On Writing Like A Human Being, And Why It Is Important To Me, Sean Rose
Here’s what I think. If you are a music critic, somebody who writes reviews of records and singles and shows and whathaveyou, you have to be relatable. You have to come across like a human being who lives on Earth in communion with all other human beings. You have to be humble and down-to-earth, even when your point of view is alien and disagreeable. You have to be. Otherwise, your criticism becomes muddied and vague and hard to hear.
This sounds like an obvious point to make, considering that this is a medium all about writers attempting to get their opinions across. You would think. But having read a lot of recent record reviews I get the impression that most writers don’t feel the same way I do. That being a relatable human being in a record review is not an important thing. That it’s more about writing about records in an interesting and lyrical way, or giving the reader an impression of what the record sounds like, or turning their review into a Great Piece Of Writing on its own. Relatability and likability is not the goal. It’s the subject matter. It’s all about the music, man!
I don’t want to sound like a condescending prick when I say that being relatable is not a goal for most music writers! I don’t. I understand that attitude and where it comes from. But I also totally and wholly disagree with it. Likability and relatability is, for me, the 100% most important thing. It’s so important, guys. Wow.
Why do I feel this way? I want to give you an example. This Aesop Rock review in Pitchfork from last month is the uber-example. It’s a review that has been stuck in my head since it was published, stinging my memory, mucking my head all the heck up in a bad sorta way. Because I don’t understand who it was written for, or what it’s trying to do, or how myself or anybody else could possibly read it and think, “Wow what a good and insightful review I just read.” Because it doesn’t seem like it was written for anybody but Jeff Weiss and maybe his editors. Because it’s a review borne of a strange, insular arrogance that I don’t understand. Because it is, to me, unlikable. So unlikable that it makes me grate my teeth.
Now I don’t want to drown you with Negative Feeling here, but please read that review for me. Please read it. If you are anything like me, you will blanche and gag at almost every line. You might not even be able to get past the first paragraph! It was tough for me, especially considering that the first discernible line of the review is the following: “Pick over Skelethon at your own peril. The portmanteau breaks down to the marathon of skeletons. 360 chambers of death, kid.” What? Kid? Excuse me??
Weiss’s review feels like a genuine attempt at matching its subject matter, with that opening paragraph of broken imagery and the cocksure voice that permeates throughout (“body splayed into a crucified scarecrow, blood and tar on the vocals, words loaned from the inscription above the Inferno.”) That is not why I dislike the review. I can admire the ambition behind that. As I’ve mentioned before, music is a weird an intangible subject to write about and I enjoy it when writers swing for the bleachers in big dumb funny ways. Ambition is cool and good! I also don’t doubt for a second that Mr. Weiss loves Skelethon and Aesop Rock with all of his heart. That becomes obvious when you get around 4 or 5 paragraphs into that review. Dude loves Aesop Rock and thinks you should hear his new album. He’s not writing from his butt. So that’s good!
My problem with this review is that it is bogged down with style, with Artful Quality, with impressiveness. It feels like Mr. Weiss’s goal here is more to impress and dazzle his audience rather than to, um, interest or relate to them. It reads like he must have pumped his fists and muttered “YUSS” quietly to himself after finishing each sentence. And ah, to put it bluntly, I think that’s fucked.
I think it’s fucked because Mr. Weiss’s potentially genuine and interesting Aesop Rock review is drowned out in superfluous, overworked language. It’s a review that is in no way relatable for the reader because it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a human being! It feels like it’s coming from a Music-Consumed Language Martian. So how is the reader supposed to care about your review, bud? How could they possibly care?
I mean, it goes beyond not being relatable - Weiss’s review is almost actively unrelatable, as if he were attempting to push his audience away. Even if that wasn’t his intent, it feels that way. And that’s distressing, because I don’t think that is the function of criticism! I think that when you lose your audience and leave them in the dust, you’re done. Your criticism becomes nothing.
Not to mention that it takes more work, to write this way! Look at how belabored and overdone the first few paragraphs of that Aesop Rock review feel. You can see the seams. You can see the effort. It is a lot of work put towards alienating your audience and burying your insights in style. It’s a lose-lose situation.
It’s a textbook example of a music reviewer writing what they think a music review should sound like. Or, y’know, what a Pitchfork review should sound like. I think that’s why I feel the need to single this one review out, over any others - this is the kind of review that Pitchfork used to be known for, back in their early days when their roster was full of cocky young guns looking to stick it in Rolling Stone’s craw. Look through Pitchfork’s archived reviews from ‘96-‘05 and you’ll find tons of reviews that value writerly style and authority over relatability. Lots of these reviews were written by kids. Twentysomethings. Writers that didn’t know better. So you can kind of excuse that attitude.
But, hey, times changed. Pitchfork grew up and veered away from that attitude, for the most part. Even if I disagree with a number of their reviews, I don’t get the impression that they’re trying to drown me in impressive sludge. Which is why this Aesop Rock review startled and upset me, because it was written by someone who is probably old enough to know better.
Maybe it’s all just me. I’m sorry. Maybe you will read that review and seriously relate to it, dig it, pull it close to your heart. I’m sure that there is an audience for a review like this, but I am not apart of it. I can’t even imagine who that audience would be, in my wildest dreams! I can only speak for myself.
So I will. My message to Mr. Jeff Weiss, and all music writers out there: I want you to be ambitious, I want you to be uncompromising, I want you to write well. But the second you write something just to impress me, something to make me admire you instead of relate to you as a Fellow Human, you’ve lost me. I am done. I don’t care how insightful or interesting your review is. You are writing for the wrong reasons. We live on this planet together and you need to act like it, bub. I will have no part in your strange, arrogant endeavor. It hurts me and it hurts you.
And don’t tell me that you can’t be ambitious and relatable at the same time! Because you totally can, and you know it! Even Lester Bangs, that Patron Saint of offbeat, wild music writing, always had that human heart beating in every word he put down. Always, all the time. Music critics need to relate to their audience more than anything. As much as they possibly can. Gosh, we’re a group of insular pop-obsessed weirdos. We need to act like relatable humans more than anyone else, or else what’s the point?
Bottom line: music criticism, to me, needs to be an outstretched hand to the reader. Not a fuckin pushy gross hand that you keep pushin in to the reader’s face until they get annoyed and ask you to stop. It is that simple.