My Pitchfork column this month is a short exploration of what good music criticism can still do in an instant-access era. It came out of a bunch of conversations and ILM and Poptimists posts and is more of a series of notes and examples than a fully-formed argument.
Intriguingly enough, though, in the week between my writing it and its publication, Matt Perpetua of Fluxblog tipped me off to a current trend in music blogging which goes against the novelty-driven MP3 blog model. It seems that his own pet project – writing about every REM song - has inspired a bunch of imitators, and there are now half a dozen and more bloggers pledging to work their way through the discographies of various acts: Talking Heads, Pearl Jam, John Cale, the Mountain Goats, and many others.
From the mini-flush of blogs that began after I started Popular, I know how nice it is to be an inspiration, and Matthew’s REM project is the kind of thing that inspires imitators (our very own discog-blog, provisionally titled The Greboes The Crusties and You And I, is in the early concept stage). Maybe this is the way to blog about established artists who are too well-known and well-advised to be audioblog fodder. But how well do they work as music writing?
First of all I have to admit that the list of artists doesn’t grab me particularly – even the ones I like (Cale and Talking Heads, for instance) are people I’d usually prefer to read someone wrestling with in widescreen: I want (in principle) to know about the connections between elements in Cale’s scattershot career, not so much about individual tracks. The acts (which also include Robyn Hitchcock, Bob Pollard and Low) chosen by bloggers so far seem to have a couple of things in common.
Firstly they’re all artists who seem to have enjoyed a fair amount of autonomy throughout their careers, so the chain from idea to audience is a relatively unproblematic one for each song (and the writers can get right on with their interpretin’). Secondly they’re all, save maybe Cale, artists whose reputation flowered after rock’s first decade of critical respectability, which means that exhaustive analyses of their work have mostly yet to be written. They’re almost all respectable – canonised even – acts, but relatively lightly covered by critics, which gives the bloggers lots of room to move.
Here are a few notes on each of the blogs Matthew P pointed out – apologies to any bloggers if I sound patronising, hopefully the trickle of extra hits will soften the blow.
Matthew’s REM blog is good, I think. I don’t care about REM any more and the blog doesn’t really bring me back to them – but what it does do is what he’s always been good at: starting conversations by presenting his ideas accessibly and invitingly. The comments on the most recent entry were a mix of background info and personal stories about the chosen track, which showed the way the format can let less confident writers put down their insights and ways into the music.
More Words About Music And Songs takes on the Talking Heads back catalogue – a hard band to analyse, as I know from experience. The blog maybe leans too heavily on the lyrics but I like the way the entries sometimes read like they’re written in real time as the songs play, and I like the way the writer is unashamed by his occasional bafflement. (“Dunno” is generally a better tactic than bluff.)
The Pearl Jam one I was pleasantly surprised by, as I have absolutely no interest in Pearl Jam. I still don’t after reading it but I really enjoyed the way the entries are little springboards to talk about wider aspects of rock – when and when not to swear, the editing process behind lyric- and songwriting, etc. Enormous enthusiasm.
I Got A Message For You is a new blog – only five entries – and it’s about Robyn Hitchcock, whose stuff I find mildly toxic, so I can’t really comment on how well the writing suits the music: the author seems to know his stuff and there’s no doubting his passion for Hitchcock. I could say the same about the Guided By Voices blog – since literally the only thing I know about GBV is that Robert Pollard has written ten billion songs I can only admire the gumption of someone planning to write about them all.
Even though I’d like to read more umbrella views on John Cale, I was won over by Fragments Of A Cale Season, which has a rubbish title but a good subtitle (“Trying hard to be critical” is a nice sum of the tension between fannishness and distance a project like this surely demands). Cale is a dreadfully erratic act and the handful of reviews so far are strong on what doesn’t work as well as what does, and more particularly what seems like it oughtn’t to work but ends up working anyway.
Low are another act I don’t find much to enjoy in: I liked Ian Mathers‘ chatty honesty from the off, though, and selfishly found myself wishing he liked a different band. This blog is great so far but raises an interesting question about pacing. Ian’s already written about some of the most obvious (to an outsider) things: the religion, how he got into them, why he’s doing the blog. Doing one of these must be like distance running (not that I have ever distance run) – presumably it’s a good idea to try and hold something back for the hard yards when enthusiasm wanes and the finish line is still far away. Doing a project like this non-chronologically gives you that leeway, and it’s interesting that most of these bloggers seem to have started with less well-known tracks or ones they’re more ambiguous about.
The most idiosyncratic of the discog-blogs so far is Emotional Karaoke, about the Mountain Goats. Idiosyncratic because it’s head-on about the writer’s personal relationship to the songs, and it’s a lot less analytic and more imagist than everything else I’ve linked to. Some entries work less well than others but it’s no coincidence that this is the only one so far that’s tempted me (however fleetingly) to actually hear the songs.
In all honestly I don’t know how often I’ll come back to any of these blogs – occasional check-ins seem likelier than regular reads – but I did enjoy almost all of them a lot more than I thought I would. Highly formatted projects like these are difficult and throw up loads of questions – how to balance personal response and analysis? how to use the schema to talk about wider stuff? how to touch on a fandom’s blind spots as well as its joys? what do you do when you’re fifty entries in and running out of words? And of course I’d like to see a broader range of acts covered by a broader range of bloggers, but that’s no fault whatsoever of the people who are doing it so far. The biggest danger, I guess, is that restating conventional wisdom on a beloved band or track is a pleasurable, comforting thing in itself, like putting your foot inside a footprint mark: so far, the people writing these things seem laudably wise to it.