AGAINST THE GRAIN: Thinking about the Voice in Pop

(originally published in Melody Maker,November 20, 1993)

Most rock-crit doesn’t have much to do with rock as music. Usually it’s amateur sociology, or Eng-Lit analysis of lyrics, or biography/gossip. But even those who do grapple with music-as-music seldom get much purchase on the Voice, beyond saying a particular voice is ‘great’ or ‘original’, or gushing superlatives.And that’s because the Voice is a mystery, defying analysis.It’s hard to say why one voice leaves you cold and another pierces the marrow of your soul, gets in your pants, fits you like a glove.

Bring the Noise draws from twenty years of your music journalism. Actually longer, as you started at the end of 1985 and the US version of the book has some extra pieces added from the last few years, on figures like M.I.A. and Vampire Weekend. In those 25 years of being a professional critic, what changes have you seen in music writing?

Writing has improved, on average, just on a purely technical level. The average piece of published music writing today is less sloppy, more informed, better reasoned, and less self-indulgent. Some of that has to do with reduced word-counts preventing people from woffling on, and some of it probably has to do with computers and word-processing allowing people to rewrite and self-edit and resequence, to hone and buff the writing into shiny tightness. Whereas in the old days people had to bang things out in a single “take” on a typewriter. But even taking that into consideration, I think there’s no doubt that the quality, as writing, and as thinking, has improved.

What has faded away, though, is a certain mode of address you used to get in the music press, one that I have sometimes described as “messianic”, but it is probably more accurately characterized as “oratorical”. You used to regularly get pieces, particularly in the UK music papers, but also in America with figures like Lester Bangs, where the writing had a sense of performance: as though the writer was on a stage, or in the pulpit. It was rhetoric, designed to sway the reader to the writer’s way of seeing things. It generated a certain kind of cadence, a rousing and soaring weightiness of the kind associated with the great political speeches of history, or the manifestos of artistic movements such as Futurism.

A classic example of this would be the review that Nick Kent wrote of Television’s Marquee Moon for the British weekly music paper New Musical Express. It was 1977, the year punk took off, and NME gave him two pages, enough space for a medium-sized feature, and they even put Television on the front cover–even though there was no interview inside, just an album review. So there’s a sense in which the writer knows he is mounting the steps to a stage, he’s about to perform to a huge audience (the NME then had a circulation of a couple of hundred thousand, and a readership several times that number, because of a high rate of “pass on” of copies). Now as a piece of prose, the review is not flawless, there’s sloppy bits (Kent didn’t even use a typewriter, he wrote long hand!). But there is a sense of history trembling through the writing: Kent is rising to the occasion, bearing witness to musical greatness, to the emergence of a band that he believes will define the epoch. At the end of it you want to give a round of applause, stand up and cheer, clench your fist and punch the air.

People just don’t write that way anymore. I don’t write that way anymore. It probably relates to an inability to “suspend disbelief”, which is to say, an incapacity to summon up within yourself, as writer, the certainty that an artist could be the Future, music’s Saviour. Expectations of this kind have long since ceased to be admissible; these are outmoded criteria. You’d be setting yourself and others up for great disappointment. You would also look foolish to make such claims. So that particular oratorical mode, with its cadences, is virtually extinct. The occasion for it hardly ever occurs. But more than that: the taste for it, on the part of readers and writers, has withered away. People these days seem to prefer a measured tone that weighs up ambivalences very finely and deftly teases out the nuances and ironies. So instead of being based on rock’s own renegade mode of criticism, music writing now aspires to the virtues of others forms of arts criticism.

Reading this kind of stuff, I appreciate the wit and the wisdom. But ultimately it is all a bit over-reasoned and reasonable for my taste. The writing is literally love-less. What creates sparks for me is when you sense the pressure of the irrational (passion, enthusiasm) on an intellect. When there is a struggle within the writing between analysis and the impulse to testify.