Soundscape Signals: The State of Music Journalism

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Like the famous radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’, “The Wars of the Worlds,” which led thousands of listeners to believe that an alien invasion was imminent and created nationwide hysteria in 1938, the press release written relatively recently by Chuck Klosterman has misled a bunch of reporters, and caused mild mania over what direction music journalism is taking.

When it dawned on NPR’s Frannie Kelley that the email she found in her inbox wasn’t the straightforward piece of info a publicist would normally send, but in fact filled with not only outrageous hyperbole but a false one at that, she was outraged.  Kelley went on to write a scathing report on NPR’s music blog, The Record, about her discovery.  But besides proving that she was a hack, the timeless little diatribe went on to demonstrate that Kelley had entirely missed the point.

Klosterman is primarily known as a music writer for Spin magazine in the 1990s and the author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Fargo Rock City, and Downtown Owl, an fictional tale of a small, middle of nowhere town and how the lackluster lives of three of its citizens manages to converge at one point.  Recognized for his blistering essays that touch upon all subjects delving in popular culture, rock music, and sports, Klosterman’s concise journalistic skills and poignant topics, all with a pop culture-twist, alone can dissuade any non-believer that what he has written down on the page isn’t going to be your run of the mill story.

When Kelley confessed that the aforementioned press release sounded vaguely suspicious to her when she first read it, this led the NPR reporter to undergo a brief investigation, where she discovered that what “the critics unilaterally concur about Delicate Steve” was questionable.  A group of polymathic, 40 instrument welding musicians who sound a lot like the band My Bloody Valentine, but without the guitars – Delicate Steve sounds like an instrumental band on steroids.

Kelley did a little more digging, and what she happened to find out also sounded a bit disconcerting.  The bio was fake, and that it was written with that intention.

When Kelley learned that this whole exercise in deception was the brainchild’s of Yale Evelev, who runs the label Luaka Bop, she emailed him right away and this was what she found out: Evelev hired Klosterman to write a bio on a band he never heard of nor any of their music, because he’s seen how writer’s write about things and he thought that it would be interesting what they came up with when writing about instrumental music.

What some would consider a publicity stunt is really just a disparaging look into the state of music writing.

John Roderick, a singer-songwriter for the Seattle’s Long Winters, wrote in his post for his column “Reverb Residency,” in Seattle Weekly’s Reverb about how much it boggles him how often the word ‘meh’ appears in the reviews he’s looked at.  This noticeable decline in the quality of music writing forced him to take action; towards the end of his weekly column, he made a call for readers to demand better of their writers under the guise that writers work harder when readers push them.

And this could go both ways.

Robert Hilburn published a book called Corn Flakes with John Lennon last year.  Corn flakes chronicle Hilburn’s relationship with rock legends like John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, and Kurt Cobain.  Hilburn wasn’t just a music critic to these artists; he was also a bona fide confidante and friend who helped shape their careers.  Much like the Pitchfork of his day, Robert had so much influence he could easily make or break an artist based on a tongue-in-cheek review.  He also influenced Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan to change their set lists, as well as helped them open up with their music in a way no one has been able to since.

According to Slate’s Robert Pinksy, the biggest critics of John Keats’ day, standoffish literary critics who put such importance onto their words but consider the works they are critiquing irreverent, are considered bigger fools now than ever before.  Today, we are not as blind to Keats’ genius as the biggest critics of his time were.  Invariably, considered a literary giant of all time, Keats is now getting the last laugh.

Pinksy goes on to give readers a look into what he called his Aristotelian template as far as how a book review should be conceived:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

Namely, a music review should do the same. It should describe the sound and style of the album and what the artist is trying to do as far as furthering the genre, and lastly it should give the reviewer’s opinion on what the artist was trying to do with the album.

Overall, this is a caveat to bloggers and music journalists everywhere: the system is getting all cogged up because of laziness.  But not to say being a music critic isn’t tough.  Listening with a fresh ear and with an unbiased take on the music you’d probably heard a thousand times before can get tiresome.  But, hey, this comes with the job description, and lazy writing begets lazy artists.

Klosterman’s press release is an eerie foreshadowing of where music journalism is going: one big hype machine that no one cares about enough to read anymore.

Photo Courtesy of Marcin Wichary via Flickr

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