On music journalism

The process of writing about music is harder than most people realize. Many of my friends and I make fun of the fact that reviewers have said that bands possess an “angular” guitar sound so many times that it’s now a completely meaningless term, but what we often forget is this problem: How the hell do you actually say what it is a guitar sounds like? When a writer sits down to describe an album, how does he do it?

The downfall of writing about rock bands is twofold. Certain descriptions, like “twangy guitars,” have almost lost their meaning because so many bands can be described that way. On the other hand, when discussing experimental music, it’s accurate to say, “microsound, square waves between 20 and 200 Hz,” but that doesn’t mean anything to most readers. Experimental sounds are heard less often than “twangy guitars,” and the connections between the terminology and the visceral feelings that listening elicits are less internalized. Often the writer seems to just give up, resulting in trash like Pitchfork’s infamous review of Autechre’s Draft 7.30; possibly the worst music writing I’ve ever read, the review is a dramatic dialogue in the style of (read: ripping off) Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, offering absolutely no information about the release itself. In either case, there’s obviously a problem.

Retrospective of his long career, Japanese noise artist Merzbow released a 50-CD box set called The Merzbox. Not many people are interested in more than two days of music primarily composed of harsh noise (his album 1930, for example, sounds a lot like amplified wiping of sweaty hands on cellophane as some jackhammers tear apart a sidewalk), but the people who are interested are, as a rule, very interested. So, even though reviewing this behemoth is an undertaking, several serialized reviews of the whole box set were published shortly after its release. I recently read them. Many began timidly and with honest effort, but by the set’s last 15 albums, the reviews turned into diaries, rants, and personal stories — no longer about the music. Is this appropriate? Is that really music journalism?

I think that Merzbow was aware of the kind of reviews The Merzbox would receive; he may have made it as it is in order to elicit these kinds of questions. He is quite aware of the critical attention devoted to his music, often enclosing little manifestos in his albums (usually about animal cruelty or bondage techniques, two of his favorite topics), which many reviews devote at least as much attention to as the music itself.

The question is, what is the role of music journalism? When writing about music, what information is important? Currently, a music review can be anything from a pure description of the sound to the author’s analysis of how the release fits into its context or even a diary entry for the reviewer. Unless more writers are able to find some sort of middle ground, the question remains as to whether music journalism is even a meaningful enterprise.

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