Dancing about architecture

>> Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

-Martin Mull (probably).

It was my intent when I went down to Austin that it would be blog fodder (as it has been), and particularly that I would try to review some of the bands I saw. And yet, with, what, almost two weeks of posts, I've hardly done that at all, despite the fact I even took notes at the Welsh music showcase at Latitude 30 (somehow I couldn't be bothered after that).

There's a few reason I haven't gotten around to it, but I have to tell you that one of the biggest is simply wondering how to approach it. I have, perhaps, been put a little off my game by better, more experienced, and more foolish talents than my own, which leaves me thinking that, yes, I will write about at least some of the bands I saw play down in Austin and probably will write about them the way I planned to or the way that comes naturally, but also second-guessing myself about that.

I should step back and explain; first, because you have no idea what I'm talking about and second, because it's (I think) sort of an interesting discussion about writing. Or maybe it's only interesting to myself and, self-indulgently, I'm afflicting you with it (or not--you just closed the tab). But what's a blog, but a self-indulgent place.

I went to panels and speeches at SXSW, of course, and being someone who fancies himself a writer, I went to panels that involved writing. You're surprised, no doubt. But aside from my fantasies, you know, I went to SXSW as a music fan and a writer or blogger: I mean, I could have gone to the SXSW continuing legal education panels, except I didn't want to attend as an attorney (what's the point of leaving yourself behind on vacation if you're going to take yourself with you after all?) or I could have attended panels on promotion, management, production, etc., except that those didn't quite seem like things I'd get anything out of, either, beyond a general interest in some of those things going back to when I still played guitar more often and had a bit of a home recording rig set up. But writing panels, or panels guested by writers--the applications seem more obvious and practical in whatever tangential way to my life pecking on lettered keys.

At panels like "Writing About Music In The Twenty Tens" and "I'm Not Old, Your Music Does Suck," or even at things like Bob Geldof's keynote, the state of music writing came up in various contexts (in Geldof's case, a pretty dismissive one, but whatever). It was at the "Your Music Does Suck" that several panelists, grizzled music journalism vets and critics, deplored what passes as music criticism these days, how so much of what "passes" as music criticism can be reduced down to "what other bands does this group sound like?" and how did the record or show make the critic feel and did he like it, perhaps accompanied by a lot of irrelevant personal memoir stuff like you see in Pitchfork reviews (and boy howdy, did all the panelists hate Pitchfork; I'm not saying I blame them or disagree, I'm just observing). And how this is easy and lazy writing, which is why it's foisted off as criticism unlike some deeper analysis of the sort, say, that permeated Rolling Stone back in the '60s and '70s when a review of a rock album might span thousands of words and a dozen supersized pages.

And these are fair complaints. I get that. If I didn't get that, I might be having less trouble getting around to talking about some of the actual music I saw during my mad week in Austin, Texas. It's easy to aspire to some deep historical and technical analysis of how an artist got to Point B from wherever-the-hell Point A was (perhaps well before the artist's time) and really hard to write such a thing in a cogent and articulate fashion. (Harder still, perhaps, when one has staggered from a bar to a club at midnight, full of booze that's been shaken, not stirred, by a jostling crowd and throbbing PA system.)


Except what else am I going to say about music, and by "I," I of course mean anybody who's trying to say anything about music. I really don't know how much I can tell you about how you'll feel listening to something; that's especially true if the "something" in question is along the lines, for instance, of Plastic Ono Band, who I enjoyed seeing live but readily admit involves a whole lot of weird improvisational noise that isn't going to appeal to people who aren't already receptive to that sort of thing. And how do you know if that might appeal to you? To say that parts of Yoko Ono's performance (sticking to our example) were reminiscent of some of Neil Young or Sonic Youth's guitar-noise experimentation in the 1980s and other parts reminded me of Pink Floyd's experimental post-Barrett years (1969-1971, basically; maybe you could include '68) isn't just easy and lazy (though it is)--it also actually imparts a huge payload of information in a small warhead: "Oh--I love Ummagumma, maybe I should try to see her if she comes to town!" or "I can't stand that pompous crazyrandom weird-to-be-weird arthouse shit, PASS!"

Way back in the day, I had a subscription to CMJ: New Music Monthly, a now-defunct music magazine whose most-talked-about feature was probably the inclusion of a sampler CD with every issue. That was the best thing about the magazine, and the second-best thing was that the bulk of each monthly issue consisted of short, two-or-three paragraph reviews of new albums; and the best part of those reviews was that the header for each one would include a section captioned "RIYL", as in, "Recommended If You Like". I almost hate to mention that this little one-line caption was more useful than most of the reviews that came beneath it, or even more useful than the most eloquent ten-thousand-word golden-age Rolling Stone missive on a new release, only slightly less useful than the NMM sampler CDs themselves. Because, again, it was a lot of valuable information in a couple of words: "This album is recommended if you like Talking Heads? Why, I love Talking Heads! Maybe I'd love this album." Maybe sometimes the assessment would turn out to be misplaced--"What the--this sounds nothing like Talking Heads! Shenanigans!"--but it was as good a starting place as any if you were trying to figure out how to allocate your limited music dollars and valuable listening time.

And I can't disagree if you want to say that this lacked depth and perhaps was a harbinger of the end of smart music criticism; all I can say is it led to smarter purchases than most music reviews do.

See, this is the thing: Martin Mull (or Steve Martin, Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, or somebody else) was absolutely right: writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I can say tons and tons about a band without telling you anything you really need to know to help you make a decision about an artist. Perhaps if I do it well, the writing itself can be entertaining--but that requires neither sticking to the music (and here we come back to those autobiographical Pitchfork "reviews") or lengthy--why, some of the best reviews of all time were J.D. Considine's notorious one-line vivisections. (Classic Considine, reviewing Cher's Love Hurts: "Not this much." His entire review of GTR's self-titled debut was a mere three letters: "SHT.")

I'd like, for instance, to tell you how much I liked The Joy Formidable's set, and I sort of expect to. But however much I rant about how great a set it was and how wonderful they are, and however much eloquence I muster or sense of rock history or what I pull together from my limited experience as a musician, everything you really need to know about the band was in the clip I embedded in yesterday's post. Hell, you don't even need to watch the whole thing: you will probably get more out of dragging the slider midway down it's track and watching thirty seconds from the middle of the performance than you'll get out of whatever I have to say about it, whether I write a hundred words or a thousand; this isn't, I have to emphasize, self-effacement--it's because whatever I have to say will be an absurd exercise in translating something shimmering and loud into something textual and contextual, however skillfully (or abysmally) I perform the dance.

Which means, in the end, that I'm left with telling you how I felt and who they sounded like, and perhaps throwing in some personal experience stuff; not because it's easy or lazy (though, again, for the third or nineteenth time, I agree, it is easy and lazy), but because those are things I can bring to a piece of writing about music that you can't get from the thing itself. And if I can muster interesting stuff about technique or historical context, well, sure, I'll throw that in, too, along with whatever else fits, but even that's really the same deal, even that's me trying to create a piece of writing that's ostensibly about music but is really about the author or the writing itself. Because, really, when you get down to it, dancing about architecture is pretty fucking stupid, that's the whole obvious point of the quip, right? It's why Geldof, at his keynote, said bloggers "don't have rock-and-roll"--he could have been talking about any writer covering music in any writing medium, really.

So let's agree I don't have three chords and the truth. You might have to settle for one-hundred-and-four keys and whatever it is I can pound out of them. And it might not be music and it may or may not even be about music, because I'm not sure how often writing is really about what it appears to be about. Might be that whatever I have to say about The Last Republic or Sharon Van Etten is really all about me, after all, but if I'm lucky and pull a really bitchin' rabbit out of this hat, here, whatever I write about myself will be something you read about yourself, because that's the funny way this little thing we're doing, this interaction between writer and reader works, when it works, if it works. We'll see where we stand, and I'll try not to waste our time.


Dean Gadda Thursday, March 24, 2011 at 5:10:00 PM EDT  

I confess I did not read the entire post, but I stopped when I realized that you would be going on about "music writing". I like, no love, music. I can't bring myself to read the maunderings of music reviewers however. I rarely agree with their assessments positive or negative, and find most of it to be self agrandizing bullshit. Do you concur?

Eric Thursday, March 24, 2011 at 5:44:00 PM EDT  

Hello, Dean! Do I concur? Well, yes, but only in the sense that I don't necessarily have a problem with self-aggrandizing bullshit if it's clever or well-written. At some level, any kind of writing is egotistical bullshitting, though good writing isn't usually noticeable as such; that is to say, there's something egotistic in thinking that one's words are special enough anyone else ought to care about them, whether those words are a fantasy about rocketships, an account of the Battle of Waterloo, or an opinion of the most recent Stephen King novel.

As for the quality of the assessments, there are a few issues.

The first, and one that was raised in the "Your Music Sucks" panel at South-By, is trust: there are critics whose opinions I value on movies, music, books or whatever, and while I may not always agree with them, I value their insights enough to pay attention to what they say. Indeed, there are probably even critics I rarely agree with whose opinions I trust, if that makes sense.

The second issue, I think, is that whether or not you trust a critic, that doesn't necessarily mean his reviews are useless. Okay, Sasha Frere-Jones is pretty damn useless; but every now and again it's still worth reading something he wrote because even if it's likely to be inane and consist of almost nothing but noticeable self-aggrandizing bullshit, sometimes it is productive to tease apart what's going on in a bad piece of writing to figure out how a good piece of writing should work. If Sasha Frere-Jones is nearly always wrong, why is he nearly always wrong? What's going on under the hood that causes such wrongness? That's educational, right there.

Anyway, I hope you'll feel free to visit regularly and leave comments, but I suppose I'd have to warn you that anything I write about music is likely to be exactly the sort of thing you don't like to read. All I can say is that I write about several things, and I hope I stumble into some other subject you like.

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