Writing about music is a notoriously difficult pastime or career. Whilst both writing and music seem to be modes of expression that can make sense separately, the two rarely fit together. The insanity of trying to express music in writing was captured perfectly by Elvis Costello, when he compared it to “dancing about architecture”. However, there seems to be a type of technique, perfected through the decades, that allows the music journalist to make some sort of sense. It’s a shame then, that most music writing eschews this for a sort of messy scrum of adjectives. Just what has gone wrong?
Well, the honest truth is that, faced with a massive interpretative problem, music writers simply become lazy, and rely on the same old tricks to sustain their commentary. The first, and by far the worst, is the clichéd adjective. Certain phrases seem to come pre-programmed in the mind of a music journalist, such as “crashing cymbals”, “angular guitars” and “groovy bassline”. These are a problem. They range from the platitudinous (of course cymbals crash, that’s what they do) to the nonsensical (why anyone would anyone describe any music that isn’t a soundtrack as “cinematic” is beyond me). None of them add anything to the piece and they don’t make for interesting reading.
A related problem is that of “put-it-in-a-blender” syndrome (or PIIABS for short). The obvious way to describe a band is by comparing them to other, similar bands. This allows the reader to check whether a new band may tickle their fancy based on their current taste in music. This is all very well, but it doesn’t justify sentences that call a (hypothetical) new band “what would happen if Prince, Wild Beasts and Belle and Sebastian were put in a blender”. This is an unacceptable level of whimsy and pretension for what should be a simple statement of comparison. This also applies to putting said bands into a lift, a boat or any other receptacle.
Other writers don’t bother with the whole “writing about new bands” thing, instead choosing to revive old favourites ad nauseam. These bands are routinely described as “back to their brilliant best”, or “making a triumphant return” but rarely are (like a musical Woody Allen). This is just dishonest. To pretend that anything Oasis released during the long, slow suffocation of their career was anywhere close to a new Definitely Maybe is either deluded or an attempt to delude the readership.
The same goes for proclaiming bands as the saviours of guitar music. Guitar music does not need saving, and if it did, it would be unlikely that Glasvegas or Tribes, or Viva fucking Brother would do the trick. This routine sanctification of new bands before they even release their debut album (partly the result of a hyperactive promotion machine) needs to stop. One final technique that is used by bad writers is the superlative. Scarcely a week goes by in which the NME doesn’t claim that the BEST BAND EVER or the BEST ALBUM OF ALL TIME has been uncovered (usually some washed out, monochrome teabag of a band). This is a shameless attempt to keep the attention of the reader, and appeal to those who are already fans of the band. The same goes for those reviews that proclaim THE WORST MUSIC I’VE EVER HEARD. Such writers are irritatingly insincere and obviously haven’t heard the music of Milli Vanilli.
I admit that I have, when writing about music, committed each and every cardinal sin in the book, but in fact I feel that this may be the thing which qualifies me to write this article. Take it from someone who reads and writes a lot of rubbish music journalism (Nick Kent I ain’t!): this is what’s wrong with it!