Why Write About Music?

by Marshall Bowden

What is music writing for? Does it have any currency in today’s music industry? Why write about music at all?

First, I have a problem with the moniker “music critic” or “rock critic.” To me, criticism is a valid task, but it should not be the primary task of someone who writes about music, because criticism is a function of the marketplace. The goal of ‘criticism’ ‘is increasingly to market new releases to the public, and this places the writer in a difficult space. If he or she is nothing but a cog in the great marketing plan, then there is little, if any, reason for writing about the music in the first place.

I prefer to think of myself as a “music writer,” (‘music journalist’ is the industry norm, but it implies reportage as the primary function) and I think the function one ought to perform in that space is to write the history of musical genres, recordings, artists, labels, the industry in general, and to provide insights into the subject. Using this as a guideline, I no longer see myself as an ad hoc marketer, but as a storyteller. I can write about the crassly commercial or other sordid sides of the music business just as any journalist might. I can offer real opinions rather than mealy-mouthed genuflections toward record sales that often pass for criticism these days. Most importantly, I can see the artists who create the music I write about as real people with a story, rather than as a mere product.

Of course, like almost any music writer, I have written reviews. It is a handy format, every content provider needs them, and it pays the bills. As a freelance writer, I don’t have to write about whatever comes down the pike, having the ability to pick and choose much of what I want to write about. While that lends a certain enthusiasm to my work, it also means that I tend to write more good (or at least decent) reviews than negative ones.

But even when I feel disappointed or downright annoyed by something I am writing about, I am still telling a story within the review. It is a chance to educate the reader, who may or may not know about that artist, in the history of the artist’s music or to discuss historical points that may be brought to bear on the work in question. Those who are profoundly aware of the history of an artist’s work probably don’t need to be reading my review anyway.

There is also the Lester Bangs School, which is somewhat gonzo and allows the critic to put himself into the equation, going very far afield. The thing is that Bangs is very much writing about his very personal reaction to a work, and that can often tell us an incredible amount about the recording at hand. Very often it does not tell us what the artist was attempting to do, but it also serves to validate our own very human responses to the work, and that is valuable writing. Unfortunately, the takeaway most writers who worship Bangs got from him was his bluster, his contentiousness, and some sad idea that rock writers, like the musicians they cover, are supposed to die young. None of this serves his memory very well.

For an idea of what I’m talking about, read his heart-rending review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Here we have a piece that is written some ten years after the release of the album it talks about, and that points to my argument that what the music writer is really doing is writing history. In this case, we get some insight into the history of Lester Bangs as well as that of Van Morrison. Comparing it to a more straightforward review written when the album was released would be interesting. Though Astral Weeks received generally positive reviews at the time, it was not a commercial success. But it is now considered a classic album. So, though the critics at the time may have had little influence on the sales of the album, they did influence the perception of the work over time.

Since popular music often passes by quickly in the parade of popular culture, it generally falls to music writers to discern what will be of most significance and to document that work. In the words of Amiri Baraka, “Critics are supposed to be people in a position to tell what is of value and what is not, and, hopefully at the time it first appears. If they are consistently mistaken, what is their value?” This clearly means that the critic is not supposed to be swayed by their like or dislike for a particular artist, nor should they be subject to the passing fads and whims of the general public.

Still, the interpretation of what has value changes over time with a historical perspective. The job of the music writer is to trace the history of pretty much everything related to his or her particular genre, to show the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate styles or artists, or to relate the music of a particular time to the larger cultural context from which it grew.

At the time that disco was the prevailing musical fad, it was largely ignored by the music critic and writer. Certainly there was little about most disco music that seemed relevant; it was a prime example of music that existed primarily to fulfill a marketing objective. But it has become apparent over the decades since that what disco represented, i.e. dance music, has become one of the dominant forces in popular music. Today’s dance-driven techno music can be traced from the earliest days of disco and its underground status in the black and gay subcultures. While this may not make “Disco Inferno” a better record, it does demonstrate that virtually any music, even that which is driven by the basest profit motive, can become an important and influential part of modern musical culture, and therefore deserves to be documented.

Had music journalism been practiced in the late 1800s as it is today, we would no doubt have a much clearer understanding of the way that blues developed and the way that blues, the musical culture of Africans brought to the U.S. as slaves, the music of Cuba and the Caribbean, ragtime, and other elements coalesced into the musical form known as jazz. This is demonstrated by the fact that zydeco, which began developing in the 1920s (as opposed to Cajun music in general, which existed long before) is much better documented than either jazz or blues.

Writing, despite the similarities which its practice has with the practice of creating music, can never really approximate the sound or feel of a particular piece of music (except through poetry, perhaps, but that is clearly not the same as music writing or music journalism) but it can increase our understanding of the artist, his or her creative process, the culture from which a particular music emerged, and other important extra-musical elements. It can be argued that such an understanding isn’t strictly necessary in order to enjoy a piece of music, but it cannot do anything but enhance our ability to enjoy and understand the forces behind it. It is for that reason that I, and many others, continue to tell stories about the music that we hear and the musicians who create it.