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.

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