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So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic: Lesson 2

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 2: Artists Only

As we learned in Lesson 1, using words to describe music is hard (at least as hard as math is for Barbie). Evoking the instrumentation, melody, harmony, etc. of the music, or elaborating on the way a certain lyric makes you feel, is difficult work. Figurative language can help, but even that is limited in its reach. So what's left? Two words: Artist Comparisons!

It's a tested-and-true didactic principle: Introduce something unfamiliar by using something familiar. By referencing an artist or song the reader knows, you can create a frame of reference for the unheard music. However, as we'll learn, the best music critics don't worry if the comparison point is familiar or not. You may ask: How can a reader comprehend my review if I use something unfamiliar to describe something unfamiliar? You should understand now that this is not your concern as a music writer.

Similarly, you'll want to make allusions to artists, songs, and albums whenever possible. Allusions, as I have defined them here, are cases where the writer references an artist, song, or album in a thematic, circumstantial, or historical way, instead of a musical way. Allusions can help place a new album or artist into the context of the current pop music market, or in pop music history, but, more importantly, they allow you to show off your extensive musical knowledge.

There are times when songs really do resemble each other in melody (such as The Strokes' Razorblade parroting the chorus of Barry Manilow's Mandy) and times when artists are intentionally or unintentionally evocative of another artist in style or sound (like when Prince does homages to Al Green, as he does on Adore, The Most Beautiful Girl In the World, and Call My Name). Pointing these sorts of incidences out in your review is a start, but it's also base level stuff, amateur hour. Too many reviewers get stuck there.

Let's look at how we can go deeper and use comparisons and allusions more effectively and extensively.

First, I've done some informal number-crunching. In the 30 professional, published music reviews I've studied as part of this project, there were 102 total comparison and allusions, making for an average of 3.5 musical references per review. This seems like a low number, but some reviewers pulled more weight than others. There were actually 5 reviews that contained no comparisons or allusions AT ALL! Can you imagine? That left the British and the Internet reviewers to do the heavy lifting.

David Cavanagh and Danny Eccleston (both of Q) and Ryan Schreiber ( each gave us a whopping 8 or more comparisons and allusions in their reviews of Radiohead's OK Computer and Amnesiac. Now that's more like it.

As a reward to these hard-workin' fellas, lets use their reviews as exemplars. See, it's not enough to make lots of comparisons. You want to think strategically about what kind of comparisons and allusions you make, and for what reason. (I'll mention here that some comparisons are inherently negative and some are inherently positive. You'll learn to discern those in Lesson 3.) Anyway, what you really want to do, as stated earlier, is think about the quality of your comparisons or allusions. How specific can you get? How obscure can you get? Let's look at some examples:

Cavanagh plays it fairly safe in his OK Computer review, bringing up the typical touchstones: U2, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, the Doors. He throws some King Crimson, Smashing Pumpkins, and Leo Sayer in there for good measure. But here's where he really distinguishes himself: "Karma Police," he says, "is what might have resulted musically had The Bogus Man period Roxy Music ever tried to play Sexy Sadie by the Beatles." Now THAT's got what you want. It's specific, obscure, and mostly inexplicable. My only complaint is that Cavanagh saw fit to say the artists' names instead of just giving the song titles and letting the reader figure the rest out.

Eccleston recycles the King Crimson, Bowie, and U2 mentions in his review of Amnesiac, but mixes it up with some Belle Stars, Tom Waits, and Joy Division comparisons. He brings up Miles Davis' Bitches Brew album (always a good one to add in there because it sounds cool and few people have actually ever listened to it) and one-ups his colleague by bringing up unattributed song titles The Lambeth Walk, Black Dog, and I'm Horny (the first is from the musical Me and My Girl, the second is a Led Zeppelin tune on Zoso, and the latter could be one of any number of songs by that title, but again, none of this is rightly explained in the review itself).

Finally we have Schreiber, who makes it three-for-three on U2, seconds Pink Floyd, and adds Talking Heads, Talk Talk, Can, Neil Young, and Louis Armstrong into the discussion. He references "IDM artists" which allows him to be both oblique AND maximize the number of comparisons, since that term could include at least 50 different artists. I'm loathe to tell you this, but if you really don't know, IDM stands for intelligent dance music, which includes electronica artists such as Aphex Twin, Future Sound of London, or The Orb. Finally, Schreiber claims that Amnesiac resurrects a long-dead style of music, which he labels "Edison-era big band." Edison (and I'm assuming he meant Thomas Alva) died in 1931, and the Big Band era started in the early '30s as well. So, really, the term makes no sense. But it sounds like it does, and that's what's most important.

In fact, that's the reason for all of this. Making allusions and comparisons isn't really something a critic does to help the reader hear the music you're describing. If that happens, well, it's a pleasant side effect. The best music critics use comparisons and allusions to sound self-important, impress other music geeks, and show off their extensive knowledge of pop music ephemera.

And that brings us to the final part of this lesson. You might have already gleaned this, but it's worth repeating: Don't waste time or energy explaining the reasoning behind your references. It levels the playing field too much. In fact, let's look at what it sounds like when a reviewer stoops to this level. Sasha Frere-Jones, in his New Yorker review of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine, compares the album to Elvis Costello's 1982 opus Imperial Bedroom. Instead of just letting the reader puzzle this out, he actually justifies the comparison! Both records, he writes, concern romantic relations and "display a similar balance of attacks and retreats." Garbage, that.

One last note. Should you be inclined, there's no need to limit your comparisons and allusions to the genre of pop music. You can reference politics, movies, literature, philosophers, etc. as long as you follow the same rules as above, in other words, no explaining. We can use Lester Bangs, the godfather of music criticism, as a model here. In a 1981 Village Voice piece, Bangs wrote about British band Wire. In his intro he pokes gentle fun at other VV writers for always including "cross-cultural references" in their work, and then proceeds to throw in a barely-relevant quote about French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine to complete the joke. However, Bangs goes on to make no less than 12 allusions. In addition to the requisite musical ones (Ramones, Angel, Pink Floyd, the No New York compilation, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tommy James and the Shondells) he throws in Allan Ginsburg, Andy Warhol, Samuel Beckett, Papa Lou, Thomas Alva Edison (him again!), and Buck Rogers.

In my own work I've occasionally tried to ignore the inherent truth of this lesson. Here are the 2004 words of a bright-eyed and horribly misguided young man, in a review of the Delays' Faded Seaside Glamour album:
"I enjoy writing CD reviews, but sometimes find my musical vocabulary so limited as to be frustrating. I take comfort in the fact that I'm not alone. Just a glance through the latest issue of Spin reveals that the prevailing method of describing an artist is comparing them to another artist. You know: This songwriter has the lyrical dexterity of early Dylan combined with the gloomy soundscapes of the Cure, or that band takes the pomposity of Tattoo You-era Stones and adds the sensitivity of Dashboard Confessional. Or: It's like Trout Mask Replica as recorded by Sweetheart Of The Rodeo-era Byrds."
"As for this tendency to compare artists, I'm going to start right now and be one small voice that doesn't do it, as strong as the temptation may be. Instead, I'm going to keep it personal, and seek out new ways to express in words what I hear."
Ahhh, the manifesto of the naive. Despite my intentions, I soon reverted back to my old ways, because I realized the folly of attempting to change a perfect system that has already been in place for years. It wasn't until 2007, when reviewing Rilo Kiley's genre-hopping Under the Blacklight, that I once again tried to rebel. I vowed to write that review without making any comparisons, and I did it, though it took every iota of willpower I had to not write that the song Dreamworld could have been a Tango In the Night b-side. The review would have been that much better for it.

And I must admit, though I've learned the error of my ways, my comparison and allusion average is still lower than it should be. In a random sampling of ten of my reviews, I averaged only 2.5 comparisons or allusions per review, and that number is probably inflated, helped mightily by a piece on Keane's Hopes and Fears that contained a whopping 11 artist references. So I will continue to work on this myself, perhaps using that review as my model. I still have lots to learn.

I hope YOU learned something from this week's lesson as well. Join me here again next Friday for Lesson 3: Birth of the Cool. See you then.


Richard said…
Well, that was positively scathing! *cancels all magazine subscriptions*

By the way, Sasha is a man.
Paul V. Allen said…
Thanks, Richard.

I've corrected Sasha's gender.
Alex said…
This article is the prose version of Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein" if it were recorded by PiL while Daft Punk stood by the side of the stage, mocking them with Billy Idol's sneer (before it became an ironic crutch).

Excellent job!

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