Music Writing

Music Writing

by Mark Driver

When I started writing all those months ago (I was, after all, illiterate until the age of 19), I promised myself I would never write about writing, a subject that fascinates writers, and few other people. Many writers confuse the process of writing with the final product, and can therefore fill volumes on how they are filling the volumes and can write a book about the book they wrote. It’s like making movies about the movies. Not enough suspended disbelief. You have to be a master to get away with it, and very few are.

That being said, I have something to say about writing, but more specifically what I consider the absolute lowest form of writing: Music writing. Writing about music. Music is one of the most worthwhile things to fill your life with, but one of the least worthwhile things to write about.

And I say this at the risk of handing away the feed that I bite, because when I was actually earning all my money as a freelancer, the only jobs I could get were music writing. Damn it was painful. Show reviews, CD reviews, interviews – lots of views of nothing. Feature articles on bands that everyone already knew about. News bits on people nobody cared about. ‘New Band Sightings’ on bands that have been around for five years, released five good records, and now have a major label CD that sucks shit. And it’s my job to mask my contempt for the fact that by the time most good bands ‘break big’ they usually have already said everything they had to say, and now are playing watered down, overproduced versions of their old songs. And I have to go on record, and I have to say, ‘this sucks, these guys should give it up.” I don’t say it to a friend in passing conversation, I have to say it to the world, recorded forever in print, knowing that the band might even read it.

It hurts to say that stuff, especially since I was the dumb kid at their first shows, buying T-shirts out of the back of their vans and tagging along with them to the IHOP. I was the kid who started a shitty punk band precisely so I could open their shows, get in for free, and have an excuse to talk to them. I was the stupid kid, down at Wax N’ Facts, every Saturday, blowing every last cent I made washing dishes at the steakhouse on records. For me, my parents leaving the house was an amazing occurrence, not because I could call over the girl next store for a quickie on their bed, but because I could crank my stereo to the point where the windows shook, and jump on the bed like an euphoric idiot. I was a kid whose entire life revolved around music, records, bands, and shows.

Now take this kid, put a few years (and a little beer gut) on him, and make him attack the music that once gave him a reason to wake up every morning. He’s not allowed the luxury of everybody else to slowly forget his old heroes who are off making fools of themselves now. No. He must point at their foolishness. To himself. To the other idiots who think they are going to acquire something by reading a music magazine. To the industry creeps who comb the music rags for clues out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. He must be cruel, or the editor will keep sending it back, or even worse, re-write it and make him meaner than he wants to be.

Then, to add insult to his internal injuries, make this kid go easy on a CD he really hates, because the magazine just got a huge ad from the band’s label. Make this kid come up with 500 words about a record that makes absolutely no impression on him, good or bad. Make him skewer the bands of kids whom he’d probably be friends with under any other circumstances. Make him thrash a completely decent record because their label isn’t big enough to buy them good press, and their record isn’t good enough for an editor to risk sticking a neck out. (little secret: in order to maintain an illusion of ‘fairness’, many magazines will trash perfectly decent records because the bands are too small for there to be repercussions. In this way, the review of the huge band they just got to agree to be on the cover of the magazine can be a little padded, while still keeping the ‘tough’ attitude of the magazine up. )

True. Criticism isn’t about being nice. It’s about being honest. It’s about being mean. The only way you can do it is to elevate yourself and attack from above. Me? I’m not cut out for that. I’d rather go drinking with the band.

It requires you to cut off little parts of yourself, and mail them away.

Criticism would almost be worth it, if it improved the quality of music. Standards should be high. All music should be amazing. But it isn’t. Most of it’s pretty plain and boring. So are music magazines. They just add to the muck.

Not that I have a problem with being mean to those who deserve it. I just don’t see a band who went out and bought a bunch of music equipment, took the time to write and learn a bunch of songs, actually bothered to get them recorded, and convinced someone to put out their record – I don’t see them deserving anything worse than being politely ignored. Maybe because I know, first hand, what a pain-in-the-ass, unrewarding experience being in a band can be. Maybe I know how it feels to practice every night for three weeks straight, spend your weekend stapling fliers to telephone poles or begging record store employees to hang them in the window. To harass your friend in the local music rag to put a star next to your show listing. To take off work early so you can load all of your shit into your beat up car, drive it to some crackhead hole in the wall, set up all your gear, and still have only three people show up. Give up your life for a month to go on a tour where the total amount of people that saw you could actually all fit in your van. Every band goes through this. Sure they put their stuff out for the world to see. Unfortunately, a bunch of assholes usually get in-between them and the world.

Go to a newsstand. Look at all the junky day glo covers of magazines killing themselves to justify their existences. There is nothing new there. They all attempt to connect you with something you can’t quite touch. They all fail. They don’t matter. The process should be simple. You buy a CD. You listen to it. You like it. You hate it. Who cares. Yet the writing increases by piles and piles. Especially on the Internet. I mean my God, if you can put soundfiles up, why the fuck do you have to say anything?

To be fair, this is how many writers who are suited for far better things (like kiddie porn and KKK literature) make their living while figuring out how not to whore their talent.* But that rarely provides worthwhile reading material, much less powerful insight. Especially since most of these people are tasteless idiots to begin with, and are spending more time covering their asses than uncovering the good shit. But when I read a really good record review, I don’t say ‘Wow, what a great review.’ I say ‘Wow, what a waste of some great metaphors.’

“But,” you start to say, frustrated and scared that you might truly be obsolete, “there are lots of things that get written about that don’t really need writing about. Sailboats, karate, cigars.” Yes, yes I will admit there is no shortage of wasted ink. But for the most part, writing adds to the enjoyment of things, if you enjoy them in the first place. If you can’t go sailing, you can still read about the new EZ Sail 4000 coming out this spring, or read about someone’s sailing trip to Hawaii. Karate magazines might show you that cool ear ripping off move you’ve always wanted to know, and you can order throwing stars out of the back. Even a cigar magazine has a purpose, I suppose, although I can’t really think of one now. It at least has more purpose than a music magazine. Reading about music rarely adds to the enjoyment of it. Music either rocks you, or it doesn’t. Case closed. I mean OOOOO, what does Michael Stipe have to say about Clinton? Is Madonna being outlandish again? Have the Squirrel Nut Zippers overstayed their welcome? I would read People Magazine or even Tiger Beat before I’d pick up a Rolling Stone. Why? Because People magazine hasn’t attempted to terrorize, trashe, homogenize, or ruin music. Oh sure, they might have a Courtney Love photoshoot or some shit, but at least they don’t attempt to pass themselves off as ‘journalists’.

It is for my love of music that Music writing offends me. The most amazing writing in the world cannot even come close to describing a good song. It’s like composing a symphony to discuss the new Thomas Pynchon book. It’s like cooking a meal to explain a great painting. It just doesn’t work.

To be fair, let me say that I lie in a presumably small percentage of humans who don’t care: a) what a band looks like b) what stupid things they have to say that they can’t express in their music c) what other people think of a band.

Taste is relative, motives are self-serving at best, and the constant quest for more ensures more crap. Add in the fact that most people buy like four CDs a year, four CDs that probably suck, four CDs that contain the songs they hear every fourteen minutes on the radio and somehow need to hear on demand – add this in, and it’s no wonder Music writing is all one heap of rotten, boring, shit.

There are a few exceptions, though. Some Music writing that is sometimes tolerable:

  1. History of Music: The evolutions and mutations music has experienced since cavemen played on stegosaurus xylophones are worth charting and analyzing. I can’t argue with that. Well, I suppose I could argue, but it would be a real pain in the ass. Go, historians, go!
  2. Sociology of Music: A bit scholarly, but music should be a tool used to analyze a culture.
  3. The Physiological and Psychological Effects of Music: Mind control, healing, whatever. Whom am I to get in the way of science?
  4. The Story Behind the Music is Better that the Music: This is rarely the case, but it happens from time to time. Black Metal is one instance where this was true for a while. While a band like Burzum has put out some good records (everyone should own a copy of ‘Filosofem’), the fact that these records were made by a man convicted of stabbing an ex-bandmate to death and has been implicated in burning down scores of old churches makes the record, well, better, whether you like to admit it or not.
  5. Hearing About a Band Getting Dropped From a Label: Ha Ha.
  6. Obscurities: Moondog, Jon Wayne, Shut Up Little Man, N.I.T.R.O., etc. You can’t have the inside track on everything, and occasionally, in the back somewhere, something good will get mentioned in a zine.

Anything else can be shredded, shriveled, immolated, eaten, dissolved, decimated, or liquefied, and nothing would happen, except a bunch of assholes would move into movie or video game reviews. Period.

I suppose what angers me the most about music magazines is The Process they promote and proliferate. The Process has changed the way people look at and listen to music. The whole industry is geared this way, including radio and video. Sure it started decades ago, but it’s getting worse. The Process is the way which the entertainment center of your mind has been colonized. It’s the constant yearning for ‘something new’. It receives positive reinforcement from magazines, labels, radio, MTV, who want to break the next big thing. We are relieved of all autonomy. We passively wait for these magazines, radios, and televisions to present us with our new favorite band. We passively accept orders to buy, or not buy. We get shown 2% of the picture and assume our choices lie within that sliver.

Well, guess what? There’s an entire store of thousands of CDs, probably within a mile of your house. CDs that you’ve never heard, or even heard of before. Rows and rows of music just sitting there. Things put together by human beings. Humans that wrote songs and then named them. Humans that put their sound to tape. Maybe they even put pictures of themselves on the cover. Whatever. This isn’t just a product, a widget, or a unit, no matter how efficiently they can market to demographics these days. This is the end result of people. And it’s about the only worthwhile thing people do these days. So stop listening to the advice of the press. Just go. Go to the store. Pick up a record. Stop taking orders, no matter how cleverly they are expressed (and that’s an order!).

Now, as a public service to those who think they have to buy music magazines, I will reveal to you all you need to know about music. In doing this I know I face toppling the rock journalist empire, possibly de-employing 90% of everyone I know, and might kill those beautiful $150 checks I sometimes get for cranking out half-ass record reviews, but it is for the sake of music I go forth. It didn’t have to come to this. If music magazines were more than press release repeating, advertising seeking, bitter, untalented, ugly nerds with nothing better to do than slag good bands, slag bad bands, and promote bands that don’t need any more promoting, all of this could have been avoided. I’m sorry.

There are three things to be said about music:

  1. Some music almost everybody likes. It is meant to be that way. It is music made primarily for money, and everybody likes it because everybody else likes it. This is where bad music comes from.
  2. Some music almost nobody likes. It is meant to be that way. It is music made primarily as a reaction to music that everyone likes, and of the few people who do listen to it, only very few truly love it. This is where OK music comes from.
  3. Some music some people like. It is meant to be that way. It is music made primarily because these musicians don’t know what else to do with themselves. This is where good music comes from.

That being said, here are three ways to discover good music on your own:

  1. Go to lots of live shows and DJ clubs (one good band for every ten bad ones is a decent average)
  2. Buy a few used CDs each week, listen to them five times each, and return the ones you hate.
  3. Ask everyone you meet (and like) what their five favorite bands are.

Now go. Forget about me. The legions of unemployed hacks will be here soon. I’ll toss some Radiohead records at them and they’ll have to go on for at least an hour about what a good record ‘OK Computer’ is. That should buy you some time. Now go! Run! And remember, if we removed the profitability of music, only the people doing it for some other reason would be left.

*There is no way.