notes for a lecture to QUT creative non-fiction students
These notes are supposed to supplement the wider advice I offered aspiring music critics at Something Awful last December (which itself was considerably expended from the original post). If you think of this as the prequel, you’ll be on the right track.
Everett True’s Advice for Aspiring Critics, the prequel
I approach reviewing like I approach a game of chess: I see patterns on the board, the screen in front of me in terms of blocks – of pieces, of text. I know when it’s going well, when it’s going wrong from the solidity of those blocks of text.
PART ONE: BASIC
Every review should have certain basic elements to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the publication
- STRUCTURE – have an idea of what you’re writing, why you’re writing it and how you’re going to write it – before you even start typing.
- CONTEXT – who are these people? why are they here? are there other people like them? what does their music sound like (roughly)? where are we? is there anything strange or unique about that? what’s the wider framework?
- AUTHORITY – a couple of song titles. a couple of musicians’ names. maybe mention previous albums, previous bands, previous songs, previous visits. maybe mention place of origin, date formed. quote lyrics, if appropriate. quote between-song banter, if appropriate. give an easily-understood reference point, to aid understanding. give an obscure reference point, to establish your credentials. give information, and make sure you get it right. (reviewing a live show? source the set list.) (reviewing a CD or MP3? do your research.)
- CREATIVITY – don’t let anyone ever browbeat you into thinking music criticism is dull, or reviewing a band is a chore. you think that? get the fuck out of writing about music. first: interest yourself with what you’re writing. if you’re not interested yourself why the hell would anyone else be? DON’T BE DULL. understand that what you’re doing is part of the entertainment industry. facts are way less important than being entertaining … depending, of course, who you’re writing for. avoid describing the music itself. try and give a sense of the music instead. anecdotes are good. similes and metaphors are OK but DON’T MIX THEM. personal perspective is fine but always bring it back to the music itself.
- OPINION – often not strictly necessary. Most publications will only print positive reviews, however (despite the reputation music critics have for being negative). Don’t say “this is crap”. Do say “Silverchair are an abomination against nature”. BE ENTERTAINING. and never forget the ONE INVIOLATE RULE OF MUSIC CRITICISM. people are not reading you to find out stuff about you. they are reading you to find out stuff about the music.
Let’s deconstruct a recent review of Belle And Sebastian live, written for Brisbane-based music website Collapse Board – bearing in mind that this website is a) niche and b) prides itself on the personal.
Belle And Sebastian
The Tivoli, Brisbane
It’s a Monday.
Mondays are special. Bands never play shows on Monday, or rarely. [CONTEXT and STRUCTURE: This is a slightly dull way to start a review, but you need to start somewhere. At least it’s precise, doesn’t waste words. Do not waste words. There is never an excuse for wasting words.] We’re crushed by tiredness, stunned by reality. “I don’t know how parents do it,” writes Stuart Murdoch on Facebook, after I’d politely turned down his invitation for an after-show chat. Neither do we. [Establish AUTHORITY, people. If it means a bit of unsubtle name-dropping by pretending to be on first-name basis with the band’s singer, so be it. Don’t bother doing it if it’s not believable, though.] Look at us, standing to the side, slightly swaying: Charlotte against a door-jamb, myself hopping from one vantage point to the next [giving CONTEXT, strictly speaking irrelevant, but this is a site that promotes the personal viewpoint AND it helps bring in a mention of the band’s set list – AUTHORITY – in a non-boring way] during the opening brace, ‘I Didn’t See It Coming’ and ‘I’m A Cuckoo’ [AUTHORITY and INFORMATION], Stuart swaddled in librarian scarf and wearing – surely not – sunglasses. [CONTEXT, DESCRIPTION] The sound is immediately full, but not intimidating, tricksy, but not needlessly smart: sophisticated. [CREATIVITY and OPINION] Scots pop (to complement all those pastoral outpourings of English pop during the 70s). [CONTEXT] I attempt to count the number of musicians on stage – 13, no is it 12? – and start to understand the $70 ticket price. (The set lasts close on two hours, too.) [CONTEXT – great to get such information in, but be precise. Don’t waste words] The crowd is immediately appreciative, not restive, keen to parade their love for Belle And Sebastian by continually shouting out requests for songs. Stuart is livelier than I remember him, bobbing and weaving about, his dance moves halfway between Mohammed Ali and Nikki McClure. (I swear, you will never see those two names mentioned together again in a sentence. Ever.) [great example of what I was talking about in the AUTHORITY section: familiar reference point juxtaposed with obscure reference point. Also CREATIVITY in the description]
“One fellow from Australia – let’s say he was from Brisbane – was emailing us about our increasing use of profanity with each passing album … ”
“Fuck yeah,” shouts a passing wag. [STRUCTURE – this device of quoting a couple of lines of stage-banter is a device I repeat through the review; AUTHORITY – I’m attempting to make this review fun to read, while always giving information and subtly reminding you of my credentials as a critic worth reading]
The band are tight, not ramshackle. Tight, but not rock. [OPINION] ‘Step Into My Office, Baby’ (the first single from the 2003, Trevor Horn-produced Dear Catastrophe Waitress) [AUTHORITY, AUTHORITY, AUTHORITY – stuff like this is incredibly easy to research, and used well and sparingly, really adds to the sense the critic knows what they’re talking about] sits a little uneasily with me: I say, not needlessly smart. I use the word sophisticated as a plus point but this boy remains a Ramones fan at heart. Sophisticated, to me, is Vivian Girls introducing a fourth chord: The Pastels extending ‘Baby Honey’ past the three-minute point. [see point above about obscure reference points. they do need to be accurate though, otherwise a waste of space; also CREATIVITY] Not all these instruments being conducted by Stuart somewhat enthusiastically: violins and keyboards and guitars and three or four voices and doubtless a cowbell too. [CONTEXT] ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ follows, from the smash ‘indie’ film Juno [AUTHORITY], and it occurs to me, once more: this music is people’s life soundtracks. The people here: man, no hipsters! I was expecting hipsters. No. Good solid ordinary office couples, the type of which Brisbane excels at. [AUTHORITY]
“Can I have those sunglasses,” someone calls, after Stuart whips them off, along with the scarf.
“Sorry, they were a present from my wife.” [CONTEXT, AUTHORITY, CREATIVITY, STRUCTURE … and so it goes on. You keep to the structure that you’ve hopefully established and carry on performing in front of your audience, your readers. If you want to inject personal observations or yourself even into the narrative, you don’t lose sight of why your audience is there. You carry on mentioning song titles, and probably a few band-members. You make observations about what the band looked like on stage, partly for your audience’s benefit and partly to establish your own authority (You Were There). You throw in a couple of adjectives to describe the music, if you’re so minded: but don’t get carried away. You mention the band’s history, to establish your own authority and for your audience’s benefit. They’re reading about this stuff right now: they don’t want to have to do your job and start looking stuff up. You should already have done this.]
Stevie Jackson, the other notable front-person, is less forthcoming than Stuart. He hangs back: swarthy, vaguely awkward like he wants to try out for Brisbane’s Gin Club after. You have the impression this band have been touring a while together: jokes seem to be continued from a previous performance. Look at us now, the proud parents: Charlotte is retreated to a plush sofa in the oddly quietened bar area, side of hall; I’m right in front of the – ow!, ow! – speakers, stage right. Not for long. ‘I’m Not Living In The Real World’ (note to self: surely an old Blondie song title?) sounds unfamiliar, but pleasing enough – wayward, subtly infectious, with an elongated Jackson introduction that feels a fraction overdone. Yes, we know how Eurovision works (key changes, semitones). Personal favourite ‘I Want The World To Stop’ [NOTE: I’m writing online, so I provide a few online links, so the paper trail is easy to follow] (also from last year’s Write About Love), is a skinny milk cappuccino delight: buoyant, upbeat and with the sort of delirious three-part vocal harmonies that folk – well, me – imagine most every Belle And Sebastian album is laden down with, an assumption reached solely through prolonged exposure to Tigermilk and ‘Dog On Wheels’.
Incidentally, for those who think the criticism leveled at Write About Love – that it sounds in places like a parody of Belle And Sebastian’s earlier work – is anything new, Pitchfork were making the exact same charge about The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998). [OPINION]
Speaking as a Ramones and Undertones fan, I love a bit of self-parody, me. As long as it’s done straight.
“All of our stand-in trumpet-players are called Michael,” comments Stuart. “It’s nice, because it reminds us of our own Michael, who is back in Scotland.”
(This is a very condensed version of his banter.)
“Maybe we should mention Isobel and Stuart here.” He drags out a large picture of … quite can’t see … Isobel?
“To absent friends.”
“This is beginning to feel like a wake,” comments Stevie, dryly. [CONTEXT: this anecdote doesn’t work quite as well as the earlier ones: not snappy enough.]
A snippet of something we recognise is played. Must be from ‘Dog On Wheels’. I’m seated next to Charlotte now, basking in the comparative opulence. Everything is context, right? A woman opposite us has been ferociously texting all evening: now she looks around blankly. Hard to tell the mothers from the daughters. [CONTEXT] A parade of white high heels clatters by. Is that the old Monkees hit ‘Last Train To Clarkesville’ Stevie is singing? The set-list says it is … and so I’m guessing it is. Man, this couch is nice. What was that Stuart said? Something about whoever claps the hardest to – didn’t catch the title, maybe it’s ‘The Fox In The Snow’ (from If You’re Feeling Sinister) [AUTHORITY], no, can’t be that one, it’s too fragile, melancholy … well, whoever claps the hardest, will be invited up on stage, boys and girls both. Boys and girls both. They all dance like Stuart: or, as my heart has it, Nikki McClure. [I often think a good review is like a classy stand-up comedian’s stage act: on the surface, it’ll seem to be rambling, stream-0f-consciousness – and it allows for some spontaneity, but its creator will always will know what they’re doing, and have certain motifs to which they return]
Man, Mondays really are special in this town. [I actually printed the set-list as the visual for this show: if you’d already read it, and been really observant, you’d have noticed I only talk about the first half of the set. The reason had been hinted at: we were parents, tired beyond endurance. We had to leave early. I like to think I masked it incredibly well within this review: nowhere does it feel that I was letting my audience down by giving them half-measures. Don’t ever let on if you have to leave a show early, or miss some of the set (unless, of course, you make a device out of it, and bring it into play during the review). To do so, you immediately give up all pretence to authority. Your readers will never forgive you. But don’t lie either. (Readers know.) Just don’t mention it.]