I thought I would comment and riff on some articles I read online this week.
On music and music writing
Last week, Mike of the blog MMMM declared Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band “the greatest album of all time”. No, he did more than that. He gave a very thorough analysis of the album, a comprehensive examination of its merits, missteps and what it achieved musically. It was an illuminating dissection and I was struck by how closely he listened to the album and how detailed his breakdown of each song was for someone who never studied music (I asked him). The post reminded me of the writing of Chuck Klosterman, specifically his explanation for the group ABBA’s lingering popularity in Eating the Dinosaur and why The Eagles are so despised in I Wear The Black Hat.
I don’t think (or I don’t recall) ever reading a critique of music by a woman. I’m sure some exists, but I haven’t even accidentally come across any and I read a lot. So I went searching for a reason why this is by looking for answers where I always look — Google. In my search, I came across an article whose title offers an explanation for why women don’t write about music or are intimidated to attempt it: “Oh the Unbelievable Shit You Get Writing About Music as a Woman”. The article’s author, music critic Tracy Moore, explores the different ways men and women write about music and the different ways male and female music critics are seen and treated.
Generally, female music critics are assumed to not have as much knowledge about music as male critics and male music lovers and if they do have as much knowledge, well then she’s a poseur. Or a whore.
Moore is constantly labelled a whore for writing things about music dudes don’t like. Or liking music at all. I’m not sure. Examples of actual responses Moore has received:
“You criticized my band. You are a whore.”
“You don’t even actually like music, you are just a whore.”
“You actually like music too much. Whore.”
“You have not heard every record ever recorded. You are an ignorant whore.”
I don’t get using the word “whore” as an insult. I suppose calling a woman a “whore” who isn’t actually sleeping around for money is supposed to be hurtful. I guess I should be offended. I just find it funny.
Moore makes the point that women tend to approach music more innocently and to experience it more viscerally. I know I do.
I could hear the vocal harmonies and time signatures and the lightness of the harpsichord in Sgt. Pepper’s a thousand times but they wouldn’t register. At least not intellectually. I hear how the music makes me feel, if that makes sense. A singer’s voice, a tempo change, or the melody can and usually does provoke emotion. The lyrics create images that become part of a story that plays in my head and the music becomes a soundtrack to that story. Music may be the one thing, the only thing, I don’t over think.
I read movie, television, book criticism but not music criticism. Maybe I would if music critics would share the story created by their imaginations as they listen to the music they critique. Or do what singer Meredith Graves suggested in an interview:
I want to (read in a music review) ‘I listened to this record and it made me go out into my garage and eat half a box of ho hos and smash stuff.’ That will get me to listen to a record. I think there needs to be a shift in music writing. Actually, no. I think everyone should be able to write about whatever they want, but I would like to see more people writing about music that write about it differently. I just want to hear about how the record made you feel.
Speaking of critical writing, movie and television critic Matt Zoller Seitz offers readers some great advice for wannabe critics that I think all writers should heed in Advice to Young Critics:
Write for at least two hours every day, even if you don’t publish what you write. Writing is like athletics. The more you do it, the stronger and faster you become. Try to get to the point where you write better than anyone who writes faster than you, and faster than anyone who writes better than you. If two hours a day sounds like too much time, it means you don’t really want to do this for a living and should do something else instead.
I’ve found it is necessary to just get something down on paper everyday. It doesn’t have to be publishable, as Seitz mentions. It’s an exercise in discipline.
If you have a good idea or observation, write it down immediately. Keep a notebook handy when you watch anything, and if you notice a line or a shot that seems significant for whatever reason, or if you have a thought that seems even remotely promising, write it down so you don’t forget it. You might as well just go ahead carry the notebook everywhere, because you never know when a decent idea will hit you, and if you get to the end of the day and can’t remember it, you’ll be annoyed with yourself. Notebooks are better than electronic devices because they don’t run out of battery power and you won’t annoy anyone if you use them in the dark.
My notebook is always handy. In the past, whenever I thought of a “brilliant” idea or a perfectly worded sentence, I would arrogantly swear I could remember it and I didn’t have to be a geek and walk around with a notebook wherever I went. By the time I was ready to write the idea down, it was gone. What’s that saying? “The palest ink is better than the best memory.” Also, having a record of ideas is important. Reading old ideas is one of the best ways to generate new ones. Or at least you have proof that you have ideas.
Be the best you that you can be. Learn from other writers, but don’t imitate them. Absorb their lessons and then try not to think about them. Don’t try to write the way you think you’re to write. Don’t say the things you think you are supposed to say. Write the truth as you see it. Don’t worry about impressing anyone with your erudition, setting an agenda, proving how much research you’ve done, or anything else. An editor once told me that you should try to take all the stuff you’d say to a friend over coffee after you’ve filed a piece and put that in the piece. I agree completely. The pieces people still quote to me years or decades later are the ones I wrote in a hurry, when there wasn’t time to censor myself or polish the work to death or otherwise worry about how I might be perceived. The more honest, personal and direct your writing is, the more popular it will be. As long as you’re not being racist, sexist, needlessly vicious, or thickheaded, as as long as you support your arguments with at least some proof drawn from the “text”—i.e. the movie or the TV show as it appears onscreen—there’s no way that you will say the “wrong” thing. Let the reader see that there is a person behind your words, because that’s ultimately the point of writing anything: to connect with other people.
The best piece of writing advice I’ve read recently is “take all the stuff you’d say to a friend over coffee after you’ve filed a piece and put that in the piece.” Or put another way: what would you say to a friend over coffee about the piece you’re writing? What you would say to your friend and how you would say it are the ways to write it. Whenever I’ve felt stuck while writing something recently, I’ve thought of that quote and I became unstuck. Writing is really just talking to another person (or maybe just yourself) but on the page/screen.
I may write a part 2 to this post. I read so many great articles online this week. I read an article on how doing nothing is sometimes more productive and better for your brain and your creativity than filling up your days with busyness, something I completely agree with, and an article about how prisoners in England are being denied access to books. That’s something I find to be incredibly cruel.
I happily welcome any reading suggestions. The only criteria for sharing an article is that after you read it, you felt an irresistible urge to share it.