Music criticism is no place for the squeamish
Over the past decade, I’ve found that being a music critic of any repute requires a thicker skin than most musicians could dream of owning. Putting an opinion out there, into the vast muddle of public irritation and apathy, requires a lot more gumption than people might think. On the face of it, it’s a relatively simple thing to do but that doesn’t mean anyone can do it.
Criticism is not just about having an opinion. If that was the case, Twitter would be the go-to place for all culture. Obviously, I’ve heard, and been assaulted by, the cliché that opinions are like arseholes, but in my experience not everyone has a genuine opinion. Arseholes are plentiful.
I began writing music criticism because I had a neurotic notion that by articulating, distilling and delivering my critique, I could somehow help to improve the medium. Even just writing that down, it looks like an arrogant notion but it was my springboard, my reason for bothering. I thought I could make a difference. I set about trying to destroy laziness, ridicule the stereotypes, denounce the derivative, promote the underdog, unearth the creative and shine a light on shaded genius. At the time, it seemed perfectly natural. Great, thrilling, innovative music was going unheard; piss-poor, boil-in-the-bag, all-you-can eat, drive-thru, broken lift music was everywhere you went and didn’t want to be, being feted like it was Mozart.
But sorting out the brilliant from the bilge isn’t easy. In my early attempts, I found there was very little appetite for novelty out there. There was a lot of peer influence, bandwagoneering and tribalism. The public was, and largely remains, terrified to stand out, to try something new, preferring to conform and be seen to conform. Which would be great if popular music was an art form that generally pursued novelty – but it isn’t.
Another thing I quickly learned was that such conservatism was rife in music criticism too. There was a lexicon. It seemed that critics were limited to the same handful of cliched descriptions and part of the reason for this was that it was part of the general group hug of the music scene. I couldn’t see any reason why music critics should be loved by the acts they wrote about. Then you realise, with horror, that it’s a tiny scene and people you’ve been imploring to stop doing what they’re doing and try something else are actually very nice and capable of making you feel more humble and sorry than you’ve ever been. But that’s the nature of the war on bilge.
Listening to an album or experiencing live music, digesting its contents, deciding on an opinion and then distilling that opinion into 200 words or fewer of informative, pithy sentences isn’t easy for the beginner. Some people who’ve been doing it a long time struggle with it too. It’s a tricky discipline. f the reader consumes your review, becomes informed and moves on, chances are the reviewer has done their job more than adequately. There may be more critics than ever, thanks to the internet, but the quality of criticism inevitably varies. Every music fan, even one who trusts his or her own opinions, needs some publication to use as a sounding board, to have their opinions validated or even to widen their own view. This hasn’t changed for me over the years – there are people whose opinions I trust and those whose I take with some salt, pepper and lemon juice.
But then, I’m a 45-year-old dad. Musical youth probably doesn’t believe I should care anymore. True to form, many of my contemporaries have long since given up seeking out new music and are sitting in the comfort zone of their own glory years or safe, magnolia music-for-the-masses. I mean, I do that too, particularly the nostalgic element, but it doesn’t mean I’m not listening to anything new. In fact, I live for it. It’s one of the reasons I do it – I want to find amazing things. Every week in life, I want to hear something I’ve never heard before and, most of all, I want to share this with others.
The problem is, it just doesn’t happen very often. Imagination, originality and the ability to transmit music in a unique voice are commodities in short supply, and probably have been since the mid-90s. Some people have remark that I’m snobbish about popular music but that misses the point entirely. My only proviso with new music is that it should be good – well composed, using its own, thoroughly fascinating voice and go as far as it can to avoid cliches. It’s a big ask. My threshold is high.
In 2008, I was asked to be a mentor at Dublin’s Hard Working Class Heroes festival – obviously, a lot of qualified candidates must have been busy that weekend. It was a pleasure and a privilege, meeting many enthusiastic young musicians for whom the future was full of possibility, and I didn’t want to discourage them a jot. Quite the reverse. The only thing I found myself saying over and over was beating the drum for originality. What I discovered was that many acts genuinely saw themselves as original, whether they were or not. Perhaps music is cyclical like that – if you wait long enough, you believe you can reinvent the wheel. That’s obviously how Oasis did it.
The thing is, no matter what age I was, I never was hip – or ‘with it’, ‘groovy’ or ‘cool’. I never wore the right clothes, my hair was never in vogue and I couldn’t ever find a crowd I fitted into. My peers always made a point of letting me know just how out of touch I always was. Some of them were correct, of course, but others were miles off the mark.
Take my views on ‘folk music’, for instance. I was outed as a ‘folkie’ by an editor who had perhaps read between the lines of things I had written for him. I hadn’t intended to remain in the woolly jumper closet forever but, after the musical debacle that was the turn of the century, I never felt comfortable enough to come out on my own. During this period, it seemed that spoilt, middle-class kids everywhere were picking up the acoustic guitars they’d pestered their doting parents for, taken to adopting croaky mid-Atlantic accents and inventing look-at-me, woe-is-me tales of non-existent heartache to whinny, in rhyming couplets, at literally dozens of teenage girls who had learned all they knew about emotion from Dawson’s Creek. This highly affected and soulless form of folk music became the new sexy, and any young man who thought a relatively privileged, boom-time upbringing was less than heroic simply had to ignore his shaving equipment for a few days, learn three major and two minor chords, and practice looking comfortably pained while perched on a stool. To them, the girls appeared suckers for a bleeding heart, even if the blood was fake.
As a result, what I grew up calling ‘folk’ was downgraded, considered old felt hat – too complicated, chord-rich and wordy for modern tastes. I mean, what sort of 00s’ dinner party would be lit up by Steeleye Span or Pentangle? What sort of Celtic Tiger cubs could “make out” (whatever that means) to the strains of Incredible String Band?
Anyway, the point is, the type of ‘folk’ music I liked tended to be British, mainly English, redolent of misty woodlands, fertile fields, horned beasts, vengeful witches and amorous peasants. I’m not always easily pleased but I’m still a sap for a delicately plucked guitar, a heartfelt lilting melody and an eye-watering harmony. But, much like food, the simple things in life can very often be the hardest to get right.
When I was at school, I remained a huge fan of Adam Ant after he split up The Ants. Not cool, apparently. What I should have done was grown a straggly mullet, worn some burst leather or greased denim, and got into Iron Maiden. Or “Maiden”, as they were known to those too lazy to run two words together. I liked Haysi Fantayzee too, and wore appropriately baggy brown jumbo corduroy trousers and a silly, skew-whiff cap; not cool either. What I should have been doing was getting into Seven And The Ragged Tiger-era Duran Duran. Or (still) ‘Maiden’. When The Smiths emerged, well life was hardly worth living. No, not because they were “miserable” but because they were “shite”… according to fans of ‘Maiden’. God, I HATE Iron Maiden.
I arrived in London as a 19-year-old, determined to write for Smash Hits and devour pop music week in, week out. It never happened, of course, but part of me is still that person. Waiting with open arms for something to colour in my world and force me to share it with as many people as would give me five minutes of their time.
A colleague once asked me: ‘What do you put on when you go home at night?’ The temptation to reply, ‘A smoking jacket’ proved too great to resist, but the fact was, I was too terrified to answer. If I talked about any 1980s’ music, even in the mid-’90s, people scoffed and shuffled away on invisible Zimmer frames. Yes, I could listen to neo-lounge and drum & bass in the privacy of my own dungeon but I couldn’t talk about it with people even five years younger than me because I wore a neon ‘uncool’ sign over my head. I still do.
By the late 90s, early 00s, I was becoming increasingly frustrated and actually quite bored with music. I thought it was over. But then someone who cared suggested I should articulate my frustrations, my loves, hates and passions and the rest, as they say, is a footnote at the footnote of history. As long as I live, I will still care. I’ll still shout and scream and coo and cuddle, even if it’s to an ever-decreasing audience. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve always done.