MUSIC WRITING TODAY
director's cut, Frieze, May 2006
by Simon Reynolds
Whenever I'm asked about the state of music writing, which happens every so
often, I usually say something vaguely positive. I'll suggest that there's
probably as much great rock criticism ("rockcrit" obviously understood as
including writing about pop, rap, dance, etc) as ever there was. It's just
that it's buried amidst the vastly expanded mass of music discourse that exists
nowadays, which is scattered across such a sprawling range of print and online
outlets that no individual could possibly have a grip on it or digest more
than a fraction. Whereas, once upon a time, the important English-language
work was concentrated in a handful of places: Rolling Stone, Creem, and Village Voice in America, NME, Sounds and Melody Maker in the UK, with maybe a few other specialist publications worth keeping an eye on.
I tend to say this, mainly, I think, because striking a look-on-the-bright-side note makes me feel more positive. But in my heart of hearts, I’m not sure I really believe it. Oh, there's plenty of well-written, insightful criticism and reportage out there, pieces worthy of admiration--possibly more, in toto, than in any of the various hallowed Golden Ages of rock criticism, owing to the aforementioned expansion of the field. But Great Rock Writing, to me, means pieces that make my blood boil with excitement, or tremble in my chair with a sense of their Momentousness, and these have become infrequent enough to be singular events.
Rather than a drying-up of the well of genius, I think the reasons for this
are structural and historical. The same conditions that mean Giant Figures
no longer stalk the stage of rock (Rolling Stones, Sly Stone, Sex Pistols,
Joy Division, Public Enemy, etc) also explain the dearth of rockwrite colossi
of the order of Nik Cohn, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Paul Morley, et al.
As much as they're motored by their own aesthetic vision and will-to-power, epoch-defining bands are condensations of social energy and popular desire, which is what gave a song like "Gimme Shelter" its world-historical impact, its mythic momentousness. If the records aren't freighted with that sense of something at stake, the words written about them will correspondingly lack an equivalent weight and urgency.
There's a kind of cultural ecology syndrome at work too: almost all of
the simple, stark, grand statements both in music and in thought-about-music
were used up some time ago, and what's left, in music-making and
music-critiquing alike, is complexifying and filling-in-gaps. The cutting
edge of criticism today involves an intensive subtlety that’s implosive rather than
explosive, going deeper into music rather than reaching out to connect the music to
the wider world. There is a smallness to music writing today that is totally
appropriate to its subject; the endlessly proliferation of micro-scenes and sub-genres requires fine distinctions, specialist terminology, and unstinting attention to detail. This sort of writing can make the epic language of older rock criticism-the exaltations, exhortations, and denunciations, the sweeping judgements and oversize claims--seem overblown, clumsy, even silly, based as it was in the idealistic investments in music’s power that took first hold in the Sixties, waned slightly, then resurged fiercely with punk and postpunk. That kind of over-estimation of music can seem hopelessly naïve (or perhaps excessively hope-full?) from today's standpoint of scaled-back expectations. The effect on the writing, though, is a reduction in temperature: from fiery 'n' fevered to the
cooler, calmer registers of expertise and irony.
They are a host of qualities that make for Great with a capital G rockwriting, too many to enumerate here. A few less-obvious ones seem worth highlighting, if only because the current climate is rendering them extinct: being prepared to take things so seriously you make a fool of yourself, and a taste for meta. By the latter I mean a willingness, or uncontrollable impulse, to ascend to the next level of
criticism (questioning the assumptions of a given scene or aesthetic milieu) and then beyond that, to the giddy plateau where you're addressing the largest questions of all--the why's and what-for's and even why-bothers of music and music-writing. All the aforementioned true greats had a penchant and flair for this sort of thing: assessing the ultimate worth of the endeavour. The desire to contemplate these sort of knotty self-reflexive quandaries abides, in ever more infolded form, at online discussion forums like I Love Music and Dissensus; occasionally, you'll get a whole book of meta matter, like Frank Kogan's Real Punks Don't Wear Black, which came out earlier this year. But there was a time when this sort of thing flourished in the mainstream music media, not just in thinkpieces and "state of rock" overviews, but insinuating its way into reviews and interviews too.
It's not so much that writers have been discouraged from doing this sort of thing on the grounds that it's "pretentious"/"self-indulgent"/"irrevelant" (although they have) so much that it's been rendered impossible, thanks to the remorseless attrition of word-counts. In the Seventies, a downpage review might be as long as 1000 words long; even when I started out, in the late Eighties, a lead review
could still top 1200 words. This gave writers room to stray off "the point"
and address the larger frame. Album reviews could double as manifestos, and
all sorts of theoretical forays and meta-musing crept into interview features,
singles pages, even responses in the Readers’ Letters page. Nowadays the typical
non-lead record review's length--100 words--doesn't provide sufficient space
to adequately characterize the artifact or situate it in the scheme of
things, let alone venture into such heavy/heady territory.
Blogs, a few years back, promised to be a bastion of intellectually
ambitious music writing of the sort that ran wild with connection-making and
speculation-taking. They still come up with the goods sporadically, but perhaps inevitably they've slipped into a homeostatic half-life, just good enough often enough to not give up on. One of the marvels of this globally distributed meshwork was that it created new kinds of postgeographical community, a parochialism of sensibility rather than location. Unfortunately, blogs are often parochial in the pernicious sense, bunkers of genre-patriots talking in enthused but increasingly insular tongues. MP3 blogs have exacerbated that that nerdy, collector/show-off tendency, turning bloggers into DJs rather than critics. At best, they're curators, framing their sonic shareware with facts galore, rarely aspiring towards Truth or revelation.
Ultimately, though, the things that ail music writing today simply mirror the music itself, its entropy and drifting disparateness, the waning of an urgent sense of NOW thanks to the retro inundation. If great rock criticism is a struggle to make a parallel poem that rivals the music's glory, then the music itself must be the spur to grandeur.