How Not to Write About Music
Frank Zappa once famously said that “most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” Zappa’s affectionately candid and devastating skewering of rock critics might well be applied to other arts critics, too, for writing about books or movies or dance or art involves both an embrace of ignorance about a subject and the passion of a fan of the art under consideration. Read enough book reviews or record reviews, for example, and they’ll all start to sound just alike. The pulsating rhythms of a music that makes you get up and dance is called “rollicking.” Second albums are “sophomore efforts,” and critics never describe bands as having graduated to a different realm once the band has finished its “senior efforts.”
As music journalist Michael Azerrad (Our Band Could Be Your Life) points out in his hilarious — and sometimes uncomfortable to read — new book Rock Critic Law: 101 Unbreakable Rules for Writing Badly about Music (Dey St.), rock critics are an insecure bunch. Most music critics — and while he’s focused on rock criticism, his comments apply to music criticism focused on other genres of music as well — develop a following, he points out, with their wit or eloquence or big personalities, or simply their contagious passion. However, many critics “haven’t studied journalism or writing; many … don’t know the difference between a chord change and a key change.” So, writes Azerrad, they make up for this lack of knowledge by using jargon as “proof of membership” in the rock critics’ club. As we all know — and this is the point of Azerrad’s book, of course — jargon fossilizes into cliché, so lead guitar riffs are always “stinging,” sax solos “transport,” and artists being introduced for the first time are called the “new fill-in-the-blank” of a music genre.
A few years ago, Azerrad was reading some rock criticism and, peeved at the writer’s laziness in using jargon and cliches to describe the music under review, he tweeted out a few “hackneyed tropes” that appear over and over in thousands of pieces of music criticism. Once he’d tweeted out several of these, naturally his friends told him he should write a book, and, well, that book is now here. To be fair, the book is funny, and, if you write music criticism, you will likely cringe a bit, knowing that you’ve probably followed some of these rules in your own writing. There’s a very short introduction to the 101 rules, and each rule is accompanied on the facing page by one of Vanity Fair, Verve artist Ed Fotheringham’s black-and-white drawings of Rocky the Rock Critic; the graphic character of the book makes it even more entertaining. What’s harder to swallow is the $23.99 price and the hardcover format, especially when many of these tweets can likely be found at Azerrad’s @RockCriticLaw. Rock critics and students aren’t likely to carry this around in their back pockets as a reference guide on what to avoid because of its format and expense, and it signals that maybe, just maybe, rock criticism is exactly the high-falutin’, slick enterprise we suspected it was once Rolling Stone started to look and read more like Cosmopolitan than the Stone.
Still, Azerrad collects some real zingers here, and skimming through his book is less a lesson in what not to write than it is an opportunity to laugh at our own howlers as critics. For example, when describing piano chords or guitar chords, “you MUST refer to a series of descending arpeggios as ‘cascading.’” When writing about the fans who follow certain groups, remember that “all fan bases are either ‘devoted,’ ‘dedicated,’ or ‘loyal.’” Here’s an “unbreakable rule” that gives all of us pause, for we trust that no critics ever do this: “When reviewing a record, you can never go wrong by cribbing from the bio.” Azerrad points out that critics often choose jargon over simple words: “Why say someone ‘wrote’ a song when you can say they ‘penned’ it.” Critics, he observes, often refer to one artist’s covering a classic song as a “reading” of that song. Finally, with a nod-and-a-wink he points out that “you can definitely say ‘ephemeral’ when you mean ‘ethereal.’ No one knows the difference anymore anyway.”
Just as he points out how easy it can be for critics to fall headlong into the well of cliches, he comes to praise rock critics and not to damn them — to use a well-worn cliché. “Writing about music is hard,” he observes. “How to corral its unruly, ineffable qualities into mere words on a page? How to sum up someone else’s year of blood, sweat, and tears in 150 words or so? Sometimes incredible things happen when people try to do the impossible; that’s why the best music criticism is an act of creativity, with the same beauty as anything else that transcends its limitations.”
We music critics are here for the music, and we allow that music to inhabit us so that we can describe it for others we want to hear it — or to avoid it by saying what doesn’t work for an artist on the most recent album. Most of us, as Sapphire says in Almost Famous — the movie that made rock critics more than the enemy — “truly love some silly little piece of music so much … that it hurts,” and that feeling inhabits us as we listen to every piece of music about which we decide to write.