[Author's Note: After finishing this piece I let it sit around a while, a LONG while. The reasons for this are perhaps too numerous and onerous to explain here, but right before sending it off to be posted I discovered a Kickstarter project asking for funding a new site devoted to long-form music writing called "Uncool." The timing couldn't be much better however, as the following installment of "Dirty Work" is about MUSIC WRITING. If you're a fan of lengthy, interesting music journalism, then investigate this project and donate today!]
On April 18, 2012, Editor-in-Chief at Pitchfork Mark Richardson wrote a piece for his Resonant Frequency column titled "Follow People If You Like Their Music: Does the Music-Writing Boom Increase Our Connection With the Sounds We Hear?" Richardson is a very good writer and, for those of you who are fans of the Flaming Lips, he wrote a smart book in the 33 1/3 series about Zaireeka. Though I was disappointed in this column, hoping for a longer debate about our times and the individuals writing about Rock online, the first third intrigued me. In it, Richardson explains how much text about music we, as a culture, read everyday. “The number of words written about music in a single day last week may well dwarf the total number written before the internet,” he claims at one point. It places the burden on the reader to discern wheat from chaff on a click-by click-basis.
It wasn’t always like that, though. I grew up reading magazines like Guitar World and Rolling Stone for the long-form articles about bands, significant movements (punk), and the making of songs/albums. I devoured books about my favorite artists and about Rock 'n' Roll from a historical point of view on a weekly basis. Hearing albums for the first time that I'd only ever read about as a young kid (Pet Sounds, for example) was a thrill. Then I would reread the writings to compare what I heard with what I read. Criticism and essays about Rock were my world.
That was 15+ years ago when the people who were writing about music worked largely as proper journalists for magazines and newspapers while those who wrote for a smaller audience (like zine makers) were mainly enthusiastic hobbyists. Today with so many music sites, blogs, Twitter, and comments sections, we’re all hobbyists! Glorified amateur rock writers.
Considering today's online music writing culture, it is easy to pick on Pitchfork. The site was rising as the home of the newest generation of "Rock writers" when I was becoming aware of such a thing. It was 1998-2001 and the Internet was replacing the record store, the radio and the music magazines all at the same time. This development aggravated me. Pitchfork is now the tastemakers’ home base - it is easily the most prestigious (pretentious?) site for a new artist to get a break on. I'm a fan, but I also love to hate them. For me they're our Rolling Stone and Creem.
The site's earliest reviews were clearly indebted to Lester Bangs and the "noise boys" crew (Meltzer, Tosches, etc). They were written from weird angles, pointedly personal, and all over the place. Brent DiCrescenzo's infamous review of Radiohead's Kid A got taken to task, for example. And no one will ever forget the now-deleted review of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds by founder Ryan Schrieber in which the classic was not given PF's ridiculous 10.0. Sacred Cows being torn down...that is a legacy of Lester's for sure. Unfortunately, this phenomenon paved the way for thousands of opinionated music geeks (yours truly included) to jump online and consider themselves published music critics a la Bangs. Thusly now I'm listening to Astral Weeks and pondering the anniversary of the pathetic death of a gifted writer who loved music perhaps too much…
At my home in Austin, TX (a city too musi-KEWL for its own good and Bangs' home in 1980) I've been rereading and reexamining Mr. Bangs' work, trying to reconnect with my inspired younger self who beamed with ecstatic joy upon learning that some slob got famous writing about The Stooges - it was the last age where I felt it was still possible. I was listening to music that my peers hadn't yet discovered too. I thought I was special reading Kerouac while spinning Dylan back-to-back with Fugazi. I dreamed about making music and writing game-changing, life-exulting "stuff." The kid who listened to Metal Machine Music in high school during the nu metal and boy band era was proud, precocious, and obnoxious. Bangs was influencing my little world, but what about today? Do people even care about "Rock writing?" Should we blame Lester for all the damn music writers out there (like me!) taking up space on endless blogs and know-it-all comments sections?
I turned thirty years old in July. No, please don't send me any after-the-fact gifts, just make a charitable donation at the next rock show you go to...and by that I mean tip the bartender and buy a goddamn record from the band. A friend of mine with exceptionally idiosyncratic taste (he likes what he likes) told me after a couple of pale ales and a bootleg Soundgarden DVD about how he cried when he turned thirty. Me, I don't think it means that much. Of course, then again I suddenly feel like I have to get serious about my passion...music. Carving out this column space to chronicle this milestone year sez sumptin' about me right? So, maybe I do care a little after all.
It goes back to Mr. Bangs. He's a loud piece to this puzzle. He attempted to use the written word as it was a Fender. He communicated life through the records he was spinning. I've spent my life listening to every damn album I could and reading as much as I could. I hear music as the soundtrack to the movie of life, except the music is more important than most of the action or dialog. Writing about my experience of buying and listening non-stop to Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft" album the day the twin towers fell is something I consider important. But is writing about music important today when every music snob has a blog? Is there any real LIT power left?
We music fanatics sift thru blogs and Twitter reviews just for that sweet taste - we're all junkies. This has contributed to the lessening worth of music criticism in my eyes and a popular debate subject. Spin magazine editor Christopher R. Weingarten posted, in reasoning out why his magazine would shift to a Twitter based review platform:
“The standard music review, once presented as an imperious edict, has increasingly frayed into a redundant, gratuitous novelty in an era of fewer and fewer actual music consumers … The value of the average rock critic's opinion has plummeted now that a working knowledge of Google can get you high-quality audio of practically any record, so you can listen and decide for yourself whether it's worth a damn… Um, but don't tell anyone we said that, okay?”
OK, we won't tell...
I’ll list, off the top of my head, music writers worth seeking out, in my opinion. Not everyone is writing exclusively online…or about current music...or even still alive, for that matter, but they write about music and they write it well:Lester Bangs·
One of my favorite contemporaries from the above list of writers is Steven Hyden (obviously, since he influenced my "Dirty Work," "Good/Bad" series!). I became familiar with his music writings from The AV Club, but he's since gone freelance contributing to Pitchfork among other sites. [Note: The AV Club’s music staff is usually good, BTW. They have intelligent writers covering everything from hip-hop to country.]
Hyden’s writing in particular kills me though because he usually writes about a topic I myself have been thinking about or drafting. For example he recently wrote a six-part survey/critique of R.E.M.’s career titled “A Perfect Circle.” This was a hardcore fan’s love letter to a beloved band, but it was also the voice of a critic whose view of the music reflected something deeper about himself…and I wish I had written it.
If you don’t own R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1998), you need to take trip to the local record store or Half Price Books (or yes, Amazon) and buy it. Don’t ask any questions. This is an album I would give to people who don’t even own an R.E.M. disc. It’s that good! Hyden writes, “I liken New Adventures to The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St., in terms of how it honestly portrays a band fighting through exhaustion by virtue of the centrifugal force built up from its history. R.E.M. in the mid-’90s, like the Stones in the early ’70s, was a band on the verge of collapse, and New Adventures (to its credit) doesn’t try to hide that.” This is such a great observation and an aspect of the album I haven’t considered before. The band recorded the bulk of the album at sound checks while on tour and the songs do have a road weary quality to them. In short, every song is needed and, like a wonderful painting, when the listener steps back, the whole is greater than individual parts.
One striking bit of self-analysis comes in Part 5. Hyden explains, “...being a fan is a more socially acceptable version of having an imaginary friend. Which is true except for one crucial difference: You get to decide when your imaginary friend stops existing.” As a fan of R.E.M. I understand this statement deeply. Following the group was a personal matter and when they went off the rails toward the end, it hurt and it was enough to make you want to quit listening to another second of their music. But I couldn’t stop, no matter how bad it got (Around the Sun).
In 2007 Hyden wrote a painfully naked diatribe called “R.E.M.’s Incredible Shrinking Legacy” basically venting frustrations only a committed fan could have. He demanded the group breakup, that their records sucked all along, and they were heading towards “historical irrelevance.” Hyden expresses remorse about writing this article, but offers insight into why he did it saying, “Reading it now is painful, not only because it’s not all that well written, but also because it was driven by a misguided impulse to bury my own past. Setting aside the legitimate criticisms in the piece—R.E.M. had done damage to its legacy during its “lost” period in the late ’90s and early ’00s—I was really writing more about myself than a rock band.” Few pieces of rock writing hit home for me as much as this article did. Once again, I WISH I WROTE IT!
Part Six ends with this eloquent summation:
“At the start of ‘A Perfect Circle,’ I wondered why R.E.M. meant so much to me. It was a question about the nature of fandom itself: What causes us to relate so personally to monolithic institutions, an act of anthropomorphism that fools us into treating things as confidants and companions? Cynically, my love of R.E.M. can be likened to finding a spiritual connection with a can of Coke or a set of tires. Records are just mass-produced objects; songs are mere stimuli that distract and enliven the brain for a few minutes before disappearing into the ether. The significance of these things exists only in your brain. That millions of other people happen to share roughly the same experience does not mean we’re not all deluding ourselves.”
This idea of devotion to a band is a concept I hate to say seems to be on the decline. I’m not much younger than Mr. Hyden, but the number of bands a fan like me has any real connection to has dwindled noticeably. Radiohead is the band from my high school/college days that still has a fervent following and I know that, while I was personally irritated with King of Limbs, my peers and I had passionate talks about this album in context to the band’s previous works the way listeners ought to. Who else inspires that kind of fanbase? Wilco...not the way they’re going. And I doubt anyone in fifteen years will have the need to write a thoughtful series of essays about Odd Future. Ah, but that’s another topic for another time. For now, keep reading the writing that rocks!
Leave your comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #dirtyworkmusic.