A Reader & Writer’s Guide To Reading Writing About Music
A READER & WRITER’S GUIDE TO READING WRITING ABOUT MUSIC
ILLUSTRATIONS BY NEIL BURKE
Words hard. Writing about music can be almost as hard as reading about music. This handy little glossary should help you around both chores of modern living. Either way, it’s all about the music. Let’s be clear on that.
ACCOMPLISHED (“The Boston-based power-punkers in the Boot Doods have accomplished more with their sophomore effort than most bands do in ten records.”) This is a superb word to use when you’re writing up a devil-may-care gang of 20-something male models with awesome haircuts who have played two Warped Tours in a row and who were totally not pampered by their moms, who stroked their little heads every night until they were 18, telling them what unique, creative snowflakes they were. Too often nowadays, a word like “accomplished” is belittled by using it in the wrong context. How much longer can we sit by while “accomplished” gets bandied about in things like the eulogy of a 96-year-old woman who was raised in the projects, organized a successful tin drive during WWII, cleaned up her community, celebrated her diamond wedding anniversary, and raised nine healthy kids who all graduated from college. Accomplished? Really? And, oh yeah, her third-eldest granddaughter runs the air-filtration system on the fucking International Space Station. OK, but “accomplished”? It just seems a teensy bit too much there.
BUT I DIGRESS (“Back in Cleveland in the 70s, we used to burn copies of the original Shit Stain 7-inch just to keep warm in our squat. Now they’re going for $400 on eBay. Times sure have changed. But I digress...”) Don’t be afraid to use digressions to hit the reader with all of the self-aggrandizing parenthetical asides that you can fart out. Want to work in the important fact that you saw the Clash when you were 14, even though the piece is about the new Justin Bieber single? Go ahead and digress. Feel a burning desire to let all of us know that you’ve got a complete collection of pristine Guided by Voices tour t-shirts wrapped in plastic in your closet, right in the middle of yet another article on the decline of CD sales? It’s digression time. Is it essential to this interview with Tom Petty’s first band’s second bass player that you reveal that your Doritos paunch grows every day in inverse proportion to your threadbare dignity? Digress that shit.
CUM (“Darkhound’s rock-cum-metal is a cocktail that never sours.”) Who cares if nobody ever, ever uses this word this way in spoken English in real life, ever, for as long as any of us has lived? Why would that make it off-limits to the average music critic? Isn’t it, in fact, our duty to keep alive the Latin tradition of “cum” meaning “with” or “akin to” rather than just “the alkaline fluid expelled from the penis during ejaculation [slang]”? Aren’t we, as writers, the flame-carriers of language, the people tasked with the burden of deciding what words get used when? We are. We really are.
EXPLODE (“With their flagrant flouting of cohesiveness and focus, Hatchet Wound explode the conventions of songcraft in 2010.”) Writing about music can be, as they would say on Deadwood, a pussified enterprise. Compensate for your atrophied machismo by cramming in as many action-packed, James Cameron verbs as you can. “Rip,” “shred,” “kill,” “demolish,” “bludgeon,” “lay waste to,” “decimate,” “nuke,” “face-fuck”… all of these can be applied to the sound that four guys with musical instruments make. Even the oft-used “blow away” will do in a pinch, though it’s not quite as apocalyptic as we’d like.
FRENETIC (“Blargh Karkle’s frenetic skronk alludes to the Euro free-jazz masters while still maintaining a very post-laptop nowness.”) Have you been sent a digital download from a label whose good side you want to stay on? Does the music therein sound like a herd of pregnant buffalo being launched into a wind turbine? OK, fine. But if you tell the truth, will said label cut off your review-links supply and your guest-list spots at every show they put on from now on in perpetuity, leaving you a handless and legless pariah in the cockfight pit of your peers? Easy solution: Call it “frenetic,” the backhanded equivocation of music crit-dom.
GUARANTEE (“Flaccid Erection’s contagious grooves guarantee you’ll be dancing around your stereo.”) The nice thing about a guarantee is that it is ironclad. Oak, if you will. In the old days, it was the greengrocer who supplied the guarantee for his fine assortment of apples and loganberries. If you got home and bit into a mealy spot, you simply strolled back down to the penny store and exchanged the offending fruit with no questions asked. These days, it’s the music writers who supply the surety. If a writer guarantees that a recording will make you dance—or sing along, or cry, or stomp your roommates to death—then that promise is blissfully backed with a deeper, moral guarantee. If said recording doesn’t live up to the review’s promises, simply email the offending publication, and they’ll have the writer pop round to your place and refund your money (magazine cover or album retail, whichever is greater) with no questions asked.
HEARTFELT (“With their heartfelt paeans to the Rust Belt, Thunder Bros. keep the spirit of degraded liberty alive in this land of the ‘free.’”) This is the default phrase to apply to anybody who sounds like they’re straining to take a shit while belting out lyrics about economically depressed average Americans. If it’s even vaguely Springsteenish, it’s automatically heartfelt. There is also a provable algebraic equation regarding the ratio between words crammed into a talk-sung story-song and heartfeltitude. The more syllables about the salt of the earth and the wayward wanderers of the US of A you can fit into one line, the more felt is your heart.
INTROSPECTION (“Semisonic share hard-won wisdom and clear-eyed introspection on this hard-rocking yet surprisingly mature comeback.”) Musicians are often so busy studying the objective world—collecting samples in the field, analyzing tables of data, measuring twice and cutting once—that they forget to look within themselves and check out their own feelings. That is why it is such a treat when an album comes along that shares an artist’s personal hurt. It is only on those rare occasions when musicians are able to steal a few moments away from their demanding research schedules to meditate on the agonies of selfhood that they come up with their best material, their “Wherever You Will Go,” their “You Oughta Know,” their “Creep,” their “Meat Hook Sodomy.” Musicians should not have to work, because they are special, gifted people who should be free to feel their feelings all day and night.
JAW-DROPPINGLY TECHNICAL (“Jewish Cemetery’s sophomore effort offers jaw-droppingly technical guitar fretwork.”) We live in amazing times. Men walk on the moon. Test tubes grow babies. Computers can do just about anything. And everywhere you look, guitarists and drummers are making us stand around like shell-shocked bystanders on V-J Day. How can there be such talent in this world? There just is. It’s not your place to question. Just make sure to keep a hankie on your person to dab away the drool as yet another wild ax slinger explodes your mind with their fretwork/skinsmith skills. At least you’ll be in good company (i.e., anyone else within earshot).
THE KIDS (“Asspants’ latest gives the kids a whole summer’s worth of hooky choruses to sing at the beach.”) A mythical population of righteous consumers perpetually untainted by compromise about whom it all is who though they fail to understand what shit used to be like have nevertheless an inalienable right to attend all-ages concerts in the most dangerous part of town given by middle-aged junkies who slept in a van in a hotel parking lot by the airport the night before so they could give the kids a musical lesson in what shit used to be like before selling them $25 t-shirts they silk-screened in the drummer’s bathroom. Because childhood is, like, so beautiful!
LIKE (“The Churlish Boors like taking their like of likable licks to loftier levels, like a like-minded...” etc.) “Like” is like GPS for the eyeballs of our mind. If these unassuming road markers didn’t exist for adrift word travelers, we quite simply wouldn’t know where we are. Remember that weird old road sign in M*A*S*H that showed how many thousands of miles it was to Seoul and Los Angeles? That’s like “like.” You can use this simple, versatile word to quote lyrics, offer comparisons, or just to let us know that a particular song is akin to getting your foreskin or areola caught in a bank-vault door. Ouch!
MEETS (“Rolling Stones meets Beach Boys,” “Melvins meets Aquabats,” etc.) Musicians meet all the time but seldom jam. They may score drugs together, tell self-aggrandizing lies together, or wish for health insurance together, but these interactions don’t sound like much even with Auto-Tune and MPC beats. Some encounters between bands even end in brutal stompings, all the more brutal because no one has health insurance. Imagine your two favorite bands. They meet: One guitarist tells the other how much money he is saving toward the purchase of health insurance by renting a houseboat in a polluted swamp. “I’m paying for your fancy houseboat, you thievin’ cocksucker,” says the second guitarist, “you stole my lick on ‘Love Vacation.’” Words, then blows, are exchanged, satisfaction demanded, and pretty soon the deck furniture is covered with one of your favorite guitarists’ brain, bone, and facial matter, and guess what? Nobody gets health insurance. And the two bands never would have met if they hadn’t been your two favorite bands, but now one of their guitarists is dead, just because you wanted them to meet. Who did you think you were, God?
OLD SCHOOL (“The old school realness of Third Base and the RBIs’ blues-inflected boogie still gives any young buck out there a run for his money.”) This is where you graduate to once you’re done with the new school. It’s a venerable academy of oaken reading tables, dusty chalkboards, and well-groomed rugby grounds, none of which are ever used because the members of the old school spend most of their time fretting about whether their position in the old school is secure. Music writers have the ability to revoke old school membership, without warning, pending arbitrary irrelevance. And once you’ve been in the old school, you’re never getting into the new school again. After the new school, there’s nowhere to go but no school, at which point you may as well be dead.
PROWESS (“Gary Cherone’s sheer prowess on the guitar will leave doubters slack-jawed.”) As Lou Reed wrote and Kiss sang, “A world without heroes is like a world without sun.” We must be thankful to the heroes, who make the crops grow, spread the light of truth, and keep us warm. When there are no heroes, the people go hungry and shiver with fear and cold. Writers use words like “prowess” and “wizardry” when they are overawed by a musician or producer’s technical ability and feel transported to the realm of Arthurian legend, as in Robert Plant’s heroic fantasy sequence from The Song Remains the Same (1976). “Prowess” has still more heroic connotations, such as “totally knows how to have sex with a partner” and “has totally enjoyed sex with numerous partners.” It is important for our heroes to totally have sex, because if their magic race dies out, there will be no more light.
QUIRKY (“This quirky new-wave debut ought to make Square Pegs kings of their art school.”) A polite word for saying that something sucks; a devastating insult disguised as a tolerant wink. Synonyms: “Nazi,” “cancer,” “9/11.” The word has a long history of association with gun violence. In the antebellum South, use of the word “quirky” was the third most common cause of duels, and a California law on the books since Gold Rush days calls the word “a most grievous insult” and “the reason for all Man’s present sorrow.” In modern times, the word is socially acceptable, though a staggering 93 percent of musicians whose music is called “quirky” attempt suicide. This word has killed more musicians than heroin, amphetamines, and alcohol combined.
SAY WHAT YOU WILL (“Say what you will about the London Ruffians’ later work, but their early EPs stand proud in the rough-and-tumble world of glammy Brit pop.”) Say what you will about saying say what you will, but we’ve found it to be the best pre-engineered escape hatch in all of music writing. It’s a fault-free way to praise the unpraiseable. It’s also a great method of proving that you’re not just a glad-handing chucklehead who loves everything that comes down the pike. You can acknowledge that Thing X is bad, and that you know Thing X is bad—of course you know that—but at the same time you are a discerning enough listener to know that Thing Y is great, despite or even because of the badness of Thing X. Confused? Good, you’re starting to get it.
TAKING CUES FROM (“Taking cues from the Beach Boys and the Jonas Brothers, Fucking Hostile drizzle lush harmonies all over their gorgeous pop confections.”) Stealing from; robbing; plagiarizing. Bands do not helpfully give one another cues, as if they were all volunteering in a regional production of Godspell to benefit a hospital for refugees or sharing multicultural vegan recipes for a wiki cookbook. In the modern world, music is just one more ruthless capitalist enterprise where competing entities try to destroy one another. When a musician you like makes an album you think is bad, it’s usually just full of false cues intended to annihilate the rivals who take them, as was the case with those much-emulated albums tastemaker Lloyd Cole recorded with his entire head in his butthole, not to mention David Gray’s Party Naked and Joni Mitchell’s Suck My Cock.
ÜBER (“Every track boasts the signature bump and crackle of über-producer Gordon Lung.”) By lunchtime, the music writer has usually exhausted all English words that can be used for emphasis and has to start borrowing superlatives from other languages. Superlatives are crucial to the trade. Popular music is not a field for the ordinary jerk who takes a modest pride in the tradition, delivering workmanlike performances on Grandpa’s old banjo, passing along ancient ballads to schoolchildren at weekend picnics outside the public library. It is a field where blond Germanic supermen deploy the newest, freshest, latest sonic weaponry in battles over the destiny of the universe. The music of mere human people has long since been dumped in the bargain bin.
WORKING CLASS (“The Poughkeepsie Champions are real-deal bards of the woes and triumphs of the American working class.”) See letter K. When those little guys grow up, they become the working class. And they’re just as worthy of our protection, adoration, and anthems as the kids were when they were still wearing short pants and playing stickball in the street. See also letter H. Heartfelt is what these big galoots are. In fact, the working-class folk are the only real human beings alive in the world today. The rest of us are just a bunch of robots, shamelessly consuming high-priced foreign garbage in our glass-walled mansions while all the while life—real life—is happening in the taverns, mills, and bingo halls of Eddie Lunchpail. Buddy, we’d like to buy you a beer.
Seriously. Ignore this letter.
YOU (“You owe it to yourself to buy, borrow, or steal the new album by rapper of the year Lil Smurf Hat.”) Everybody who has taken even the most basic Toastmasters course on speaking and leadership knows that the way to a person’s heart is to constantly pepper your conversations with them with their own first name. Why? Because it shows them that, while you’re talking to them, they are the hottest thing going. But a writer can’t know the first name of every one of his readers. That’s just ridiculous. So what’s the next best thing? “You.” Everyone is a you to everyone else. And by directing laser-beam prose straight to the proverbial you, a music writer can be assured that his reader’s ears will prick up like those of a little terrier dog hearing its master’s can opener crack into a fresh helping of Alpo.
ZENO OF CITIUM (“Zeno of Citium, Greek founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, would surely have approved of the funeral dirges found on the new Crockpot album.”) Music writers blaze the trail for the rest of humanity as they attempt to navigate the rocky mountain passes of song. It’s a big responsibility, and a reviewer or a critic must be a virtuous and good person—a leader—to meet the challenge. That’s probably why we find so many references to Zeno of Citium in every kind of music writing. He is to this noble occupation what Saint Christopher is to travelers: a patron who holds aloft a lantern to light the way for those who in turn hold a bunch of smaller lanterns to light the way for the (metaphorically) blind music fan, who then decides which stuff to buy based on the dual way-lighting of Zeno and the writers. Get it? Some say that the devotion of music writers to Zeno of Citium borders on cultish. Some say it’s dangerous, that a Stoic suffers from tunnel vision. But we say that music writers, by adhering to the beliefs of Zeno of Citium, are simply fulfilling their nature as logical men of logic. And logic, as all music writers know, begets logic.