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So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic: Lesson 1

Welcome to So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic, a ten-part instructional feature that will provide you with all the tips and tricks you need to become a real life music reviewer. As a matter of process, I've taken these lessons from exhaustive research into printed music reviews in Entertainment Weekly, Q, The New Yorker, Musician, Rolling Stone, and Spin. Additionally, I've looked into the uberhip perspective of I read many pieces by the godfather of music reviewing, Lester Bangs. And finally, I have not shied away from an examination of my own work here on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds.

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Lesson 1: Language in Our Lungs

Music critics, like most writers who wish to be universally beloved, must be maestros of the symphony of language. Metaphors that sing, similes that sting, and adjectives that assault the senses are the engine that drive the intricate machinery of pop music writing. Additionally, the importance of hyperbole can never be overexaggerated. Also vital is a mastery of wordplay. The expert use of pun, double entendre, and idiom will enhance your musical musings, providing a devil-may-care insouciance. Finally, there are certain vocabulary words every music critic must learn and utilize liberally.

Don't worry if that lesson seemed to go fast. That's just the introduction. Let's go deeper...

A) Simile and Metaphor
Poetic license by nature has no set limits, but I made up some rules anyway. As we'll see in Lesson 2, describing music with language is a daunting task. Simile and metaphor are your loyal soldiers in that battle, but you'll want to be strategic about the ones you choose to deploy. Let's look at some examples from real-life professional music critics. In her review of U2's 2001 album All That You Can't Leave Behind, Ann Powers (Spin) remarks that "the record detours into eddies U2 have explored before." Is an eddy really something to be explored? Is the album a river? That metaphor sent me on an unwanted mental detour. Just as bafflingly, Rob Mitchum ( compares two versions of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine, and says that on the redone version "the fleshing out is kept skeletal." Whahuh?

David Cavanagh (Q) reviewed Radiohead's 1997 masterpiece (can I say that?) OK Computer and says that Thom Yorke's voice "has the terrible shiver of a toddler who can't for the life of him stop crying." Perhaps Cavanagh has been spending too much time at a preschool, but no matter, it's an evocative comparison. Another David, Browne this time (Entertainment Weekly), takes on another Radiohead album (2000's Kid A), and says it "make the daunting OK Computer seem as accessible as a sitcom theme song." I'd like to watch that show. He also calls Radiohead "the Ralph Nader of pop" but I'm not sure if that's a compliment or insult.

But the ultimate power of the simile and metaphor rests in their ability to put sounds into words. Examples of this are rare because it's kind hard. Danny Eccleston's (Q) comparison of the piano in Radiohead's Pyramid Song to "water lapping on the shoreline" is a touchstone for this type of metaphor. But doing this kind of comparison work may take some actual knowledge of the music-making process (or at least the ability to fake it), and thus is recommended for only sparse usage. Take Will Hermes' (Rolling Stone) review of Death Cab For Cutie's 2008 album Narrow Stairs. In comparing it to the band's previous effort, he says, "Elaborate multitrack recording has been replaced with the sound of a band in a room: drum hits elbowing through overmodulating bass lines, feedback squalls obscuring piano and vocals, clotting the air like smoke. The sense of claustrophobia even extends to the breaks between tracks, which are nonexistent or fleeting; songs are cut off by noise bursts or begin with the lurch of a tape-machine capstan." Pretty, wasn't that?

B) Hyperbole
Often it isn't enough to give an album a negative, middling, or positive review. Readers want sweeping, audacious, unverifiable statements about their music. Thus we have comments such as Jim Macnie's (Musician) belief that N.W.A's Straight Outta Comption is "the most severe record that hip-hop has produced" and his Musician colleague James Hunter's assertion that John Cougar Mellancamp's Jackie Brown is "one of the most unblinking portrayals in rock of the tragedy of poverty" (where was his editor on that one?). We'll get more into it in Lesson 10, but one must always remember not to qualify statements with weak language such as "in my opinion." Instead, do like Cavanagh does in his OK Computer review and call Paranoid Android "the song of the year." This way, a reader knows that he doesn't just like the song, he thinks that it is better than ANY OTHER SONG released in 1997.

C) Colorful Language, Adjectives, Technical Terminology, and Puns
Good writing is always sensory and memorable, like the last tiny bit of melted chocolate that lingers on the tongue. Consider the effect when Macnie says that Straight Outta Compton "gives race relations an uzi up the ass" or Brent DiCrescenzo's (Pitchfork) rather ironic assertion that Bono's lyrics are written with "reckless chops of the hackneyed sword."

Likewise, you'll want to start using your thesaurus whenever possible. The more obscure the adjective you use, the more intelligent you'll seem to your readers. Here's a sampling of words culled from reviews in the above-mentioned publications: Ecclesiastical, messianic, scrofulous, milieu, Christmassy, hermetic, masturbatory, and neurasthenic.

Music criticism is resplendent with technical terms you'll want to use as much as humanly possible. Creating a complete list of these is beyond the bounds of this project, but you might want to refer to a 2005 publication called The Rock Snob's Dictionary. In it, you'll find definitions for terms such as trad jazz, supergroup, AOR, MOR, Stax/Volt, jangle, Muscle Shoals, EP, acetate, dub, skronk, Krautrock, emocore, underground, and rewards repeat listening. You might also want to become intimate with words like pivotal, seminal, dated, overproduced, and underproduced (you might be tempted to label these as subjective terms, but again, just you wait until Lesson 10).

Finally, and this one is so important that you might want to consider getting it tattooed somewhere on your body (preferably somewhere you can see it without the help of a friend or two mirrors). NEVER PASS ON A PUN!!! If you can somehow create a pun based on the artist's name, the album name, a song name, or all three, you are absolutely obligated to do so. This is always the professional thing to do. To whit, when Fiona Apple's 2005 album Extraordinary Machine was released, writers for Spin, Entertainment Weekly, and The New Yorker used the following titles for their reviews: "One Bad Apple", "Apple 2.0", and "Extraordinary Measures".

This is, I'll admit, an area where my own reviews are often deficient. Looking back, I realize I missed several opportunities. For example, in my recent review of The Monkees' The Birds, The Bees, and The Monkees album, I should have included one of the following sentences in my conclusion: "This album is for the birds" or "There's no need to have a serious talk with your children about The Birds, the Bees, and The Monkees." See what I did there? Oh, and here's a freebie. I probably won't write about Owl City's new album Ocean Eyes, but if I did, my first line would be, "Here's why you should give a hoot about Owl City."

In summary, I leave you with this thought about the importance of today's lesson: If we didn't have language, how would you be reading this right now?

I hope you are smarter now than you were before you started reading this entry. Come back next Friday for Lesson 2: Artists Only.


Richard said…
Nice start! But I have to say, "the fleshing out is kept skeletal" makes sense. The Jon Brion version of EM is layer upon layer of sound, whereas the version Mitchum was reviewing cut right to the bone, peeling away anything that could be considered extraneous. Sort of like dieting until all that's left are skin and bones and the minimum required level of flesh to live.
Paul V. Allen said…
Well, one of the main goals of this lesson was to show that style is more valuable than substance, and that idiom/metaphor does the trick! If he had said "minimal" instead of "skeletal" his point would have been made too clearly and directly.
Richard said…
Except that "minimal" lacks the connotation that something vital is missing. Hemingway's writing is minimalist but sufficient. Something skeletal, on the other hand...well, there's an implication that it's adequate to function, but would work better with a little meat on the bones.
Paul V. Allen said…
This discussion has fleshed out my neurons, but only skeletally.
Richard said…
Of course it doesn't make sense when you use it nonsensically.
Paul V. Allen said…
I suppose nonsensical is in the eye of the beholder.
Alex said…
Ah... but one of the subtleties of the lesson was "use titles that allude to cool songs so your audience will feel that you're in the know and one of them."

Well done!
Paul V. Allen said…
Thanks, Alex. Good catch on the title. I think you're going to love Lesson 2.

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