugs and lyrics (or lack of) are a problem. It was suggested to me that I write a history of Disco after "England's Dreaming" and, while I had no issue with the music itself (far from it), I quickly realised after talking to a couple of people that it would be a book about people being out of their minds on drugs that make you forget things. Not interesting at 100,000 words and up. DJ's have been the most overrated creatures during the last 12 years. Actually, I do think that ambient music could have been written about with more verve. Too late now.

14. What's the secret to writing well about the avant-garde? Or is it just not possible?

Chris Dahlen: I find this to be the easiest music to write about—far easier than rating guitar bands. This is music you can explore, describe and introduce people to, whereas reviewing yet another knock-off retro rock act makes me feel like a baseball statistician. The right combination of facts, history and good descriptions will help you describe abstract music on paper. And even if words don't capture the spirit of the music, you can still give the listener a way in, some advice for penetrating a difficult work, some coaching to help them bear with it until it "clicks" for them, and some context—say, a list of what albums to explore before the one at hand.

15: Isn't music supposed to be about the stuff you CAN'T reach with words?

John Darnielle: No! No! No! What kind of fairies-and-rainbows hippie nonsense is this? “The stuff you can’t reach with words” DOES NOT EXIST! “Nature is a language, can’t you read?” etc.! “Words” here is a red herring! You are just trying to get me to rant about the disturbing renaissance of the “beyond-language” trope! And I am going to run home and tell my mom on you!

Nick Southall: Yes; the function of music writing is to provide signposts to that stuff. As such it’s not an ends in itself, it’s just another signifier.

16: If you don't play (some of) the game, how much are you missing (some of) the point?

Marcello Carlin: Only if you play it according to Hoyle—all cards on the table. Leave a couple in your hand; like Dennis Potter and the Church, you secretly suspect that you might need them one day, however much you profess to despise them.

17. Imagine a magazine that successfully got away with changing its design, layout, sections, page-size, staff, intentions, focus, ethos and periodicity every issue. What would the reader gain? What would they lose that wasn't just security-blanket stuff?

Michaelangelo Matos: I will answer this question as if I am taking it word-for-word literally: The reader I suspect would gain a sense of superiority that they "got" something that hoodwinked everyone else. If the magazines are consistently good—yeah right, under those circumstances—they gain that too. But "security-blanket stuff" is a pretty stupid term for it; I certainly don't want my life lived schizophrenically, and neither does nearly anyone else, and what's more we're right to feel that way, because it's middle-class "what if crazy people were actually more normal than the normal people MAAAN?" bullshit romanticism. Nothing in the world works that way. If it operates that way, then by definition, it isn't working.

Non-literally, I imagine you might mean something along the lines of "changing its ethos etc." every few months—a magazine in a state of constant flux w/o the stark burn-it-all-start-again every time out aspect described above. In that case, it sounds fairly thrilling; a magazine that works the way the pop-music hive-mind works. But that's very difficult to maintain even in something as fluid as a message board with a rotating cast of whoever wants to join in.

18. What do you hope you'll like best about music in 20 years time?

Jon Savage: The fact that it can still engage my emotions and excite me. Which it will.


By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2005-09-07
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