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 Everett True

Everett True’s advice for aspiring music critics (revised and expanded)

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I’m reposting this from Something Awful, as preparation for a lecture I’m giving in a few hours time to a class of KWB107 (creative non-fiction) students at QUT. If everything goes according to plan, this will comprise the second half of the talk.

The actual lecture notes can be found here.

1. Don’t ever attempt to apologise for holding an opinion.

This is a fundamental. The clue is in your job title. You are a music critic. So criticise. People will disagree with you. That is their prerogative. They are also wrong.

2. 400 words good. 800 words fucking horrible.

Self-explanatory really. The extra 400 words will be flimflam discussing how you showed up to the concert late because the police pulled over the car in front of yours, or lengthy excerpts from the press release. Don’t take it to Chris Weingarten excess, though. Don’t start believing that just because you can understand what the hell you’re going on about in 140 characters, and you get all your references and context and shorthand and such, anyone else will. Music criticism should not be crossword compiling.

3. Most musicians are cunts.

So you shouldn’t feel sorry for having a go at them, if required. Occasionally, I’m asked to lecture media students about music criticism. I tell them that what I do is a craft, an art, and a thousand times more creative than the music I write about. It must be, because I make that dullest of breeds – the musician – sound interesting.

4. The music industry is not your friend. Unless you choose to make it so.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because folk are nice to you when you’re starting off, and flood your mailbox with free CDs and offers of free concert-tickets, they are your friends. They’re not. They’re simply trying to figure out how much of a soft touch you are. Of course, this can cut both ways.

5. Don’t forget to place value upon what you do. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

This is important. You cannot become a critic without establishing authority or determining identity. If you don’t give a crap about what you’re writing, find it boring – rest assured, your readers will also.  Music criticism is a monstrous game of bluff, all smoke and mirrors, but don’t feel downhearted about that. So is music.

6. Having the ability to turn an amp up really loud does not automatically make you an interesting person.

It’s incredible the number of people who believe otherwise.

7. The Rolling Stones ruined music for every generation. Discuss.

This isn’t a criticism levelled at The Rolling Stone per se – more at the canon of rock music that has developed because The Rolling Stones existed, and took drugs, and had beautiful girlfriends, and liked to piss against garage walls. The same charge could be levelled – less accurately – at The Beatles. Less accurately, because at least The Beatles had some decent songs. That were their own.

8. Do not overuse adjectives. One is usually more than enough.

This rule particularly applies in the days of Search Engine Optimization. It used to be the place of music critics to describe the music they were talking about; part of the service, alongside giving your windows a once-over with a dirty rag and cleaning the spit off your loafers. No longer. We are in the days of the Internet, folk. Your readers are perfectly able to search out and hear the music for themselves: all they’re mostly seeking from you is validation and, of course, a little direction. Fact: sales of thesauruses have dropped 1,200 per cent among rock critics in the past five years.

9. Do not confuse research with the ability to parrot press releases from memory.

Not when there’s the band’s MySpace page and Wikipedia waiting to be pillaged.

10. No one gives a fuck what you think. Get over it.

This is true. This isn’t true. It’s one of those central… damn, what is that word… crucial to the critic’s craft. I mean, it’s obviously true and it’s equally as obviously not true. Depending on which grimy rung of which grimy ladder you’re currently grimly holding onto.

11. Your principles mean shit if you didn’t have any to start with.

Ask Billy Corgan.

12. 10 words good. 50 words fucking pointless.

The single most important lesson I had in English at school was on the art of the précis. Those extra 40 words are only going to be filled with useless stuff like the full name of each band-member (see below), adjectives and shit you nicked off the band’s MySpace.

13. Don’t ever try to describe the music.

See above. Unnecessary. Impossible, mostly. What you should be attempting to do is trying to describe how the music makes you feel. Also, the way musicians look and act is usually way more interesting than the music.

14. if you have to resort to lists to make your point, you probably shouldn’t be writing.

This isn’t a review. Or an interview. It’s a list. Don’t confuse the three. It doesn’t stop it being any the less disheartening to realise that, 99 times out a hundred, the idiots who click on stuff to read on the Internet (or watch on television, etc) will favour a list over a non-list.

15. You shouldn’t care. Not in public, anyway.

If you show that you care you open yourself up to attack. Do not open yourself up to attack. You are a God. You only have power if people believe in you.

(continued overleaf)

16. Record companies and PRs don’t always tell the truth.

Surprising how few writers realise this. Next week’s shocker: newspapers and TV channels aren’t always honest.

17. Don’t write for magazines/websites you don’t read.

Everyone does. Even me. Especially me. Fucking hacks. Don’t worry about it. It’s the editors who suffer.

18. No one GIVES A SHIT why you didn’t get to the concert until 30 minutes after the support act started.

No, really.

19. No one GIVES A SHIT as to the full names of every single band-member.

No, really.

20. (from Sean DIS) Write because you have to, not because of your career plan. Don’t ask if you can submit. Write. Permission’s not necessary.

I blame the American college system, myself.

21. If you don’t have a fucking clue why you’re doing it, don’t do it.

Have a clue before you sit down to write an article or a review: have a clue before you spend 10 minutes on the phone with the former drummer of Razorlight: have a clue before you start accessing Pitchfork and NME looking for other reviews to rip off. Trust me. It’ll make your life way easier. And if you don’t have a fucking clue? Fuck off. Trust me, it’ll make everyone else’s life way easier.

22. It’s not sexy. It’s not glamorous. And it certainly won’t get you laid.

I was once featured in five different items in Spin Magazine’s Top 100 Rock’N’Roll Moments Of All Time – on three occasions as the main focus of the story. Each one centred around some alleged moment of debauchery: mostly sexual. My favourite was the one at Number 89 that baldly stated that, in return for writing the story that broke grunge to the world, Sub Pop Records supplied me with female press agents who would orally pleasure me on flights to and from Seattle. I think I was also involved in a threesome with Evan Dando and Courtney Love. (That one made the Top 10.) What matters isn’t the truth here. What matters is who’s writing it.

23. Words to avoid. “Really”. “Totally”. “Seminal”. “Unbelievable”. “Transcendent”. “I think”. “It seems”.

(from Mof Glimmers): “Add to this – ‘stunning’, ‘life affirming’ and the phrase ‘if you don’t like this, then you’re probably dead inside’. I’ll forgive a writer for using ‘really’ and ‘totally’ though.”

24. It’s not over. It’s never over.

There’s a rumour going round town that Pitchfork had a clause inserted into their writers’ contracts a couple of years ago stating that under no circumstances should a review be more interesting than the music it’s discussing. Which, given the quality of most of the music Pitchfork likes to promote, is quite some task.

25. Fuck hyphens. And fuck apostrophes too, while we’re here. Keep it direct, entertaining, informative.

(from Reinspired) “My colleague used to have a post-it note pinned to his cube wall: ‘James is not authorised to sign for this amount. Please resign below.’”

Very few people can be trusted around hyphens or apostrophes. Best to avoid, if possible.

26. Think a band sounds like another band? You’re probably right. So what?

(from Reinspired) “A fair number of the bands I like are acts I’ve investigated because someone said they sounded like someone else I like. It’s the easiest way to perform that magic trick to turn words into memories of sounds. You do it all the time – because it works.”

See also the point about not making lists. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. It’s a lesson you wish you could teach a two-year-old.

27. The platform is way more important than the critic.

(from Mof Glimmers):  “You’re a walking billboard. You’re empty advertising space.”

I used to refer to myself as a blank canvas, a chameleon, a cipher.

28. Never trust a writer without an agenda.

A writer without an agenda is like Tom without Jerry, the Pope without any Nazi affiliations and priest/child abuse allegations, an umbrella without rain. They can exist but you ask yourself: why?

29. Your editor will always value your ability to time-keep way over your ability to wield flowery prose.

This was the single most re-Tweeted line when I originally posted this series up on Twitter. I had no idea I had so many editors following me. So why aren’t they commissioning me?

30. It’s nice that folk want to send you free stuff, isn’t it? Get over it RIGHT NOW.

See also #4 above. Has it ever occurred to you that the free stuff might not be the most interesting?

31. A 10-minute rehash of the press release on the telephone does not constitute an interview.

Above all else: preparation. Research. Background knowledge. Or… failing all that, get trashed on your mum’s secret Jagermeister stash and spend the 10 minutes insulting the musician in question. And then make the whole thing up anyway. Seriously, who the fuck is going to care?

32. Not all quiet bands sound like Young Marble Giants.

Advice for hipsters mainly.

33. Not all noisy bands sound like Sonic Youth.

Advice for wannabe hipsters mainly. It’s become as gauche these days to namedrop Sonic Youth as it is to admit to a passing fondness for The Beatles.

34. No one gives a fuck you once made out to a Smashing Pumpkins B-side.

Not unless it’s for embarrassment value. What were you doing listening to Smashing Pumpkins past the age of 11 anyway?

35. Having the ability to use a keyboard does not automatically make you a writer. See also #6.

Ah for fuck’s sake. How many times do I have to say this? Everyone is NOT a critic – unless you’re also of the opinion that if you’ve ever bashed a table-top a few times, sung along to Bono in the shower or blown down one of those cute little nose-tickler things that come in Christmas stockings, you’re a musician; and if you’ve ever drawn a line across a piece of paper, you’re an artist; or if you’ve ever taken a drunken out-of-focus snap of your mates covered in vomit, you’re a photographer. It’s true, technically. True, but a completely pointless and useless way to define the words in any sort of social or cultural or professional context.

36. Do not mistake alcoholic intoxication for a good night out.

(from Mof Glimmers): ” If you’re reviewing, don’t get drunk. Music wants to intoxicate you in the same way a lecherous old man wants to get you hammered so he can try and get in your knickers.”

37. Be candid. Be yourself. Be aware. Be yourself. Be entertaining. Be yourself.

Where’s the clause in your contract that states all music criticism has to be dull?

38. It’s not a career choice. Trust me.

Heard about the music critic who lived happily ever after? Me neither.

12 Responses to Everett True’s advice for aspiring music critics (revised and expanded)

  1. Lewis Parker March 30, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    I would add to this:

    #39 Rock & Roll music is mainly about sex. Bands or musicians that don’t have sex appeal–and I’m not talking about being good looking here, because KD Lang and Bob Dylan are incredibly sexy–they’re probably shit.

    #40 More than any other artistic medium, rock & roll music is inspired by and borne out of drug use. This doesn’t mean you have to eat industrial amounts of narcotics to do your job, but you at least have to be in an appropriate mental state / environment for listening to the music. So while it would be totally inappropriate to be spangled on Ecstasy while reviewing the new Sade album, you’re also missing the point somewhat if you go to an acid house night totally sober and stand at the back yawning. To be fair to the artists, you need to at least get into the spirit of things by experiencing the music how it is meant to be experienced, otherwise you’re watching a 3D film on a wrist watch.

  2. Tom March 31, 2011 at 12:31 am

    I actually copied all these points down and stuck them on the wall by my desk. Some of the best journalistic advice and criticism I’ve ever read.

  3. Princess Stomper March 31, 2011 at 4:12 am

    I’d agree with your first point, Lewis, but not your second. I enjoyed music by drugged up musicians perfectly well as a teenager, but my choice not to jack up on heroin to listen to them probably explains why I am alive and they are dead.

    Whenever anyone says “you don’t get Radiohead’s Kid A because you need to be stoned to listen to it”, I just tell them that’s a mark of weakness. You didn’t need acid to enjoy Pink Floyd or crack to appreciate Ministry. I don’t give a fuck what state of mind the artist was in when (s)he wrote it, for me what matters is what effect it has on me.

    Skinny Puppy were praised by Melody Maker because “their music has the power to manipulate mood”. You would start off in one mood, hear it, and be in another mood. That music could do that when you were stone cold sober. The band themselves were junkies. One of them is dead.

  4. Hannah Golightly March 31, 2011 at 6:02 am

    I’m with Princess Stomper on this one. I did drugs in my youth and it was a mistake. I love Jimi Hendrix and his music sounds incredible no matter what… yeah, if you’re stoned, you can hear extra bits that aren’t on the record and it takes it to the next level… but then again you can say that Pot goes well with all music. I was really appalled when ecstasy came onto the scene in Metal clubs- really ruined the atmosphere… all of a sudden people started doing these ultra-naff rave line-dancing type moves and it sucked to cringe-worthy levels. I disagree that more than any art form rock music is drug inspired. What about the opium driven fine artists who created some of the most famous paintings in the world? You don’t need opium to see their beauty or be moved by what they express. That’s a cop out. It’s a myth. Record companies got bands hooked on speed and smack to ensure they would keep working- heard it from the horses mouth. Drug dealers love this one as it is the best advertising for their illicit wares. I used to dance wherever I went even when other people were all sitting down on sofas JUST BECAUSE THE MUSIC WAS SO GOOD.

  5. Lewis Parker March 31, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    Holly, Princess Stomper, I’m not saying you have to be intoxicated to enjoy music inspired by drugs. I am saying that sitting in an open-plan office in a business park listening to an album for review while checking your emails, football results, etc. is going to yield less of an insight into the music than if you listened to it, say, in your kitchen while having a glass of wine, because you are listening to the music in the same environment as you and most other people would normally listen to music.

    You’re right, real good music transforms the mood and gives you an insight into that mind-frame through the magic of art, so you don’t need to take heroin to listen to the Velvet Underground song. But getting up bright and early and listening to the new Acid Mothers Temple record isn’t fair on the band because they’re never going to be played on breakfast radio, so you’re taking the music out of context. I think you have to find a middle-ground between jacking up for reviews and putting yourself in an overly sterile environment. What I often like to do is to put the album I’m reviewing on headphones and go for a walk or a run, because that’s a very common way to listen to music, and it gets your heart beating faster so that you can have a physical as well as mental response to the music.

  6. Hannah Golightly April 1, 2011 at 5:11 am

    Ok Louis (put your glasses on or learn to read love, innit) I still disagree. As far as I’m concerned if I heard an entire LP of Acid Mothers Temple first thing in the morning, I’d be set up for the day… would probably remember to meditate on a day like that. Good choice of band to discuss as I reviewed them live for a zine in Liverpool a while back and I have to say, although I was standing in the same venue as I’d stood in a load of times where a load of different bands had played, it was only Acid Mothers Temple who took me to another world. I could be in outer space 70s style in the middle of a corporate office toilet cubicle with that music playing through any choice of speakers. It’s a bit like sex. With some partners you need to get the setting and the mood right, light some candles, play some music, lower the lighting, drink wine… and with others you can shag on a wall, in a car, on a beach, on the kitchen counter, with other people asleep in the same room, in a toilet of a club, at work… really doesn’t matter because it’s THEM you want to fuck, not the flipping bottle of merlot or the aromatherapy candles!

  7. Pingback: What I’ve learned about being a shit « Stick It In The Mixer

  8. karen d tregaskin March 20, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Music wants to intoxicate you in the same way a lecherous old man wants to get you hammered so he can try and get in your knickers

    Rapey shit written by a man who has probably never had to experience this actual event, thinking this sounds *pleasant* or desirable in some way?

    Christ, E, it’s like Riot Grrrl never happened. I expected better.

  9. Everett True March 21, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Sorry if it offended you, Kate. I actually read the sentence a different way: like, the old man is entirely pathetic, not desirable whatsoever.

  10. Krissi March 21, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    This is a list, right?

  11. Pingback: Everett True’s advice for aspiring music critics / MacDara Conroy

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