Your mileage may vary

Graphophone1901I made my first foray to the Oxford Art Factory this week to see a gig by Jenny Lewis’ new band, Jenny and Johnny, who were quite decent. They were supported by a band I’d never heard of called the Laurels, so, in preparation, my companions and I looked them up online to learn a bit about them. I shall now quote from the Triple J website to make sure I get the phrasing of this description exactly correct.

The Laurels are a shoegaze band from Sydney whose psychedelic juggernaut has accumulated accolades, guitar pedals and fans in approximately equal proportion.

Ignoring that I take anything labelled ‘psychedelic’ with a grain of salt and a pint of aggravation, and that my immediate response to the above sentence was ‘What, three of each?’, the above line tells you almost nothing about the band or their music. What exactly does ‘shoegaze’ mean? Is it like naval-gazing, but slightly less introspective? I googled it, but gained nothing from the experience. What is the juggernaut they speak of? Is it their music? A mascot? Is one of them really, really tall?

Elsewhere, the Laurel’s music is compared to that of the Velvet Underground. To explain the relationship of the Velvet Underground to the music we heard that night, I’d like you to undertake the following exercise. First, imagine the Velvet Underground. Now, take the Velvet Underground away. Now take another Velvet Underground away – yes, so you have a negative Velvet Underground. This is approximately what the bands had in common.

The thing is, this reminds me of any number of reviews I have read, which run along the lines of: ‘The new Screaming Kites album is like a mish-mash of Sarah Blasko and Michael Jackson with a pinch of Peregrine and the je ne sais quoi of Mark Ronson.’ They tell me nothing and are, frankly, irritating, and not only because they abuse the French language. I like to think that a description I once gave of a Shiny Toy Guns album as ‘the bastard child of Within Temptation and Rihanna’ is slightly better, if only because the phrase ‘bastard child’ is informatively derogative, but it’s all a bit the same.

All of which just goes to show the truth of the old adage that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, or that, in my prefered TV Tropes line, ‘Your mileage may vary’. It can differ somewhat, if both the writer and reader have some knowledge about music itself – let’s not forget Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music or Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, both rather excellent novels that rely on the reader’s ability to understand some pat of the music they speak about – but for anyone who has had no formal musical education, reading music reviews borders on being a total waste of time. In fact, I had eight years of formal musical education, and most music reviews mean nothing at all to me.

And at the end of the day, what is the most informative thing you can write in a music review? You may be able to write out the score of the music, but it isn’t what your readers are after. Anything else you put down will be, at best, a summary of what you observed about the music. I’ve read elsewhere, and earnestly agree, that all a reviewer can really say about a band or piece of music is ‘I did/didn’t like it’, dressed up in the language they choose. Which may be an excuse to abolish music mags, or to write reviews full of meaningless witticisms à la Dorothy Parker, so at least we can be amused while we remain uninformed.

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  1. What’s wrong with dancing about architecture? And why is music criticism more difficult in principle than literary criticism? The problem with the Triple J line isn’t that it’s a doomed attempt at the impossible task of using meagre human words to describe the sublime beauty of The Laurels; it’s that the writer is modeling their text on a marketer’s blurb.

    Here’s Mark Fisher’s classic blog on the life and music of Michael Jackson, which spawned an anthology of first-rate dancing about architecture:

    1. “I’ve read elsewhere, and earnestly agree, that all a reviewer can really say about a band or piece of music is ‘I did/didn’t like it’, dressed up in the language they choose.”

      Replace the words “band or piece of music” with “book”, “film”, “piece of art” etc. and it seems to me that this is the basis of all criticism.

      There’s a lot of terrible writing about music out there, but there’s a lot of terrible writing about *everything* out there. I’m not a musician, but I buy a lot of music and I see a lot of live music. I read gig reviews because I want to know what the show was like from a (well-informed) gig-goer’s point of view. And I read well-written record reviews (with the kind of online access we have to mainstream and niche local and international publications there are plenty to choose from) to help me decide if I want to buy the album – and also because reading about music brings another level of enjoyment to it.

      That line about the Laurels is from the band’s profile, which bands typically write themselves. So perhaps they could come up with a better bio but ‘shoegaze’ seems to me a term that doesn’t require much explanation.

      Then again, the next person who uses “sophomore effort” to describe a band’s second album dies a slow and painful death!

  2. Georgia, I sympathise with your dislike of the content-free churnalism that passes for music reviews across the media. However, I think you’re creating a false and, to be frank, somewhat elitist dichotomy. There are many kinds of music, not all of which require a formal musical training to write or read about. I have no musical training, but this is irrelevant when I’m picking tracks to buy for the radio show I co-present every week (plug: ).

    There’s no way I can listen to the thousands of tracks in the genres we play (dancehall, dubstep, funky, garage, tech), so there’s a number of sources I go to for reviews – blogs and small selective online shops. The writers can’t make you hear the music in your head, but what they do write helps me narrow down the field to a manageable field (a couple of hundred) from which to pick the dozen or so new tracks I buy for that week. Don’t think if it’s not high culture, it’s dumb populism: we have our own aesthetics and complexity in the underground.

  3. Georgia Claire, you always make me laugh.

    That aside, am wondering if you feel similarly about other forms of criticism. Do you think we get anything from literary, film or theatre criticism, coz most people haven’t had formal education in these areas? I mean we all (being presumptuous here) listen to music, read something and watch something else, and criticism helps us to contextualise and read these works.

    Do you think the difference lies in the lack of/dissimilar narrative structure?

    1. Well at least someone here has a sense of humour. 😀

      Do you think the difference lies in the lack of/dissimilar narrative structure?

      I do, actually. I find language is so flimsy even at describing other language (novels, reviews, etc) that its attempts to describe sound are almost doomed to failure. Any successful attempt I’ve had at describing music has usually been based upon a shared experience. Technical terms – such as the ‘shoegazing’ causing such kerfuffle and dismay at my musical ignorance – convey almost nothing other than to those who are already a part of the relevant music scene. Then there’s the way that most music reviewers are people who are doing it for free tickets, who frequently appear to have no experience with human language, let alone music. It isn’t conducive to useful reviews. I see more music than anyone I know who isn’t my girlfriend or a music reviewer. Reviews still mostly say nothing to me.

      That said, I have of course overstated my case. This may have something to do with the fact that my girlfriend writes for the Brag, and a good friend is actually the editor of Beat magazine, and it is frankly almost irresistable to bug them sometimes. However, it probably at least as much reflects the fact that I was being humorous.

  4. Georgia is basically just showing her ignorance here. “Shoegaze” is a legitimate term of contemporary music criticism and dates back to the 4Ad bands of the late 80s and early 90s. My Bloody Valentine is perhaps the best-known example; others include the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Cocteau Twins, Ride, Lush, Chapterhouse, and the Boo Radleys.

    And yes, the Velvet Underground are relevant to the musicology here, because they are generally considered to have started a certain stream of psychadelia which did in fact influence the shoegaze acts.

    So maybe if Georgia had done her homework, she would realise that the review made plenty of sense, certainly a lot more than her throwaway use of the dancing about architecture cliche here has.

    1. Well said. Googling ‘shoegaze’ produces a myriad of definitions, all explaining what the genre is and where it originated. Was she purposely feigning ignorance just for something to write?

  5. The ‘shoegaze’ comment you quote above is not so much about the music as the band (it seems to me). And no one has yet explained what shoegaze means. Maybe it’s about the lead singer standing there looking at the ground while performing, or what the audience does when the band performs. That review was not very helpful, but neither is the article. The problem is not music it’s about writers not knowing what a review is and what it is for.

    Tere are good reviews or critiques of anything and everything. A good review should make connections, identify themes, tease out similarities to other things like it and even go on to place the (whatever)in it’s cultural context. It should also provide evidence to support the above and should bring more people closer to understanding the thing reviewed. Doesn’t matter if the thing is a a musical, a meal, a book, film or band.

    EG: The band (insert name) is an important Sydney group….because…Growing out of the late 1980s emerging electronica scene … reflects the influences of…and ….. In addition, the ….vocals are impressive not only for their complexity, which demonstrates the four years of classical training undertaken by ….but also because…. The drummer…, clearly heavily influenced by…provides a solid ground for the etc…

    1. You’re right of course about pointing out themes and connections. However, as I’ve mentioned to Jack, above, my problem with most reviews is that they seem to have been written by teenagers whose only skill is to list bands that may have some slight element in common with the music they’ve heard, without the technical knowledge to specify what it is they’ve heard. And by technical knowledge, I mean the ability to say “their percussion style is similar to that of {whoever}”. Without some element of specificity, I think they’re wasting everyone’s time.

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