Ripping music critics is a well-worn international pastime. Understandably so, because so much music writing today, the vast majority of it lying on a range from merely dull and predictable to insufferably full of itself to bafflingly incompetent, is so bad. Among the most common critiques of any music review that a reader does not hold in high regard is, “this review tells me more about the critic than it does about the music,” and that it does not achieve adequate objectivity. Maybe this only proves how lost I am, but that sounds like a compliment to me, buddy.

There are times, of course, when this is a very applicable gripe. There’s nothing worse than reading a review by someone who’s opinion of him or herself is so great that the writer’s ego seeps through every inch of the ink on the page (or, more likely, the text on the monitor); who, in as many snively, condescending ways as he can think of, makes it clear that only he is qualified to judge this particular piece of music properly because he knows so much better than you, and probably better than the musicians he is writing about too, and he fully expects a blow job from you in appreciation of his brilliance. He also expects you to think that his opinion of the music he’s writing about is more important than the music itself. Anytime you read something like this, it should bother you, not only because the writer will come across like a complete asshole, which will likely tick you off anyway, but because NOBODY’S opinion of any given piece of music is more valuable than ANYBODY else’s.

Sure, I inevitably trust certain people’s opinions on music more than others. It’s easier to trust a music writer if they are musicians themselves, or have studied music extensively in an academic or independent environment, or failing that, have listened to a ton of music in their lifetimes and thus are well aware of all the tricks that musicians use. But I will often put just as much stock in what someone—anyone—I know says about music than someone who has a PHD in Advanced Studies in Licking Beethoven’s Ass, simply because that person might be my friend, or because I know they like some of the same bands I do. If you play and/or listen to enough music and have an ability to string coherent sentences together (more than many published music writers can manage), you are just as qualified to write about music as anyone else.

In order to explain why, I’ll go back to that “too much personality, not enough objectivity” charge I mentioned. Many who make that accusation implore reviewers to just “describe the music.” Certainly that is a pretty freaking critical part of music writing, and writers are sometimes guilty of skimping on it at one time or another, but, uh… is that really all you want from music writing? Do you really think bald description would tell you anything you need to know that’s worth knowing about music? “First, I hear a guitar. It plays some notes. Then, there’s some singing. Then, three minutes later, the song ends.” When you listen to a song, do you like or dislike it because the guitarist plays a G chord in the chorus? Or because of how that G chord makes you feel when it’s played? However he or she chooses to convey it, the reaction the writer has to the piece of music in question tells me more about it than anything else.

I want to know what the music sounds like—meaning its instrumentation, what genres it touches on, etc.—from a review just as much as anyone else, but I’m far more interested in the writer’s internal relationship with the music in question, because my interaction with that music, my relationship with it, should I choose to listen to it, will be of the greatest importance to me. It’s easy to lose one’s grip and become overly self-indulgent, of course, but so long as that line isn’t crossed, I want to know that if you’re reviewing Van Halen II, you used to make out to “Dance The Night Away” in the back of your high school girlfriend’s car. I want to know that when you hear “Fell In Love With A Girl” it evokes memories of your childhood, that hearing the Sex Pistols changed the way you thought about your parents, that Pink Floyd makes you ponder the very makeup of modern society, that “Lola” reminds you of that hilarious time in college when you accidentally slept with a tranny. All that stuff tells me that the music has power beyond mere notes and chords.

And let’s talk about objectivity. I can write about music “objectively” if I want. Objectively, the Beatles are the greatest rock ‘n roll band ever, and you’d have to be a complete moron to question that. Objectively, Bob Dylan is not a good singer. But music is not fucking objective; everyone hears it differently. So subjectively, there’s only one group who can claim the title of the World’s Greatest Rock ‘N Roll Band, and their name is the Rolling Stones. And given the choice between hearing Bob Dylan sing “Like A Rolling Stone” and hearing Michael Bolton do it, I’ll pick Zimmerman one billion out of one billion times. That’s why I want to see some goddamned personality when I read music writing, and why I try to provide some to my readers. I think the better you know me through my relationship with what I review and can identify my musical preferences, prejudices and theories, the better you can decipher what you want or need to know about the music I write about.

Ultimately, this is why I believe that the biggest mistake music writers often make is thinking that their opinion of the music is the most important part of the review, or, even worse, that their opinion actually matters more than anyone else’s. It doesn’t. To say simply “this is good” or “this is bad” is meaningless to a reader who either doesn’t share your tastes, or doesn’t know you or what makes you tick when it comes to music (in the sense that devoted readers might know that about, say, Lester Bangs or Mark Prindle). That is why writing about what a piece of music evokes in the writer results in better writing, whether that evocation is as simple as a reference to a cultural trend or piece of music history, or as significant as a deep emotional reaction that alters one’s personal history. As far as I’m concerned, the more I know about the writer, the more I know about the music.

Leave a Reply