As a general rule I try to avoid these types of meta posts, and I mostly think I’ve laid out the basics of what I’m doing with this blog on the About page (with my JT stuff I have a slightly different approach, but it’s basically similar). Still, I think there’s some value in going in a little bit more detail into exactly what I think music writing is for and why I do it.
Typically I’ve always considered there to be three basic functions that it’s the purpose of music writing to address. Really though, there is a fourth that I’ve always considered so obvious as to not be worth mentioning but which probably does need to be stated clearly because it’s actually if anything the thorniest of the bunch.
1. Introduce new music
This is probably the simplest and most straightforward of all the roles. It might mean new songs by established artists, newly emerging artists that I think are worth paying attention to, underground artists who have been around for a while but who have received little attention, or old artists that may have been forgotten or who I have simply discovered for myself recently (although in this last case, I’d be more likely to combine this role with Reason 3).
This is an important job for music writers and bloggers, and it’s by far the main purpose of blogs like my colleague Patrick who writes regularly on the excellent Make Believe Melodies. In this, the blog combines the role of filter, singling out what’s interesting, hunter, seeking out and discovering new music, and news service, informing people of new releases. The filtering role is of course subjective, since the writer/blogger, if they are doing their job properly, is applying their critical faculties in deciding what’s worth featuring and what isn’t — anything else is just PR and could be just as easily handled by a piece of software designed to seek out certain keywords. People are always going to be able to say, “Hey, you wrote about this band, but you should write about this band!” to which all you can really say is, “So get your own blog and write about them!”
2. Keep musicians on their toes
This is something that is a function more of music writing as a broad spectrum than individual writers. As a writer, if I say the new single by, say, Kana Nishino is rubbish, I wouldn’t expect Nishino or Sony to even know, let alone care. Collectively though, music journalists have a duty to express their opinions honestly as to the quality of the music they write about and thus act as a counterweight to the marketing and media manipulation strategies of labels and talent agencies.
Critical and commercial success are clearly different things, and music writers are likely to emphasise different qualities to those that sales figures will reward. Unless you are a pure market fundamentalist, you would I think have to agree that an alternate model of success to that measured by groups like Oricon and Billboard is at least beneficial to the diversity of music.
It’s easy to snipe at music writers as being elitists (we are — the moment you set yourself up as a critical arbiter of any art, you are being an elitist), but I only see that being a problem if you think readers and music fans are stupid and unable to make their own decisions. If I say Kana Nishino’s new song is rubbish, then knowing what you can glean from my words of me and my taste, you will be well placed to know whether to ignore me or listen to me.
The flipside of that is that as a writer you have a responsibility to consider what the musician’s intentions were and to balance your own subjective judgment (including perhaps what their intentions should have been) against how successful they have been in achieving their own aims. Kana Nishino’s aim with any new material is probably not to push forward the boundaries of minimalist electronic art-noise, so judging her purely on those characteristics is pointless and self-defeating. On the other hand, it’s legitimate to say that her pursuit of middle-of-the-road R&B/J-Pop is retreading already familiar ground and that both she and the Japanese music scene would be better off if she directed her talents towards other things. A writer should feel able to say pretty much whatever they like about big acts — they live in a bubble, judged entirely on numbers shifted and product endorsement gigs gained and I think it’s right to hold them to higher critical standards than indie or underground acts — but they should at least be aware of their position and what their music is for.
With smaller artists, the influence of individual writers becomes more pronounced, and there is actually the chance that they might be aware of what is being said about them. This is perhaps the source of the protective fan instinct that causes mass rage against critics who give bad reviews to their favourite acts, but it’s misguided. In these situations, it’s important to understand that the writer’s job isn’t to tell artists what to do so much as to make them conscious of how their own work is being listened to. Even if they disagree with the critic, they are at least pushed to think about what they are doing and keep their goals and craftsmanship under constant reassessment.
With really small acts, this is where writers should exercise the most care. Slagging off a completely unknown band is like kicking a baby, and in the case that a new band does something awful, it’s probably best to just ignore it. Criticism is valuable but should be couched in more positive terms. These bands often don’t have professional guidance from producers, managers etc. and they are eager for feedback from people outside their small group of fans, so a writer can play a valuable role in suggesting areas they could improve and singling out aspects that work. Make fun of the sillier aspects of what they’re doing by all means, but balance it against constructive remarks. Don’t be a dick.
3. Put music in context
This could mean simply pointing out that A is influenced by or fits into the tradition of B — placing the artist in their immediate musical context — but it might also mean taking a step beyond and analysing the music in its cultural and social context too. For example, the only way to write interestingly about AKB48 is to analyse their position as a social/pop cultural/marketing phenomenon.
Fans often hate seeing their favourite artists put in context like this, seeing it as pigeon-holing and reductive. If art touches you in a personal way, you don’t want some know-it-all elitist music snob casually dropping it into a cultural trend that encompasses millions of people because it diminishes the significance of your own feelings. Nevertheless, music is part of culture, and it’s pretentious and stupid to think music doesn’t relate to other music. Thinking about music in a wider context can sometimes open your ears to new ways of listening to it and help you relate to it in an entirely different way.
Thinking about old music can be very helpful here too, since it can indicate changing trends and reflect social attitudes over time, highlight things that music has gained and lost, and indicate where it might go in the future. Again, this is often unpopular with fans of certain types of music because it points the the essentially transient nature of the music they love. To them, all I can say is, “Hard cheese”.
Comparisons between music in different countries is more problematic because it requires certain simplifications, generalisations and stereotypes about cultures, but there are occasions where it can be useful. Looking at Japanese and Korean pop in parallel is one case where I think it’s perfectly valid since the two are similar and interrelated enough that the differences are meaningful in terms of image, what they say about gender and sexuality, production style and economics. A comparison between the music scenes of London and New York might be another, or a comparison between local music scenes of different Japanese urban areas (Kansai/Tokyo, Fukuoka/Nagoya etc.) In other cases comparisons may become more tenuous and you’d need to set strict parameters to any comparisons you wanted to make, but people who say that all comparisons are instantly invalid are just being petulant children.
4. Be entertaining
This is obvious in a way, but it’s also difficult, since entertainment depends on pushing buttons that aren’t going to be the same in everyone. Some people are turned off and even outright offended by stark criticism of musicians they like, or sometimes of any music at all, which they see as mean, bullying behaviour. Obviously I think this is silly, oversensitive nonsense, and my experience of musicians themselves is that having been far more thoroughly divested of any romantic notions of their own music by their own intimate involvement in the nuts and bolts of the creative process, they’re rather more thick-skinned than their fans most of the time. In any case, a writer isn’t going to please every reader and a reader isn’t going to get on with every writer.
In my own writing, I get enough complaints from readers that I can pick up patterns. They may pick on different things: individual comments, or try to frame it as my lack of something called “objectivity”, my not being a “real fan” or my opinions being “uninformed”; but when pressed, it always comes down to the same criticism: “I don’t like your tone” — the rest is usually just an elaborate game of Gotcha. The trouble is, that the praise I get often falls along similar lines: people who said I absolutely nailed what they were thinking or that even though they disagreed with me, it made them spit out their coffee laughing — largely down to tone. Tone is important, and cuts to the core of what makes writing entertaining or not to a reader.
Being entertaining could mean simply being informative and knowledgeable. It could mean being friendly, approachable and speaking the language of the fan group your writing is targetted towards, it could mean being funny. What’s friendly and approachable to one reader could seem cloying and sycophantic to another, what’s funny to one person could seem cruel or facetious to another. From my own point of view, I look for an individual authorial voice in the writing I enjoy most, combined with a willingness to take a strong position and argue it without equivocating. One of my favourite music reviews ever was an NME review of Stereolab in (I think) the late 90s that opened with the line, “You have to admit they’re good at what they do, but then so was Hitler,” and went on to give the album 0/10. Stereolab are one of my favourite bands of all time, but I still love that review even as I disagree with every single word of it, because it’s very successful at conveying the writer’s own feelings for the album in a funny, entertainingly written way.
As a writer, you’re often wearing a mask, and being entertaining often means playing an exaggerated caricature of yourself, honing what are often opinions frought with niggling inconsistencies into pieces of prose that present a clear, easily graspable point of view. In other cases, ambivalence itself might become the point of the piece, but there is nearly always some form of performance that’s taking place. The writer who plays at being the friendly, approachable, gentle-mannered sort is often furiously editing and softening their opinions pre-publication to avoid offending their readers, while the writer who takes the strident, aggressive position is often carefully sanding down all the “Yeah, buts” to better play the antihero or pantomime villain they wish to appear as. I said at the beginning that a writer should be honest, but honest is not the same as saying every single thing you think, no matter how muddled and contradictory. You must also communicate, and communication only works with an audience tuned to your frequency. Not everyone will be.