What is this? The year is over already? My latest batch of kids were born just before Thanksgiving, and in some ways, I never mentally made it past that second weekend in October. I haven’t listened to much music since then, and certainly haven’t heard anything new. Like two of my favourite, Tom Waits and Kathryn Calder, have put out new albums, but I haven’t listened to them so I can’t put them on the list. Lulu, the universally panned collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica that inspired some of the laziest music reviews of the decade? Haven’t heard it.
Hey hey, you’ll say, why don’t you listen to them now, Emmet? What, and risk waking up the babies? Are you crazy?
I was originally going to write here about how I’ve stopped listening to music and can no longer write about it with any authority, in a kind of backwards spin on Dan MacRae’s excellent 3-part examination of the entrails of his own musical taste. But, y’know what, forget that. As I was drafting such a self-serving and dull essay, cycling through the many, many music files I’ve been sent over the last few months and until now ignored, I heard No Gold‘s “Council Jam” and I got excited.
And then I wondered if I could find another 15 songs from the last year that really got me excited to listen to or write about music.
And then I thought back to what Richard Meltzer told me, back in 2000, when I asked him (even then, I was DONE with this racket) if there was any point in writing about rock music anymore.
Well, sure. The problem is not so much the music–the music has become a very non-specific thing. It’s just a big inescapable aspect of culture now. We’re in a state of what you might call Rock Surround. You can’t get away from it! When I started writing about it you had to seek it out, you had to find it. You had to meet it at least half-way.
In 1967 there weren’t 20 good bands in the world. And then in the seventies, they realized they could make a killing off this and it went from 20 bands to a thousand. It was really hard to be focused anymore. You were forced to pay attention to just too much and it was impossible.
One of the problems now is you have to write your way out of the Rock Surround. You certainly have to write about how it impacts on your own life. But systematically, it’s important to be distanced from it, not so much because you want to be an objective journalist-whatever the hell that is–for your own sanity you have to be not owned by it. Not under its thumb.
I just think that with the notion of truth, subjective, objective, whatever, the only thing you can be truthful about is what you know, the shadow of the stuff in your own playpen, things you have a palpable sense of experience of. That’s what you should write about.
I think a lot of work has to be done in ignoring the immensity of it and writing about any little particle of it. It’s a big monster, rock. And it exists for certain pre-ordained reasons that were not part of the package once. Part of what it’s there for is to make people stupid. To make people cease to resist. It’s crowd control.
“The shadow of the stuff in your own playpen,” Meltzer said. “That’s what you should write about.” I don’t know, is that what I’ve been writing about all along? Myself? (I’m definitely writing about me now.) I’ve never been that interested in writing about music. To the exclusion of all else, at least. Music was the foot in the door, the conversation-starter, but here we are 14 years later, still starting the conversation.
Back in 1997, when I started, if you were going to write about music you really had some kind of obligation to write about music. Unless you were filing a late review or reviewing a hugely successful band who was getting lots of radio airplay, your readership probably hadn’t yet had any opportunity to hear the music you were writing about. You were the reader’s ears. You had to describe and define what you were talking about before you could even talk about it. You really had to work for your stylistic flourishes.
#13 Destroyer‘s “Kaputt”
Nowadays with the Soundclouds and the YouTubes and the MegaUploadRapidShares, it takes less effort to hear music than it does to read about it. Nowadays, your typical record review is either three sentences long or features frequent abuse of the term “Wizard Hat”. Time marches on.
#12 Louise Burns‘s “What Do You Wanna Do”
I’ve written my share of Wizard Hat reviews. Specialized in ’em for a while. My first real off-topic bit was a review of a Zappa reissue. It got the attention of Toronto editor who asked if I could put in more jokes. I told him I’d get back to him and then I didn’t. I thought, back then, that I mighta had it in me to be a serious music critic. A tastemaker, hell, a kingmaker.
#11 Las Kellies‘ “Perro Rompebolas”
I tried to hear everything. I wanted to know all the important singles from Sun Records, Stax Records, Stiff Records. I wanted to know which Rolling Stones albums were empirically better than which Peter Gabriel albums. I read Spin, I read Greil Marcus, I read Addicted to Noise. I went to a lot of shows I didn’t enjoy.
#10 Godstopper‘s “Clean House”
I’m not happy with the direction this fake-essay has taken. I didn’t set out to start every sentence with the letter I. But there it is. I wanted there to be more jokes. I wanted there to be more opera.
#9 Bohren & Der Club of Gore‘s “Zombies Never Die (Blues)”
Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Zombies Never Die (Blues) by PIASGermany
I’ll say this, music writing’s a great thing to do. Especially if you’re just starting out writing. I can think of no other place where you’re allowed as much freedom to A) write poorly and B) write wonderfully. You can publicly doubt the existence of Joe Jackson’s Night and Day album or you can try to be clever.
#8 Wild Flag‘s “Romance”
I didn’t mean to spend a decade and a half writing record reviews. At one point it seemed like all my favourite contemporaries had started writing about movies, or film, or cinema. It seemed like, maybe, there was more to say there. But I don’t like movies. I like going to the movies, sure, but even more than music writing, movie writing seemed to be a lot about talking down to people and by the point I started looking at that, I was done with talking down to people.
#7 Howe Gelb & A Band of Gypsies’s “Uneven Light of Day”
I worked at a newspaper for a while. While I worked there I wrote some really nasty reviews. One of my nastier reviews targetted Bon Jovi. A co-worker, someone demonstrably smarter and more successful than me, told me that she felt really stupid for liking Bon Jovi after reading my review. What an asshole, she was too polite to say. I said it for her, the next time I looked in a mirror.
I stopped listening to music so that I could make fun of it–and usually its fans–and started listening to try to understand why people who liked it liked it at all. I had great breakthroughs with country music.
#5 Rye Rye‘s “Hardcore Girls”
I enjoyed writing about music again. It wasn’t about coming up with clever putdowns, it was about investigating pleasure. It was about listening to other people’s ideas and reporting back. It was about, “hey, you’ve gotta hear this!”
#4 Ringo Deathstarr‘s “So High”
Probably the best thing I ever did as a music writer was take two years off. I just did other things. For the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t getting CDs in the mail. I discovered I had other talents and other interests. Some of those would eventually feed back into my writing, music or otherwise, some of them I just let serve no grander purpose.
#3 Mountain Goats‘ “Damn These Vampires”
What I’m trying to say is that I was going to walk away. It’s time for me to do other writing. Something other than this all the time. I haven’t got that part figured out. To me, at least, spending 14 years in music writing feels like spending 14 years in high school.
#2 Marcellus Hall‘s “The First Line”
But I’m not walking away. Not now at least. I’m going to do more Other and less This, but I’m still going to do this. Who am I kidding?
#1 Bill Callahan‘s “America”
Emmet Matheson is a freelance writer who blogs at A Bulldozer With a Wrecking Ball Attached. You can e-mail him at: bulldozerDOTwreckingballATgmailDOTcom