Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How To Write About Music

So you’ve tried your hand at a music career, made your songs, sent them around, and been informed that you unintentionally covered Whipped Cream and Other Delights in its entirety. Time for a new career path. Have you considered music criticism? All it takes to review paint-by-numbers music is a write-by-numbers guide to saying snobbish things about it. Just follow these rules and you’ll have a publication that won’t be taken seriously until after Green Day handwaves away your review, saying in an interview to NME that they don’t care what the music press thinks.

Rule One: Know Your Audience

Words mean nothing unless you know exactly who is going to be reading them. If you’re just writing for some little music blog that you send around to your friends, then sure, maybe you can do without the market research to determine the exact series of words to describe a Bieber song in the correct manner, but we’re trying to make some cash here. If you’re not sure that your audience will understand something, be sure to lay it out for them so that they’ll see you as an authority on the subject.

Rolling Stone writing example:
Raekwon (pronounced RAY-kwon) is a New York City rapper who once rapped with other rappers in a group of rappers called Wu-Tang Clan. He raps about selling drugs and killing people, but sometimes he does so in a manner that sounds pretty good. If you want to hear more rap music, this is a pretty good album to get, but first you should get the rap music that Wu-Tang Clan made (they are no longer making music as a group). Raekwon is also black, like Jimi Hendrix, not that it matters.

Not all music publications will require you to do this. When writing for more niche outfits with readers that pride themselves on the knowledge they already have, especially if they don’t really care what YOU think about this album, scrubbo, and just want to know if you have the right opinion. In this case, you should always attempt to one-up them in any manner possible, bringing the sledgehammer of superior knowledge on them until they relent and admit that you are the reviewer, not they. If you get them to admit that Muse might not be the best rock band currently recording, that’s an acceptable consolation prize.

gorillavsbear writing example:
This band makes extensive use of Scott 4 production; Upsetters; 1972 dollar-bin albums; the opening of Snickers bars; mix CDs from college girls; Cybotron; we haven’t actually listened to this song but it’s from an artist that people keep telling us they like so here is and they’re from Sweden.

Rule Two: Have A Distinct Style

Just like a song by [POPULAR ARTIST] is instantly identifiable even if it’s a brand-new song, your writing should tell readers that it was you that wrote it, not anyone else, because those other publications are idiots that can’t write for shit and listen to shit. Be unique. Your words should become a comforting blanket to your readers, who can come home from a long day of not working to snuggle up with your descriptions of an artist’s specific brand of mediocrity.

Pitchfork writing example:
Convalescent duressing objectification of the achingly beautiful Man Machine filtered through the ostracization of getting stuffed in gym lockers; omnipotent unknowing production of alienation, an eternity of starfelt daisy chains from the club floor to house shapes in architectural being of paladin-esque saviorship.

Q writing example:
The Who were so great. Like really great. An album of theirs just got reissued. Oh my god. The Who. Holy hell. Good lord this is good. Mmmmm ohhhhhhhhh baby yes oh Pete yes yes

Your style should tell the world everything they need to know about your music tastes. If you’re writing about hip-hop, you should obviously use some “street slang.” If you’re writing about suburban indie rock, you should use the same slang, but only in quotation marks when reviewing an album the previously-mentioned hip-hop publication covered months earlier. If you’re writing about alternative rock for high school mall kids, stop that, just cut up some pictures, take a gluestick to the backs of them, and throw them at blank pages of a magazine until it looks like a layout, then change anything that looks like reasonable graphic design. Actually, that’s not a fair thing to say, and I apologize. I’m sure that the people in charge of assembling Alternative Press have perfected a process to making their publication, like asking major labels what they should print in Alternative Press and then saying “okay.”

Rule Three: Make A Big List

The only time that music publications, even the biggest ones, cross the border between passively existing and a segment of the public briefly caring about them is when they assemble a big list of the best of somethingorother. This way, people can join together in a unified way to slam their heads into walls at your complete idiocy for calling Rumours the best 1977 album instead of Marquee Moon (for which they’d be totally justified, you’d have to be pretty silly to think the answer isn’t Marquee Moon).

Pitchfork list example:
Top Ten Artists That You, Reader, Have Only Heard of Because of Us
Neutral Milk Hotel
DJ Shadow [editor’s note: this fulfills the requirement that 10% of Pitchfork lists be hip-hop of some sort]
Arcade Fire
My Bloody Valentine
Animal Collective
Sufjan Stevens
The Avalanches
Harry Nilsson
Sonic Youth (???)

Q list example:
Top Two Bands That Are The Who
1. The Who
2. Jet

NME list:
Top Artists That Somehow End Up On Our Covers In 2010
1. Oasis

Your list should summarize what you want your readership to look like. A standard rule of thumb is that 80% of the albums on the list should be ones that an average reader has heard already, 10% should be ones they haven’t, and 10% are randomly selected from another publication’s list just to give it some variety, so if you’re ever wondering why Supreme Clientele is on this or that list as the only album that isn’t boilerplate indie rock and whether it’s there by accident, the answer is no, except sort of.

Above all else, be unique, but only in ways that other music press has been unique in the past. Have your own special bands that you constantly mention, like how each supermarket chain has its generic line of groceries that they sell for cheap. This way, people will keep coming back to you for the short period of time before they realize that modern music coverage is pointless.

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