"there are immaturities, but there are immensities" - Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion)>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
"the fear of being wrong can keep you from being anything at all" - Nayland Blake >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> "It may be foolish to be foolish, but, somehow, even more so, to not be" - Airport Through The Trees
1. Because house music and disco are conceived primarily for
the dance floor, does this make them harder to write about than more
“contemplative” or “conceptual” forms of pop?
As U.K. house outfit K-Klass put it, “Rhythm Is a Mystery.”
It is very hard indeed to write about why one groove or beat is more compelling
than another. Even if you get into drummer’s lingo (tresillo, clave, triplets, flams,
syncopation, etc.) or the technicalities of programming, the “it” — that edge
of excellence or distinctiveness you are trying to capture — will just
endlessly recede from your verbal grasp. For instance, it’s quite easy to write
generalities about “breakbeat science” and apply them to whichever jungle producer
you’re writing about — but almost infinitely harder to convey the signature
that makes, say, a Dillinja or Doc Scott production instantly recognizable and
special…Same goes for the particular rhythm traits or production hallmarks of
the other genres — the finicky hi-hats in house and garage, the DSP (digital
signal processing) timbre effects in Kid606 type IDM, the filter sweeps in
French house, the 303 acid-riffs in hard trance etc., etc…What makes for one
exponent’s instantly-audible superiority over another?
And even then, you can write about the programming and
production and be strenuous in your attempts at exactness, but you might still
fail to convey the electricity, the rush…what can you actually say about the
nature of, and relationship between, the guitar, the bass, and the orchestral
sounds, in a Chic song, that could actually tell you anything about how its
Mind you, it’s just as hard to say why in rock or pop, one
melody is heart-rending and another isn’t, why one singer’s grain-of-voice
reaches deeper into you than another…not to mention the great rock mystery of
But dance music, by diminishing or stripping away altogether
the other elements that one might critically latch onto (lyrics,
persona/biography of the artist, relevance to the outside-the-club world etc.)
as a bulwark against the ineffable does rather shove one headfirst into the
realm of sound and its materiality. (Which a surprisingly large number of
people still find quite discomfiting).
Kind of appropriately, really, writing about dance music
does confront you in a very direct way with the old “dancing about
architecture” futility/absurdity dilemma — because it is so purely musical,
functional…what is there really to say? I suspect a lot of the people who might
have made good dance critics, who have real taste and knowledge of its history,
become DJs instead — because you can actually support the music and evangelize
in a very direct way: playing it to people.
So if it’s so hard to do, so pointless, why bother? As an
old comrade of mine Paul Oldfield once put it in a zine we did together,
Monitor, because there’s “the possibility that words might fail interestingly
Also true that this music is very site-specific…a lot of the
sonic content in dance music is barely audible on a domestic hi-fi…so that with
a house record played at home, the kick drum can sound tinny and weak and
monotonous, but in a club, on massive system, the monotony becomes compelling
because it’s so physically, viscerally impact-ful…the kick drum becomes a
cocooning environmental pulse…similarly with jungle, the bass permeates your
flesh…unlike rock, r&b, pop it is not mixed for radio or the home hi-fi.
2. What do you try and get at when writing about dance
music: beats, textures, words, voices — or some combination thereof?
Everything…you can still use the trad rockcrit arsenal of
interpretive techniques too — you can do lit-crit style exegesis of sampled
phrases and catchphrases, the song titles can be decoded and unpacked, the
artist names…there is always discourse around the music…then there’s the
question of the music as social text — the behaviors it is designed to trigger
or enhance…you don’t have to have field-researched it and actually heard it
played out in a club, ‘cos the records contain these behavioral cues, clues to
how they’re supposed to be used or responded to…you hear a trance record and
the structure of it, with build, breakdown, hands in the air refrain, etc.,
tells you how it is used…what tableaux it creates in the club, out of the
3. How much of a technical perspective about dance music
(i.e., how it’s actually made) do you bring to your writing about the music? Is
a technical perspective even necessary?
Try to, while being aware that a) it’s kind of dry and
un-romantic and scientific so you need to be sparing ‘cos you can lose the lay
reader and b) it’s simultaneously a crucial part of the way the music works and
at the same time doesn’t tell you enough, i.e., all that stuff about signature,
aesthetic eminence, why one track is better than another even when using the
exact same techniques…often resulting in relapse into the superlative, the
ineffable, the imprecise…terms like ‘funk’, ‘soul’, etc…
Most dance reviews, when you boil them down, all they’re
saying is ‘this is a funky record’. Or that the guy/gal reviewing it finds it
funky which doesn’t even tell you whether you’d find it funky.
4. Talk technology. Have technological changes in the
recording industry — samplers, computer sequencer programs, etc. — improved,
damaged, or made no difference whatsoever to the music?
When a new piece of tech comes on-line as it were, there is
always a gap where the trad musically skilled don’t know how to deal with it,
and the discursively sharp, culturally astute types — often non-musicians in
that Eno mold — seize the time and surge ahead, finding unexpected applications
for the new machine, ways of (ab)using it. But then things level out again as
everyone assimilates the new technology and the old hierarchies of talent over
non-musicality return…you can see it time again — with synthesizers (Daniel
Miller of Mute/The Normal said the synth was only any good when used by
non-musicians), with drum machines, with sequencers, with sampling…At first the
canny ones move in and do stuff, perhaps superficially striking stuff, with it,
and then the more musical ones come in and do stuff that’s more sophisticated,
in key, arranged a la trad musical values…being an old punkie at heart I tend
to valorize the surge moments when the sharp-witted DIY barbarians seize the
new tools or think up new ways of bending existing tools…e.g., hardcore rave
and early jungle, with the whole speeding up the breakbeats, using
timestretching etc. thing. Because they don’t know the Rules of Music…you get all
kinds of interestingly wrong-sounding music, improperly integrated fusions…when
“musicality” comes back, it’s less interesting, because “music” has been done
really hasn’t it, there’s no shortage of pleasant melodies or harmonious,
euphonious stuff to listen to.
Ultimately though I tend to think in any era the really
musical ones will rise to the top eventually once the new technology-induced
commotion settles down… although a lot of musically talented folk get caught in
the ‘wish I could make music like the golden age’ retro-trap and get pulled out
of the innovation game, as it were.
5. What are the biggest assumptions and misconceptions about
dance music that a person writing about it must challenge or at least consider?
That dance music is mindless, that dance fans are not
listening closely — a dancer is “listening” with every sinew and muscle and
nerve ending in his/her body.
That crowd responses are essentially de-invidualizing —
well, they are, but what’s wrong with that? What’s so great about being an
individual? That sort of dis is like saying I don’t like cheese ‘cos it tastes
cheesy…the whole point is to get lost in the crowd, merge with something bigger
than your paltry self.
6. Does one have to go out dancing — participate in the
activity and culture of disco — in order to write well about it? Are you a good
Honestly and truly I’d say, absolutely. Participation is
essential… or at least, you have to have gone through a phase of being
intensely into clubbing and dancing at some point to really undertand the
appeal…the collective synchronized rush induced by certain tracks or certain DJ
manoeuvres… dance culture is full of Gnostic refrains like “this is for those
who know” or “hardcore you know the score” and so forth, and what they allude
to is this physically-felt knowledge that comes from having experienced what
happens on a dance floor when a certain kind of bass-drop takes place, or a
certain drum build, or whatever…the way goose bumps ripple across the
crowd-body…The crucial distinction: it’s not elitist, but it is tribal.
I can almost invariably tell from a piece of dance writing
if the writer has experienced this stuff ever…or whether they are writing from
“outside” the experience…they might have interesting insights through being
totally detached but…well, I would never follow their consumer guidance tips,
shall we say.
And needless to say, drugs play a big part in this as most
dance styles are full of effects and sounds that play into, enhance, or trigger
certain drug sensations…
A great piece of dance music, or a great DJ, makes me into a
good dancer, I find… awakens the Dionysus within… the music dances you, as it
were…Nietzche: “Now I am light, now I fly, now I see myself beneath myself, now
a god dances through me!”…otherwise one can find oneself just shimmying along
adequately as if at some office party disco, dancing as social ritual rather
than flash of the spirit…
7. What do you think is the most important development to
have taken place in dance music in the last ten years?
Drugs — both the highs and the darkside — have massively
mutated the evolution of the music and caused it to splinter as it adapts to
different social-racial-sexuality-drug oriented factions — not just Ecstasy,
but the ever more powerful forms of weed, relatively newer and nastier drugs
like ketamine, the perennial amphetamine and acid…and also the rise of the
polydrug culture that mixes and matches all of these substances.
Production — with ProTools, plug-ins, Virtual Studio
Technology etc. — the level of intricacy and detail in production is staggering
— rhythmic complexity of accents and nuances far exceeding any real drummer’s
capability…it does mean the music sometimes loses the power of a simple Big
Growth of sound systems and a “big room” aesthetic in the
music, with tracks designed to exploit the quadraphonic potential of the club
space, the frequency spectrum…tracks that are sculpted in four dimensions,
riffs like blocs of sound in motion that swoop through the crowd-body…full of
almost a-musical wooshes and FX…the music becomes spectacular, a sonic
The gradual emergence of a single unified bass-beats-bleeps
culture, a trans-Atlantic confederacy of street sounds — whether it’s 2step
garage coalescing as an only-in-London hybrid of house, jungle, ragga, and
Timbaland-style R&B, or conversely, with techno-ravey-drum’n’bassy sounds
and riffs infiltrating US gangsta rap (due to Ecstasy catching on with
B-boys?), R&B, and even Jamaican dancehall.
8. Overall, do you think dance music is in healthy shape
today? Why or why not? (Feel free to talk about this in comparison with the
rock and pop – or any other – world.)
I’m not sure if it’s any more healthy or unhealthy than rock
or pop or rap — 90 percent is shit is the general rule — if it has an edge, in
terms of being alluring to youth, is that the
drugs-loudmusic-brightlights-bizarrelydressedfolk combo of clubland is still an
unbeatable leisure paradigm — and also, because the music is functional, even
hackwork and clones can play their part by providing DJs with grist to the
mixing mill, whereas lame copyist rock or pop is just lame…
9. Where’s the best stuff in dance music today coming from?
(You can approach this question in a number of ways: Is it happening in
underground circles or on radio? North America or Europe? Is it taking place in
some exciting new sub-genre?)
re: dance floor oriented music, London pirate radio culture
is still the cutting edge as it was all through the nineties: hardcore to
jungle to drum’n’bass to U.K. garage to 2step. Time for another paradigm shift
from that quarter.
Germany’s rockin’ it with the Cologne glitch stuff, weird
house, Berlin’s dub-techno Pole-types, Timo Maas on the populist
America’s got it’s own post-rave vanguard with the kid606
and friends, Schematic, kit clayton etc. etc. types bringing in humor, personality,
urgent opinions and emo-core venting to the rather sterile world of
post-Autechre IDM — not sure if much of it really counts as dance music though.
Actually there’s good stuff going on all over the place,
mavericks and hacks alike come up with the goods, so much it’s impossible to
keep up with it. But at the same time there’s no obvious scene that has surged
ahead of everyone else and is the obvious leading edge, as there was with
jungle in 93/94/95…there’s no sense of revolution, no next big thing but lots
of next medium-sized things.
10. What are the greatest challenges and obstacles in
writing about dance music these days?
Er, not being boring? Actually, not being bored is more like
Avoiding boosterism and developing a truly critical language
for dance music. Most dance reviews are 7 or 8 in essence even when un-graded.
there should be 3’s and 1’s and zeroes. Of course, the boosterism is based on
feeling like the scene is underground and needs support, so it’s sort of
understandable to an extent.
Resisting nostalgia for the early, less professionalized and
more anarcho days of rave, before it became an industry. Things can never stay
the same. Don’t fall into the Meltzer trap!
Learning that “vibe” migrates and that you can’t keep
looking in the same place for your bliss. Knowing when to leave the party (and
find another, more pumping one)
Retaining the capacity to be astonished. (So much stuff
comes out that the landmark releases don’t stand out so starkly against the
plains of lameness).
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,
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
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
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
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!
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
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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
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."
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"."
punk, through "C&W noir", to their current forays into
"bleak house", The Mekons make de(con)struction fun.
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,
1. 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
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,
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...
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.
thing about theory is something I wrote about in this piece for Frieze, which 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
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?
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
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.
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.
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…)?
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.