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Music journalism is the new boring | a response

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Folk link me to stuff on my Facebook wall.

Mostly, I ignore it. Or delete it. Can’t stand people pissing like cats on my territory. Why can’t they just send me a fucking message? Occasionally, though, something of interest does seep through. Take this article, for example, written by one Andrew Dubber:

MUSIC JOURNALISM IS THE NEW BORING.

The New York Times says that 2011 was the year when rock just spun its wheels. The Guardian calls it the year of boring music.

And while “beige against the machine” is a cute and retweetable one-liner, it’s nothing more than a cheap shot based on a faulty premise: that something went wrong with music in 2011. That musicians gave up en-masse and just made safe, ineffectual and dull music.

There are quite a few problems with that idea. I’m just going to mention just three here, but you’ll no doubt think of your own too.

1) You can’t complain about a dull year in music if all you do is report on the pile of CDs that ended up on your desk as a result of public relations and major label marketing. If you were looking for urgency, relevance and innovation in that lot, you’ve misunderstood the process. No matter how much you shout “Challenge me!” at your stereo, it’s not going to oblige if you keep putting Coldplay CDs in it.

2) Even if you are looking outside the pile, chances are you’re still looking in the wrong places. Things that sound like (or aspire to sound like) the music that did make it to the minor landfill of compact discs cluttering your desk are not likely to be any better. After all, it’s no longer the job of rock music to be urgent or important. And it’s certainly not the job of mainstream rock music. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but guitar, bass, drums and vocals is no longer by default a counter-cultural lineup. The same can be said for R&B and mainstream hip hop. It’s possible to do radical stuff in those musical domains, but it’s certainly not the norm.

3) IF IT’S BORING, DO NOT WRITE ABOUT IT. In fact, write that on a post-it note and stick it to your laptop screen. Writing about boring is contributing to the boring.

The guiding question for interesting music journalism needs to be “Yes, but what else is out there?”. More than ever before there is the opportunity (even the need) for major publications to employ investigative music journalists and people with genuine curiosity. We all know what can happen when people with these kinds of qualities are given a decent platform.

John Peel-ism should be the norm by now.

Music journalists and radio programmers have the opportunity to lead us toward these rich seams of wonderful music lying just beyond their morning jiffy-bag mail pile and inbox of press releases. Their refusal or reluctance to do so suggests that it’s not popular music that is the problem.

Never before has there been a greater opportunity for music journalists to be tastemakers and discoverers of exciting talent. Never before has that opportunity been so resolutely rejected.

This is something that’s been puzzling me for a while. From where I sit, popular music (let’s not just limit ourselves to calling it rock, or hip-hop, or alternative, or underground) has rarely sounded s0 exciting. I’ve been overwhelmed with discoveries this year: from established artists (Kate Bush and Bjork, bored with having invented the wheel, find something to replace it; PJ Harvey as conscience of a country; Tom Waits as Tom Waits) to newer sorts (the frenzied schism of Tunabunny and Maria And The Gay and The Bastards Of Fate; the skronk motorik groove of No Mas Bodas and Muscles Of Joy; the fluid dance floor grace of Barbara Panther; righteous venom from Skinny Girl Diet and a hundred others). From music made in the early 20th Century to all those crushworthy femme-pop practitioners, to music made yesterday.

When I posted on Facebook that I was willing to write an article, “2011 great songs from 2011”, I wasn’t being facetious.

Folk often ask me what was the best year for popular music. I reply, there’s no such damn thing. It just depends on what you’re exposing yourself to: I have a particular preference for 1979-81, but also for 1985, 1992, 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2011. Damn, there was some great shit going down those years. Doesn’t mean that the other years didn’t also have great shit going down, in fact I think I’m starting to change my mind already…

What Andrew says above is so painfully true. Especially the line about, “You can’t complain about a dull year in music if all you do is report on the pile of CDs that ended up on your desk as a result of public relations and major label marketing”. Back in the early 90s, working for U.K. music weekly Melody Maker, I used to fucking LOVE doing the singles. There was always so much to write about! Yet when it came to their turn, most of my colleagues would whinge about what a pile of crap they had to review that week. How so? I would go out and BUY FUCKING 20-3O RECORDS THAT WEEK (often on the recommendation of the good folk at London’s Rough Trade Records) and review those. Why limit yourself to what the industry wants you to hear?

Here at Collapse Board, I deliberately don’t have a list of PRs or record labels to contact, rely on recommendations from friends and peers and colleagues on social network sites and via email. Maybe I shouldn’t be this way? Seems like it’s not the way you operate in the music writing world if you want to make a living from it. Most of the time, it seems that folk only want to read about what other folk are reading about. Even if it is only about having their prejudices confirmed with regards the “new boring” (and by inference, the fact that music ain’t what it liked to be back when they actually fucking cared about it).

I’m reminded of a comment from a good friend on Facebook yesterday in defence of Meryl Streep:

Well ET, as you of all people know, film like music is much more limited for women, particularly a woman of Meryl’s age, she obviously enjoys a challenge and not having seen the film, Im assuming her performance will be the only thing of note about it……as for being “mechanical etc” jeez…check out Kramer Vs Kramer for one of the most devastating performances ever, Meryl is/was as good or better than De Niro or anybody else, if you only worked on “good” films, you’d never work im afraid.

He’s a film actor himself. He should know. And of course, I’m not actually ‘working’ here at Collapse Board. No one is paid here. And I guess then there’s a whole argument to be had in favour of my friend’s statement, that if I actually wanted to be paid for being what I’M FUCKING GENIUS AT then I need to be “doing a Streep” and swallowing my pride and doing stuff I just don’t believe in. I still – rather forlornly at this stage – contend that that shouldn’t be necessary. I cite my past – Plan B Magazine, Careless Talk Costs Lives (which no one was paid for either), even 85% of the Melody Maker stuff – and argue constantly with myself that this can, this WILL change. I’ve managed it before and I’ll manage it again.

Of course, the argument counter to Andrew’s blog post runs something like this: journalists only document what’s going on around them. It would be misleading for them to write other stories if this is what’s going on …

FUCKING BULLSHIT

Journalists create the news. Or at least choose how it’s presented, which is seven-tenths the battle. Let’s leave aside the fact that perhaps any music critic who actually presents themselves as a music ‘journalist’ is on sticky ground immediately. It’s clear from even basic cognitional parameters they’ve misread their own job description.

Imagine a world where actresses like Meryl Streep didn’t have to feel they need to humanise one of the most evil U.K. politicians in living memory to prove their own worth, and followed their own conscience. Imagine a world where everyone behaved like that.

Imagine a world where music critics really did follow their own path – John Peel-ism, as Andrew puts it – and didn’t kowtow by default to release schedules, to the music industry, to advertisers. (Or maybe, he remarks cynically to himself in casual decayed observation bourne of too many years’ experience, maybe that is the average music critics’ own path.)

I do need to take issue with this third statement of Andrew’s, though:

IF IT’S BORING, DO NOT WRITE ABOUT IT.

Get to fuck. You know the only thing worse than a world full of music critics lazily and cravenly following each other’s lead and only discussing what the music industry wants them to discuss? It’s a world full of music critics lazily and cravenly praising everything in their path … for if they don’t, their editors won’t run the review or feature or article. Look around you. It’s already happened. How many reviews graded below 6.5 stars do you think Pitchfork runs? How many reviews graded below 3.5 (out of 5) stars do you think the Rolling Stone or anyfuckingbody runs? Welcome to the world of Q Magazine, of Classic Rock, of the mainstream rock press.

And yes, it is all about the grades.

Don’t be like them. For Bangs’s sake, don’t be like them. Don’t like something? Think something’s dull and boring and reduces the world around you to a miserable, shallow grey? THEN FUCKING TELL PEOPLE AND DON’T HOLD BACK. Ironically, that’s what Andrew’s actually done here. He needs to learn to discriminate, though. If you click through to the articles he cites, you’ll notice that one is pithy and smart and entertains while the other is just another fucking interminable whinge about how music was so much better BACK WHEN THE WRITER WAS YOUNG AND ACTUALLY CARED ABOUT MUSIC.

I’ll leave you to work out which is which.

But:

Never before has there been a greater opportunity for music journalists to be tastemakers and discoverers of exciting talent. Never before has that opportunity been so resolutely rejected.

Fuck yeah.

As Andrew says in summing up:

The thing about amazing, important and compelling music that every journalist and music programmer should know: it needs a champion. Someone with integrity and credibility who will find something good, and play it to us. Someone to say “No – you HAVE to hear this. It’s phenomenal.” I suspect that it is not our musicians that have let us down, but our champions of music.

So if your job is to report upon popular music and you are unable to find ten incredible things in the past year to share with those of us who still read what you have to say, then that makes you a failure. I’m sorry – but there it is. You’re a lazy, complacent, boring failure.

A million times FUCK YEAH!!!!

RELATED POSTS: Collapse Board manifesto number 9: Pitchfork, the betrayal of music & some great songs

12 Responses to Music journalism is the new boring | a response

  1. Joseph Kyle December 30, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Brought a tear to my eye, this one, sir…

  2. mike turner December 30, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    i would have just sent this dude back a link to CB and said well i guess you haven’t been reading this site. whatever, people who can’t find anything new that is good and exciting just aren’t looking.

  3. tom December 30, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    “which no one was paid for either” – so sorry to hear it!
    I hope this is fixed in 2012!

    Thanks to everyone at CB! I loved Plan B as well!

    Happy New Year to you!

  4. Conan Neutron January 2, 2012 at 7:28 am

    The failing is when people start looking at it like “Just a job.”
    It is your moral fucking duty as thinking person of discriminating taste to loudly and passionately call out the things that move you.

    Not the things that the herd or the PR Flacks lack, the things that you love.

    And ignoring and in some cases lambasting the things that waste space, time and everybody’s energy? That’s a duty as well.

    One of the biggest problems of today’s music journalism is you have a bunch of people just looking to things that they already like and blaming music because they’ve become boring. Music is just fine you lazy bastards, you’re just lazy and lame.

  5. Conan Neutron January 2, 2012 at 8:27 am

    Oh yeah and what Erika said here: “For me, and I think most artists, the only worse thing than starving is being unheard, ignored, invisible. I cannot even begin to express my gratitude for those few who have been willing to give my work a read or a listen even though they never heard of me and I don’t have an agent or publicist – stuck in that dark spot where you want to tour and be heard, but you can’t because you have no money, and no one has heard you or heard of you. The first person to stand up and say “listen to this band, they are great” — deserves a fucking medal in my book. For me, that person was Everett True.”

    like… one thousand percent.

  6. Nick Peters January 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    “It’s a world full of music critics lazily and cravenly praising everything in their path…How many reviews graded below 6.5 stars do you think Pitchfork runs?”

    OK, I’m not a fan of Pitchfork’s reviews but at least I’m aware that they are not just praising everything in their path. The average score for an album on Pitchfork was 7.1 last year and 7.0 in 2010. 25% of what they reviewed scored 6.4 or less (294 last year, 304 in 2010).

  7. Everett True January 5, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    The average score for an album on Pitchfork was 7.1 last year and 7.0 in 2010. 25% of what they reviewed scored 6.4 or less (294 last year, 304 in 2010).

    You ARE a Pitchfork reader, aren’t you?

  8. Nick Peters January 7, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    I’m a reader of Pitchfork’s news coverage. As for reviews, I like to see what they are covering – I’ll read the abstracts and look at the scores for the albums. I can’t imagine anything much worse than actually reading them. I crunched those numbers in less time than it would take me to read a days worth of their tedium.

    I thought it was worth mentioning that they give less than favourable reviews to a quarter of the stuff they listen to as the implication in your article was that they were more positive than that.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think they nor you need to run that much negative stuff. I’m not actively looking for stuff to hate, it’s all around me if I want it. Help tracking down the good stuff is where most of us need help.

  9. Bartosz Biniek February 21, 2012 at 4:54 am

    “Folk often ask me what was the best year for popular music. I reply, there’s no such damn thing. It just depends on what you’re exposing yourself to: I have a particular preference for 1979-81, but also for 1985, 1992, 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2011. Damn, there was some great shit going down those years. Doesn’t mean that the other years didn’t also have great shit going down, in fact I think I’m starting to change my mind already…”

    You know, someone finally, accurately wrote a truth about people’s vision of music. Of course. A lot of people has deceiful vision of music. A lot of people see’s the world of music trough the years by what they want to see, and finally see because of the year of music they like most. And the most irritating are people, who always says there’s no good music nowadays. What the fuck? This kind of people always makes me wanna kill myself because of their restricted and blind vision of music.

  10. Golightly February 21, 2012 at 10:20 am

    “Writing about boring is contributing to the boring.” Amen. What you focus on grows. No such thing as bad press yadda yadda yadda. Ignore the crap or you help the crap be known. Good music takes more than good haircuts… I’d call 2011 the year of the boring haircuts. For me it was the year of Cults, Tunnabunny and Warpaint so for me it was a good year.

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