A Stray Thought About Music Writing That Probably Shouldn't Be Taken Too Seriously
I was thinking today that one of the reasons I’m still interested in writing about music is that I think it’s very difficult to do well. Music writing, whether it’s more artist profile-oriented or more critically oriented, is a pretty formal thing and has a few generally accepted structural approaches. So learning what those are and figuring out how to adhere to them is part of the craft, so it’s possible to get pretty good just by mastering that part of it.
But there is another level to it that is hard to do and that involves a combination of knowledge, observation, and introspection. Knowledge because understanding the history and context of music in a serious way is something that doesn’t really have any shortcuts. Observation because observing and listening and understanding what is actually going on in a deeper way is something that is very hard to do well (she never really wrote about music, but Joan Didon is an excellent example of a non-fiction writer who could observe and see things under the surface and make connections that others could not). And introspection because the interface between how the music works and how the music feels is difficult to articulate. My favorite music writers have mastered all three of these areas to varying degrees. Typically, they are a bit stronger in one or two of the three, and their personal style and approach kind of builds from that.
I was also thinking that a lot of music writing is unsatisfying to me because so much of it leans so heavily on the first of these three things, knowledge. A lot of people writing seem to think that trainspotting, being able to identify sample sources and lyrical allusions, is the essence of criticism, and to me that kind of identification in and of itself is not very interesting unless it goes into these other realms, of thinking more deeply how the music works and (especially) articulating how it feels from the perspective of the listener. And, sort of related, so much writing about celebrity-driven pop music tends to focus on who these people are and how the music fits into their career arc (i.e. context) rather than how it actually works for the people who are experiencing the music. Because there is one massively popular pop singer with his or her story, but many millions of pop listeners with all of their stories. And for me, a large part of the ultimate meaning is created by these people, and I’d like to see more rigorous writing about that part of it, though again, it’s the sort of thing that is easy to do but very hard to do well.