When I’m asked about the state of music writing, I usually say something vaguely positive. I’ll suggest that there’s probably as much great rock criticism (meaning pop, rap, dance etc) as ever; it’s just that it’s scattered across such a sprawling range of print and online outlets that no individual could possibly digest more than a fraction, whereas once upon a time the bulk of it was concentrated in a handful of places: Rolling Stone, Creem and Village Voice in the US; NME, Sounds and Melody Maker in the UK. This may make me feel more positive, but I’m not sure I believe it. There’s plenty of well-written music journalism out there. But Great Rock Writing means pieces that make my blood boil with excitement, and these have become infrequent enough to be singular events.
Rather than there being a drought of genius, though, I think the reasons for this situation are structural and historical. The same conditions that mean giant figures no longer stalk the stage of Rock (Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Public Enemy etc.) also explain the dearth of rock-writer colossi of the order of Nik Cohn, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Paul Morley et al. As much as they’re motored by their own aesthetic vision and will-to-power, epoch-defining bands are condensations of social energy, which is what gave songs such as ‘Gimme Shelter’ (1969) or ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ (1988) their impact. If records aren’t freighted with that sense of something at stake, the words written about them will lack an equivalent weight.
There’s a sense, too, in which almost all of the stark, grand statements were used up some time ago, and what’s left, for musicians and critics alike, is complexifying and filling in gaps. The cutting edge of criticism today involves a subtlety that goes deeper into music rather than reaching out to connect the sounds to the wider world. There is a smallness to music writing today that is appropriate to its subject; the endless proliferation of micro-scenes and sub-genres requires fine distinctions and specialist terminology. This sort of writing can make the epic language of older rock criticism – the exaltations, exhortations and denunciations – seem overblown and clumsy, based as it was in the idealistic investments in music that took first hold in the 1960s and then resurged fiercely with Punk and post-Punk. That kind of over-estimation of music’s power can seem hopelessly naïve from today’s standpoint of scaled-back expectations. But the effect on the writing is a reduction in temperature: from fiery ‘n’ fevered to the cooler registers of expertise and irony.
There are a host of qualities that make for Great Rock Writing – too many to list – but a few less obvious ones are worth highlighting, if only because the current climate renders them extinct. One is being prepared to take things so seriously you make a fool of yourself; another is a taste for meta. By this I mean a willingness to question the assumptions of a given scene, and then go beyond that, to address the largest questions of all – the whys and what-fors of music and music-writing. All the aforementioned true greats had a penchant and flair for assessing the ultimate worth of the endeavour.
The desire to contemplate such knotty self-reflexive quandaries abides at online discussion forums such as I Love Music and Dissensus. But there was a time when it flourished in the mainstream music media, not just in think-pieces and ‘state of rock’ overviews but in reviews and interviews too. It’s not so much that writers have been discouraged from meta-talk because it’s pretentious, self-indulgent or irrelevant as that such talk has been rendered impossible, thanks to the remorseless attrition of word-counts. In the 1970s a review might be as long as 800 words, and a lead review could be the length of a modern-day feature. This gave writers room to stray off the point and address the larger frame. Album reviews could double as manifestos, and all sorts of meta-musings crept into interview features and singles pages. Nowadays the typical non-lead record review’s length – 100 words – doesn’t provide sufficient space to describe the album adequately, let alone venture into such heady territory.
Blogs promised to be a bastion of ambitious music writing of the sort that ran wild with connection-making and speculation. They still sporadically come up with the goods, but inevitably they’ve slipped into a homeostatic half-life. One of the marvels of this globally distributed meshwork was that it created new kinds of post-geographical communities, a parochialism of sensibility rather than place. Unfortunately, blogs are often parochial in the negative sense, bunkers of genre-patriots talking in enthused but insular tongues. MP3 blogs have exacerbated that collector/show-off tendency, turning bloggers into DJs rather than critics. At best, they’re curators, framing their sonic shareware with information, rarely aspiring to revelation.
Ultimately, the things that ail music writing today simply mirror the music itself: entropy and drifting disparateness, the waning of an urgent sense of NOW thanks to retro inundation. If great rock criticism is a struggle to make a parallel poem that rivals the music’s glory, then the music itself must be the spur to grandeur.