Pop Pickers

John Harris writes of an unbearable blemish:

Let’s make one thing clear. Writing about music and its attendant subcultures is a noble, enriching, high-minded pursuit, which has played a surprisingly large role in the last 40-odd years of British pop-cultural history. I have bookshelves crammed with music writing, and I rather miss the days when I would cart home at least three music weeklies from the newsagent and pore over what they had to say. Contrary to what that Elvis Costello famously said, it amounts to much more than “dancing about architecture”, and as someone who has endlessly benefited from the adoration of writers and critics, he should know.

There is one exception to all this, however: the dryly-written, over-analytical, ill-informed, pseudo-controversialist output of a certain kind of academic. You know the type: they fail to understand that seminar rooms and lecture halls are really no place to be talking about a music founded on impulse and the thrill of the moment, write long and rambling papers about anything from acid house music to the mod revival of 1979, and get most of it hopelessly, horribly wrong.

He kicks off with a blurred distinction between writing about music as a practice, and writing about music as a form of literature. But neither is necessarily noble, enriching or high-minded. There are lots of muppets writing about music. Much of what passes for pop music literature -in pop music magazines and newspapers- is dreadful crap.

Lots of music reviewers -those who write the vast bulk of what people read about music in magazines and newspapers- perform a role not altogether different to people who write reviews of new developments for property supplements. The main difference between the two roles is that the writer of the property supplement may not offer an opinion on the product for sale lest they offend prospective advertisers. The music reviewer has an apparent degree of autonomy: they may recommend or pan the product in question.

But this isn’t because they are free spirits unencumbered by financial pressures. They may believe themselves to be so, and in some cases their belief may even be somewhat justified, but the music industry depends on a consumer culture of discrimination between records, musical styles, bands, attitudes and so on if it is to keep selling products. The idea of choosing one record over another is fundamental to a sustainable music industry. If every review of a record was a positive one, total sales would fall because lots of people would not know what to buy. The music industry would also lose a valuable source of data for the purposes of marketing future products.

So what you get in a music review is usually a vulgar description of the immediate sensations provoked by listening to the record, a comparison with other records by the same group or other groups, and a summary of how happy you might be if you choose to listen to it. The point here is to make sure that the buyer knows what she is getting, just as one might buy a delightfully spacious two-bed apartment in a spectacular setting in the historic town of Swords that combines all the excitement of urban life with the ease of country living. And just as property supplement writing uses clichés because that is the most efficient (in terms of effort required) and effective (the reader, fluent in the idiom, easily grasps what is up for sale) way of conveying the attractiveness of the product to the prospective buyer, a similar practice (leavened again with the apparent autonomy of the reviewer) is present here. Life-affirming, achingly beautiful ethereal soundscapes drenched in sunlit harmonies are peppered with snarling guitar salvoes, delivering a heartfelt, haunting paean to jaunty down-at-home Americana, and whilst the angst-ridden lyrics may not be quite to your taste, the deep-fried blue-eyed soulful eloquence of the rumbling basslines and the cracked, sandpapery singing voice will leave you in no doubt that this is a record of epic proportions, leaving aside some excesses of lushly indulgent orchestration.

Once the clichés have been deployed, there’s scarce room for anything else. Any form of specialised musicological language -no matter how simple- that might allow the reader to deepen understanding or hear new things is alien. Lyrics are to the music what the soft furnishings are to the apartment, with certain exceptions: lyrics with political content, for instance, tend to receive some form of outright condemnation, especially when they are ‘preachy’. In fact, ‘preachiness’, more than ‘indulgence’ is probably the cardinal sin for any music reviewer. Homiletics are diuretics. Heaven -or corporate interest- forbid that a song might attempt to say something of consequence and be taken seriously.

Unlike John Harris, I don’t long for the days when I would cart home at least three music weeklies (ok, two) from the newsagent. I wish I’d spent the time reading books instead. If I had, I might be able to listen to pop music better, rather than have every listening experience blighted by the echoes of pretentious sales patter.

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October 2008
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