Book Review: How To Write About Music

How To Write About Music

How to Write About Music isn’t a manual. It’s a crystal ball worthy of any aspiring music writer’s gaze. It doesn’t hold your hand from concept to copy, but arranges tools you’ll need to get there on your terms.

The essays are excerpted from magazines, books, blogs, and the prestigious 33 1/3 series, of which this volume is a part. Lack of familiarity with the series is all the more reason anyone who gives a wit about the craft should have it in hand. The table of contents reads like a musical composition in its own right. Each themed chapter reflects a rhythmic structure of essays preceded by an introduction and advice from industry leaders and followed by writing prompts to get your utensils moving. In addition to these are interludes, dubbed “The Go-Betweens,” offering advice on salient issues such as networking, information sources, and critical essentials. Within the latter I note a common theme of empathy, which might well be the most important quality to cultivate as a writer of any persuasion. Witness my own review of a Jordi Savall concert I attended in 2015, for which I balanced aversion to the performed with empathy for the performer.

To the list of writerly necessaries, I add my own: be fearless. There have been instances, especially when writing about a live concert, during which I felt conflicted about my reactions. Unlike an album, one doesn’t have the luxury of playing such an event over and over, digesting it for however long feels necessary before textually fixing its place in time. But as music writer Paul Griffiths once told me, “Sometimes your job is to confirm what the audience already knows.” It has indeed been my experience, assuming I’ve been open to what was happening on stage, that my readers—at least those who come forward—have tended to share my assessments. Have confidence in that. Your readers are likely to feel just as uncomfortable with a gushing review of a patently horrible concert than a haterly review of a stellar one.

Effective music criticism is not merely that which tries to convince you to experience the art in question but that which allows you understand why anyone else would. In this regard, Lou Reed’s piece on Kanye West’s Yeezus is emblematic. It may not turn you into a follower, and it may not even strengthen an existing fan’s respect, but it may just convince you to throw caution to the Westerly wind and take it for what it is. Reed does, of course, treat Yeezus as a musical object, but does so by situating it culturally and socially. A superb piece by Alex Ross on Radiohead in the “Artist Profile” chapter displays likeminded attention to detail in providing context for the band, as well as context for the context. It helps, too, that the anecdotal bits Ross includes are vivid, often humorous, and always relevant. Descriptive turns of phrase, used well, can provide the same function. A case in point is John Jeremiah Sullivan, who in his protracted musings on Axl Rose says so much about the Guns N’ Roses frontman with so little: “With the wasp-man sunglasses and the braids and the goatee, he reminds one of the monster in Predator, or of that monster’s wife on its home planet.” Another favorite in this vein is the article by Lindsay Zoladz on feminist punk outfit Pussy Riot’s visit to the Brooklyn Museum, of which the last line is classic characterization: “By the end of the week, I can’t decide if I’ve been in the presence of a group of real-life superheroes, or just getting to know a couple of down-to-earth Clark Kents.” Only a fan could have written this.

Everyone who ingests this volume will, I think, absorb more of one particular piece over the rest. For me, “Metal Machine Music: Composing With Machines” is the finest morsel. With his starkly metaphorical yet simpatico language, Brian Morton describes an internal landscape of technology and plugs the reader into it like a thirsty chip. Other notables abound throughout How to Write About Music. Highlights in the “Track-By-Track” section include a free dive into the antics of Taylor Swift by the prodigious Tavi Gevinson (only 17 when she wrote it) and Mary Gaitskill’s endearing love letter to B-Movie’s “Nowhere Girl.” A standout in the personal essay section is James Wood’s piece on Keith Moon. Even my label of expertise, ECM Records, gets due props in Rick Moody’s “On Celestial Music,” in which he cites Arvo Pärt’s Tabula rasa as a turning point in his engagement with so-called “serious” music. So-called alternative forms of expression are also given space to roam, and of them a snippet of the graphic novel on Black Flag by Marty Davis is fabulous.

Refreshing about this book is the variety of contradictory perspectives. Notice, for example, in the “Artist Interview” section that some advocate learning as little as possible about the artist in question while others encourage knowing everything inside and out (then forgetting it). This allows one to be adaptable to conversational turns. In the same section, Paul Morley notes that to write about music is to make myth, saying, “the best music writing generates great, billowing lies, elaborates the effective fantasy of great music, rather than confirming facts and meekly agreeing with dates, descriptions and existing classification.” On point, to be sure. Music writing is not a seeking of truth but a confirmation of its malleability. The axiom bears out repeatedly in the art of the interview, of which the book has more fine examples. Thomas Sayers Ellis’s conversation with Bootsy Collins is instructive. Before reading it, one need only look at the structure. Ellis’s short, occasionally single-word, sentences in bold, and long, rambling paragraphs from Collins reveal an interviewer who listens, sympathizes, and provokes. He merely shoots the cue ball and provides the carom for every pocketed ball thereafter.

Nearest to my practitioner’s heart is the section on blogs, the chosen authors of which confirm the combined importance of the internet and social media as bastions of where music criticism is headed. As an avid blogger with nearly a million words to his credit, I can only say: Don’t treat the blog as an erasable format. Though I will occasionally go back to old blog posts to fix grammatical or factual errors, I never radically alter content. A blog is a record of your evolution as a thinker. But because opinions can and do change, whenever my relationship to an album has dramatically deviated from first impressions, I do a “second look” review rather than rewriting the original.

If anything unifies this book, it is passion. The key is that its writers (and editors!) are passionate about what they love and about what they don’t. Charles Aaron’s essay on a failed performance by Hole, for example, describes the alluring car crash that is the widowed Courtney Love in such graphic detail that one yearns to have been there. That’s the power of great writing. Yet nowhere is passion so frontloaded as in the “Cultural Criticism” chapter, where one encounters a chunk of the 33 1/3 bestseller Let’s Talk About Love. Carl Wilson’s paean to Céline Dion is essential reading for anyone wanting to get into the business. To that end, the editors have kindly included a proposal section for those wanting to pitch book ideas during the publisher’s much-anticipated open calls.

In the end, one must remember that this book is geared toward writers of rock music. That said, its lessons will be enlightening for a classical and jazz critic such as myself. Whereas albums in those genres are somehow more immediate, popular albums require a longer period of gestation than I am used to. When I wrote, for example, about Katy Perry’s Prism, so far the only album of its kind that I’ve reviewed on this site, I had to sit with it for a full week of exclusive intake and research before I felt prepared to opine with confidence about an artist I’d never paid close attention to before. How to Write About Music, for its part, contains a technical analysis by Owen Pallett of Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” an insightful disclosure of technique as politic that revels in thick description. Such are the kinds of inner workings that only intimate knowledge can elucidate.

Hence a final point of continuity these writers touch upon but don’t feel the need to explicitly state: integrity applies not only to those who write music, but also to those who write about it. The eureka factor comes in being honest about one’s feels. For example, in his scrumptious piece on J Dilla’s Donuts, excerpted from the 33 1/3 volume of the same name, Jordan Ferguson describes the album as “really weird.” It’s not a phrase that would hold up in any academic court of law, but which nevertheless pulses with life. It is an unfiltered reaction, a bottle of good old tap water in a world of purified substitutes. Sometimes, one needs to drink directly from the faucet.

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