Writing about music is tough.
When I talk to people about writing this column, the conversation usually goes like this:
Me: (not looking them in the eyes) Yeah, I write a column for the Daily.
Person: Oh, so you can write about, like, whatever?
Me: Yeah, pretty much.
Person: That sounds easy/fun/cool/sneeze.
Me: Yeah, well …
But what I’d like to tell them is that writing this column is like fighting a civil war with myself. It’s a constant and a sometimes half-assed campaign to reach some impossible waypoint, in which I capture what I actually “mean” about the music I listen to, how I listen to it and how it makes me “feel.”
Ugh. Feeling. It’s an enemy, among so many others. One that has to be fought.
Did I join the Daily two years ago because I like music? Yep. Do I like to write? Sure. But ultimately, I took the leap from picking up (and promptly forgetting to recycle) the Daily and Daily Arts in particular to writing for it because I didn’t like what I read. I wanted to get better at writing, share my hot and fuzzies about music with some like-minded dweebs and print something I could tolerate reading.
I didn’t know how grueling it would be. From the onset of joining the Daily, the biggest and most terrifying editor and critic I had was me. Now, with every step, sentence and day that moves toward my deadline, I second-guess it all. Music. Songs. “Feelings.” Context. Genre. What I “like,” what I don’t “like.” Simply listening and writing wasn’t and isn’t enough.
Now I recognize enemies that hold me back. Adjectives. Nouns that mean so many things and absolutely nothing at all. Restricting songs to clean-cut, safe conclusions which make sense and let us all drive home happy. Exposition. “Rock.” Short declarative sentences.
And why fight these enemies? On a simple level, it will make my writing better. More importantly? It will steer me away from an even worse crime than bad writing: Outright lying.
When you’re swept up in the world of conclusive, well informed and researched 500- to 600-word pop music reviews laying imagination and debate to rest in a sea of objective, adjective-laden near-prose, succumbing to cliché is easy. It’s a haven for words, phrases and sentences expressing a reality that is communal only because you’ve read it so many times that you’ve accepted it as hard-tested emotional proof.
The worst that can happen is that I settle for these emotional clichés. This song means that. “Authentic” emotion expressed in comfortable boundaries. Lyrics that are “socially conscious,” that mean something. Oh my God, you like The Strokes/Kanye West/Phoenix/Oneohtrix Point Never? Wow, me too. I liked that song. Did you like that song, Jim? Yes, I liked that song, Judy. That rocked.
The best pop music writers brought themselves into conversation not only with us, but with the music they were writing about. Writers like Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and Chuck Eddy (among so many others) — however uneven, unfair and scatalogically gripping it was — leaped over cliché to deliver their own voice and opinion. They did it with clarity and style, sure, but best of all, an abstract yet pristine evocation of truth.
That expression doesn’t come easy. What makes a song good? Your absolute favorite song … why do you like it? How does it make you “feel” (shudder)? What does it all “mean?” Don’t settle for someone else’s words. Don’t use adjectives. Don’t lie.
The critic Frank Kogan, who inspired this column, once wrote “I die every time I write,” in a letter to his hero, Chuck Eddy. When I first read those words I felt communion and frustration. I’ll probably never be as fine a writer as Frank, but I identified with him. Every review and column I’ve written for the Daily I am ashamed of, to an extent. Not because it exists, or is filled with lame sentences and conclusions I may have reached out of surrender, but because I know I can do better. A little part of me dies in the self-immolation, reborn to try, try again. Aaliyah said it better than I ever could … and look where she ended up.
So for her, Frank and all of the fallen words in my past, I’m not giving up. I’m dusting myself off, again and again.