Sunday, February 17, 2019

writing about music #4

a 2014 interview with Jerry Thackray aka Everett True aka The Legend, for an academic study of criticism he was writing

How did you gain authority as a music critic (i.e why and how where you chosen to write about music)?

The music press in the UK was a machine for the creation of that sort of authority – it was self-selecting -- a certain kind of personality and sense of (in print, if not person) confidence was what was attracted to the music press, and it was what prospered there –  you were rewarded for emphatic-ness and categorical-ness, taking strong stances pro and con various things, seizing on a new band or scene and hyping it. So diffidence and tentativeness tended to not thrive in that context.

But writers who came up through that school (the UK music press) often find it hard to translate that kind of charismatic (in print, not in person) model of criticism to other fields of journalism, where there is a more measured tone and a pretence of objectivity – most don’t manage to make the transition and those who do really have to tone it down for the less shouty environs of newspapers and “proper” magazines

What is the role of the music critic?

That’s rather a big question there Everett! People could write a long essay or a small book about it.

It’s much the same as other arts critics – assessing what’s good and bad  in terms of recordings, individual artists, or genres versus the rest of the genrescape;  tracking the evolution of a particular artist; looking for the wider significance or resonance of a recording/artist/genre; making connections between music and other art forms or what’s going on in culture or society or politics; pattern-recognition (spotting the emergence of trends, new genres, etc). 

What’s different about rock criticism as a tradition is that it has tended (historically) to have more role for a kind of prophetic or messianic mode, as in the “I have seen the future of...”.   There have been critics who have adopted that mode with the other arts – Clement Greenberg with art,  certain literary critics probably – but it’s been less common, I think.

Also, rock/pop/etc are hybrid art forms, so there is a lot of levels on which you can appraise or analyse it – music, but also lyrics, persona, performance/theatrics/gesture, visual presentation (clothes, video, record packaging) etc etc.  That helps to account for the huge diversity of critical approaches

In what way are power relations around traditional taste-maker critics changing from print to web 2.0 environments? Were these power relations around traditional taste-maker criticism already changing before the advent of web 2.0 environments?

Obviously the power of critics to guide taste, direct the discourse, and introduce the public to new bands or genres has diminished considerably. That was already in process before the Web took off, as the number of  print music publications, specialist magazines and fanzines kept expanding, but it has certainly diminished dramatically more with the rise of blogs and webzines and message boards and all the other web forums.

Can one critic still wield the same power as they did during the heyday of the UK and US music press?

That’s a rhetorical question if ever I saw one. You know the answer to that!

I think there were several heydays, each successively smaller than the other.

The heyday of the early-mid Seventies, of MM as the progressive paper selling 200 thousand a week, and then being eclipsed by NME, being more glam oriented.  (Although it was Melody Maker  where Bowie revealed to the world he was “gay” and MM that first pushed Roxy Music). 

Then the second heyday would be punk, with all three papers—MM and Sounds were actually slightly quicker off the mark than NME, but NME eventually “owned” the story--being the principal forum in which punk’s existence was revealed to the wider world and where its meaning was thrashed out and fought over.  That heyday carried on into postpunk and New Pop. 

Then the last heyday would be that  period in which you and I were involved—Pixies/My Bloody Valentine/Sonic Youth/etc;  Madchester with Stones Roses and the Mondays; shoegaze; grunge with Nirvana et al,

Britpop seemed like the triumph of the weekly music press but was really it’s death knell, or perhaps a Pyrhhic victory in so far as “the story” got so big it left the music papers behind.

If you read something like Nick Kent’s review of Television’s Marquee Moon in NME, which was a 1977 cover story even though there was no interview with the band,  there’s a tremendous sense of the writer stepping out onto a stage, confident that he’s addressing a huge audience, and that he has the ability to “deliver the news”, which is that Television are one of the most important bands of the era and this is an album that will change rock.  And largely through press raves the album was a chart hit and the band even had some singles in the Top 30.

That sort of confidence and conviction—that you’ve come into the possession of the truth and that there’s a readership who are ready to be accept it—runs all through the music press through these successive heydays, from writers like Richard Williams and Michael Watts through Charles Shaar Murray, Ian McDonald and Nick Kent through Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons Gary Bushell and Jon Savage through Paul Morley, ian Penman, Chris Bohn, Dave McCullough through to our own moment with figures like Steven Wells, the Stud Bros, and in the twilight of that last heyday Neil Kulkarni. 

But I think the basis for that self-belief gradually shriveled in ratio to the circulation of the music papers, and also the number of rival sources of opinion and news about music.

Who are the gatekeepers in web 2.0 environments?

I don’t know if there are gate-keepers in the old sense, but clearly there’s concentrations of influence – Pitchfork.  

Do you read music criticism in print publications anymore? If not, where do you go for critical opinion?

I tend to mostly read print publications that I write for, which means I get sent them in most cases.  But I do pick up issues of magazines like Spin and Mojo and Uncut if there is a story inside or a cover feature that particularly grabs me.

I also read print publications that have a strong presence on the web like the Guardian Music section, or Village Voice and other alternative weeklies in the America. And there is often interesting stuff on music in newspapers like New York Times, New Yorker, New York magazine,  or places like Frieze and Artforum

That said, most of the opinion and news I follow is on the web these days, either from webzines like Quietus, FACT, Pitchfork, etc, or it is bloggers.

The main problem is that there is too much stuff to process – if it’s web, I tend to either save it for later (a later that never comes) or just read it too fast. When you relied on print magazines, you had them lying around the house and you would often reread things so they would have a deeper impact. And even if it was just read once, the reading was less frantic and the words would seem to penetrate your mind more. Of course in those days I was also more impressionable.  

How do people engage with music criticism?

I couldn’t say, that would involve sociological research I’d have thought.  There’s many different levels from cursory, skeptical interest to fanatical taking-it-too-serious.

Judging by the comments in comments boxes, often they haven’t read the piece – I have had people complain about genre overview types pieces I’ve done that “you didn’t mention [artist X]” when in fact, if they had actually bothered to click on the second page of the story, they would find a mention of that very artist! Often they are so impatient to express an opinion they’ve just read the “dek” (I think in the UK, the word is “standfirst” – the bit of blurb, written by the editor, below the headline) and not the piece itself, which is generally a lot of more nuanced and less inflammatory than the headline and dek.   But hopefully comments-boxers are not typical of all readers!

What differentiates opinion from criticism?

An attempt at argument and at persuading the reader to your point of view. But also a different mode of address, in which there is some gesture towards the idea of truth, that this is really is how things “are”.  

Most criticism, when it comes down to it, is largely a rationalization of subjective taste, and the universalization of a very particular perspective. But that rationalization and that universalization are what it’s all about! The mental effort, and the self-belief, involved in doing that are what separates criticism from just mouthing off about your preferences or dislikes. The effort and the self-belief hopefully generates an energized or stylish piece of prose.

Does music criticism have economic and/or entertainment and/or sociological value?

Economic value – to whom?  If you mean towards the exponents, then it’s steadily being deprofessionalized. For the industry, there might be value in the sense that the music press has always had a role in the generation of meaning and significance, which is actually a more effective way of getting people to part with money than just pleasure/use-value. 

Entertainment – for some, yes. I think the best music writing always had some element of flash or style to it. Not necessarily jokes, but the kind of entertainment value of watching anybody – a sportsman or rapper or whatever—do something well. The pleasure of language being flexed energetically or in unusual ways.

Sociological? You mean that it can actually tell you stuff about society and the role of music in it? Possibly. Critical discourse is a slightly more disciplined and focused form of fan discourse, and fan discourse I would have thought was pretty valuable if you were trying to work out the social context and purpose of a music form or scene was.

Is it possible to become influential as a music critic via web 2.0 environments?

Yes but you’ve got the odds stacked against you.

Most of the critics operating today who could be considered influential came up through the old print media and still write for them primarily, or they graduated to print after apprenticing in web land. 

One thing I would observe finally is that the web-reared generation don’t seem to want to be influential in the same way that the music writers that we grew up on wanted to be, or the way we wanted to be.   I think if you look at our peer group – figures like Swells, Stubbs, Studs, etc – we had inherited this excessive (and probably already beginning to be outmoded) sense of the power of critics to shape opinion, grant exposure to the righteous music, do damage to the unrighteous music,  etc.   There was a confidence that the way you saw things was a truth that could be communicated to others and be taken up by them.  In contrast, the Web 2.0 generation are lot more diffident. They tend to eschew the very personalized, subjective approach (Bangs, Morley,  yourself) and to write “objectively”, as if simply describing the attributes of the things they’re writing about.  But it is an objectivity that avoids making large claims about the significance of the music or what it’s impact could / should be.  The new breed’s tone is generally a lot less exhortatory and “you MUST hear this”. Even on blogs, which you’d think would be a natural home for shouty, “this is my truth”  type writing, the tone tends to be more quiet and ruminative. Perhaps they are just have a more realistic sense of things. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

Mekons (1990)

Spin, 1990
(possibly unpublished, really cannot remember!)

by Simon Reynolds

"We're not a folk band or a C&W band", insists Tom Greenhalgh of The Mekons. "We hated getting shoved in the roots music category. So we called the last album 'Rock'N'Roll' to clear up the misconception."

Another reason, says guitarist Jon Langford, was that they wanted to reclaim the term from the rock aristocracy installed by Live Aid's public spectacle of philanthropy. "After Live Aid, it seemed like 'rock'n'roll' had much broader connotations than Elvis' quiff. Rock'n'roll started with a pelvic gyration, and ended up capitalism's bastard son."

"We wanted to talk about whether it's possible to carry on writing songs and playing guitars in these conditions," continues Greenhalgh. "And the answer is that it's almost impossible. But you have to try. Our original idea was to call the album "The Music Industry", with have songs titled "The Publisher", "The Distributor", "The Agent", "The Journalist". We wanted it to be like a Godard film: a horrible, brutal, boring deconstruction, with lots of statistics and naming of names."

The Mekons have been 'deconstructing' rock'n'roll for over 12 years now, during which time they've endured ordeals at the hands of record companies, but enjoyed the esteem of a posse of bigwig US critics. Lester Bangs once dubbed them "the most revolutionary band in the world", while Greil Marcus has celebrated them for following the most interesting trajectory out of the wreckage of punk's failed revolution. 

During the Eighties, The Mekons found - in the fatigue and fatalism of C&W and folk - a brilliant metaphor for the blighted dreams of the post-punk aftermath. The bleak, fractured lyrics of their songs described the predicament of a defeated generation, whose lives had disintegrated into a tangle of loose ends and aborted possibilities.

Despite their cheerless subject matter, The Mekons are one of the most rousing live experiences around. And their most recent release, the "F.U.N. 90" EP, actually saw them venturing into dance terrain. "Having A Party" (a cover of Kevin Coyne's blistering kiss-off to the music biz) even borrows the same syncopated, 'Funky Drummer' backbeat that has motored the UK's current indie/dance crossover explosion.

"We're not taking the piss out of the post-Manchester thing," says Greenhalgh. "It's more the case the indie/dance sound is the climate and it's kind of irresistible."

Although they insist that they're not party poopers, the lyrics of "Having A Party" and other songs on the EP do undercut and expose the vacuous positivism of the post-Manchester rave. 

Greenhalgh confirms that The Mekons project is one of negation. "Adorno said that making any affirmative gestures in the post-holocaust era, only affirms that culture. To pretend otherwise is to live in a fantasy land. And that's what most rock'n'roll is. If you are involved in rock you've got to be as dissonant as possible."

The most experimental track on the EP, "One Horse Town" is an eerie, ambient dancescape, featuring a sample of Lester Bangs. 

"We met him in New York in 1981," remembers Langford. "He liked our attitude, and invited us round to his East Village apartment. When we got there, he made me go out and get a nasal spray, which he promptly smashed with a toffee hammer and ate the contents, because it gives a kind of speed buzz. We got on really well, and played some songs together. So when we were recording "One Horse Town" we sampled his voice, as a kind of tribute. That's him going "burn the stars and stripes"."

 From punk, through "C&W noir", to their current forays into "bleak house", The Mekons make de(con)struction fun.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

writing about music #3

an interview with Paula Hearsum, from about six or seven years ago, for an academic study of music journalism and rock criticism she was writing, 

One of the pieces I mentioned with several other music academic friends, was using an old Barney Hoskyns piece for NME ‘Subbed Culture’ which he wrote in 1984 and he described music writing as a 'metamusic' and says there are four things a piece of writing about music should cover:

•Distinguish musical form
•Give explanation of production style
•Explore emotion


I remember it well -- read it at the time, cut it out (like I did most of Barney's stuff) and still have it somewhere. I thought it was very interesting and persuasive, but at the same time I'm not sure it actually influenced what I do, or even that it really describes what Barney was doing in his greatest writing. It's a bit too methodical. 

In practice most musical journalists, if they're anything like me, just come up with as many interesting thoughts as possible, and then try to organize it into as an attractive a shape as they can. Often it's a bit of a struggle -- trying to come up with the ideas first, then trying to make it flow. Probably more energy and worry goes into having a start and an end to a piece than it does to any one of those four tasks that Hoskyns describes. And you could have a fantastic piece of music writing that only attempted to do one or two of those four things, whereas something that conscientiously applied itself to all those tasks might not make the grade as a spectacular piece of rock writing (which wouldn't mean it was devoid of value, of course).

One of the insights in that piece, which he may have developed out of something Simon Frith said, is when Barney talks about showing off being part of rock writing. Self-preening I think is the word he uses. There is a performative aspect to rock criticism, or at least to the stuff that I think is central to the, ah, tradition.  The writer, who most likely in person is not terribly impressive or commanding a figure, manages to create a kind of charismatic effect through language and through the creation of a persona, a sort of super-self. I think of it very much as being in the same game as fronting a rock band, or better still, being a rapper.  There's a whole range of personae -- fabulously hip and in the know and "down with the scene", or an authority in terms of knowledge, or a prophet with a messianic line of patter, or the gonzo persona who's a little out of control and brutally honest (Lester Bangs to Everett True), or wry, ironic, or...

It's about rhetoric and the art of suasion. There's skill and tricks but there is also, as with a rapper, just confidence, the arrogance to make a categorical statement about an artist or genre's worth. To be a judge. 

The first person I got this buzz off was Julie Burchill in NME, the absolute certainty with which she decreed things, and the vehemence and viciousness, and also the way you were hypnotized by the cadence of the prose into believing she was right, at least for the duration of reading the piece. Years and years later, when I started to think critically about music journalism itself, I realized that a lot of this "truth" effect was achieved simply through her use of alliteration and other word tricks.  It was the music of her writing as much as its meaning.

I think of rock criticism as being different from both academic writing and from journalism in the conventional sense. It uses journalistic methods to an extent (interviews, observation etc) but rarely properly (certainly in the UK weekly press we never got secondary quotes or outside opinions, almost none of us had any training in reporting). And some music journalists have used riffs and ideas from academia, but again almost always in a fast-and-loose way that wouldn't be approved of within academia.

2. You're obviously known for threading theory into your writing, particularly theory pertinent to popular music studies (particularly around Western Marxism etc...) - you are obviously preaching to the converted here but can you reflect on the style you take - what do you think it adds to your reader's understanding?

In a way, I think the music actually substantiates and elucidates the theory rather than the other way around. Like I understood Deleuze & Guattari much better through the music of Can or early 90s jungle.

So in a funny sort of way when I put theory into articles, it's more like I'm selling the reader on theory and philosophy, than elevating and dignifying and legitimizing the music. If you apply Marxism to hip hop, it's not that hip hop suddenly seems more weighty and interesting, it's that Marxism seems to have more purchase on reality, because hip hop provides evidence to substantiate it. You can see the effects of money and reification and commodity fetishism on human relations.  But all this is writ large and clear in hip hop already, the Marxist gloss in a way is superfluous.

So why bring it into play, then? In truth I don't tend to think much about the reader when it comes to the theory stuff -- the compulsion to connect theory and music just comes from indulging my own interests, amusing myself to an extent. But also I do it when I think it's "true" --when a theoretical concept just seems to fit what's going on in the music or the subculture.

The other thing about theory is something I wrote about in this piece for Friezewhich is that you can get a real buzz off it. It's a kind of stimulant drug, your mind races, you get this sense of clarity and levitating above things and have a panoramic view that is also a diagrammatic view, like you can see the structures and the forces at play in the field of socioculture you're looking at.

 3. With the current state of both the music press (certainly in the UK although I am less certain of the States) what skills in music journalism are going to be the ones that should be focused on in order for survival?

I couldn't say what should be focused on, but I think I can see what kind of things are being fostered by the new climate, none of which I particularly like. Flexibility and generalism (finding the good in as wide a range of musics as possible. Which is obviously a good career move, expanding your range). Brevity. Coming up with a contrivedly inflammatory or polarizing angle, in order to increase your clicks through tweeter-isation. etc. I can do the last one well enough but I'm not cut out for brevity and my personality doesn’t suit generalism - I came up on that kind of rockwriting that was very polarized in its viewpoints, it's too ingrained for me to break with now, although a certain mellowing does creep in with age inevitably. What I find disconcerting is how many young writers are very reasonable and sane in their approach, and overly fair-minded. It's not what I want to read, at all. I'd much rather read a very fierce denunciation of something, even it was attacking something musically dear to my heart.

4. What makes a strong piece of music writing for you? What qualities if you can nail it? Who were you influenced by and currently?

I do read and enjoy pieces that are subtle and ambivalent-- they can have all kinds of insights and shrewd analysis in them. But as is probably clear by now, the kind of stuff I came up on and that means the most to me is the messianic mode of rock writing, where there is a sense of absolute conviction and urgency. If I find myself in the frame of mind about a band or a genre where I can produce that kind of prose, that is a glorious feeling.

This kind of writing is a specific genre of music journalism, strongest perhaps in the U.K. although you had your Lester Bangs and various fanzine writers in the US. And it is a vanishing genre, as far as I can see.

The people who influenced me when I was first reading the press would have been Julie Burchill, Paul Morley, Ian Penman, Barney Hoskyns, and they were very much in this writer-as-prophet mode. Then a little later, as a student, I started checking out the academic writing, so figures like Simon Frith, Dick Hebdige, and so forth, would have been an influence, in terms of ideas not style. I also would have been catching up with certain legendary figures like Nik Cohn. Then a year or two into working at Melody Maker I got hold of work by canonical Americans like Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus, although by this point I'd have been pretty set in my writing identity and not so capable of being formatively influenced. But there's loads of other people subsequent to this that I've got a lot of from reading, ideas-wise -- Joe Carducci, Brian Eno, Greg Tate, Fred and Judy Vermorel,  Camille Paglia, Kodwo Eshun, more recently figures like Mark Fisher. Tons more.

The messianic and highly intellectualized modes of music writing are not the only valid approaches, by a long shot. I get a lot out of reading academic studies, and conventional histories of music or biographies. And also from more conventional record reviews and reported pieces and star profiles. 

But in terms of the buzz that got me into this field in the first place, it's this disappearing mode of journalism that I most miss. The lead album review/ singles page/ cover story as a manifesto in disguise (often very thinly disguised, in the music press's heyday). I mentioned the performative aspect of it, and I think this is where music criticism comes closest to matching the music itself. I read pieces growing up that would actually make me tremble with excitement.  Or cheer at the end. Things that I read over and over again, cut out and kept, and know by heart (well patches of them, not the whole piece!).  Very much in the way that people in the 18th or 19th Century could recite long stretches of poetry.  The greatest of these pieces have had an effect very nearly as powerful as listening to the music they're about.  I don't come across music writing like that much anymore, that has that effect on me -- and this may partly be a result of not being as impressionable as I was as a teenager and a student / dole layabout in my early twenties. (For similar reasons I'm pretty much beyond being influenced these days, although I obviously get useful ideas from reading all kinds of sources). But mainly I think it's because people aren't writing this kind of stuff anymore, because they don't want to write like that anymore, for a number of reasons. Perhaps music culture simply can't sustain that particular kind or degree of seriousness, the sense that music is central in the culture and that it has this transformative or catalyzing power. 

6. What is the purpose of music journalism (add enjoyment, add knowledge, heighten experience of music, support sales for music itself…)?

All of those. Also hype, which I think of as meaning as much hype as in getting people hyped up, over-excited, as in shifting units. Music journalists, especially in the UK, have always been in the business of hype. It's nothing to be ashamed of, just so long as you actually believe in the hype yourself.