Writing about music is hard work. You’re never more than one lazy choice away from falling into cliche, or worse. But in my ongoing quest to learn by examples, there are certain examples that seem to come up again and again. So here, in blog-friendly ‘top 5’ form, is my round-up of the top offenders.
#1) The ‘condescender’
Q: If a hipster falls in the forest, does it make a sound? A: Sure. But I’m sure you’ve never heard it. All reviewers have to maintain a certain air of authority, and for some, the thinly-veiled insult is the go-to trick to assert superiority. Why call an album good, after all, when you can call it under-appreciated? And why ask if an album is good enough to deserve the reader’s attention, when you could turn the tables and put the audience on trial? This kind of review is a particular favorite when a reviewer gets to write up a new release by a favorite band. (Bonus points, naturally, if that band has managed to evade fame and/or fortune.)
The short version: “So approachable, even a rube like you might like it.”
#2) The ‘cry for help’ (aka ‘the pitchfork’)
One man’s dream job is another man’s grind. The realities of the review desk are notorious for dulling the passions of aspiring writers. Sometimes, though, that dulled enthusiasm just cries out to be shared with the reading public. And the reviewer, somehow, is always the last to notice when her column has become a homogeneous paste of longing and regret. Watch out for writers whose greatest compliment is “this takes me back…”
Short version: “Further proof that music stopped being good the second I got this job reviewing fifteen demo EPs a day. Why can’t anybody make music like they did back before I hated music?”
#3) The ‘Roget’s Thesaurus’
A well-chosen word can go a long way, in describing music. If a new release is especially, say, ‘dark and riffy’, that’s just what I want to know when I read a review. But a whole lot of writers just can’t resist the urge to up-cycle that into ‘phrasal and stygian’, and there is just no bottom to that well. Witness the fog of adjectives that enshrouds so much music writing. (That’s not to say that a rich vocabulary isn’t a good thing, of course. But the illusion of specificity is a dastardly noose.)
Short version: “…recommended; spoken favorably of; even vouchsafed for your listening pleasure…”
#4) The ‘Ken Burns effect’
Every piece of music inherits something from what’s come before it, and reviewers do their readers a service when they can point out the most relevant influences on a new record. Then, you know—move on, and talk about the actual record that’s up for review. Alas, the twin temptations of name-dropping and historical sermonizing prove too great for many a reviewer, and we end up with sprawling cross-references, tracing Fleet Foxes back to the 12 tribes of Israel. Not every single needs a bibliography, folks.
Short version: “…and that’s how Son House crossed the Potomac and outflanked the Yardbirds at Harper’s Ferry. And this WILL be on the test.“
#5) ‘The shill’
After the oozing condescension of types 1-4 above, there’s something almost innocent about a bald-faced plug in disguise of criticism. While it’s the easiest thing in the world to complain, sometimes the second-easiest thing is just to turn that frown upside-down and praise something into impossibility.
Short version: “In spite of this band’s [pick one: blood relation to me/ financial relation to this magazine/ lead singer I’m trying to score with,] I can honestly say that this hurried demo shall hasten the spring, revive all of your dead pets and restart the clock on all music, ever. Incidentally, if you could buy it through this Amazon link, that would be great…”