Monday, August 08, 2005


Yesterday I received an email from an editor of a magazine that I write for:

"Your observations tend to feel stock, predictable and a bit (you're going to hate me for this one) amateur...esque. Your prose doesn't feel very tight either. I was hoping you'd let it go because I didn't want to stir up any bad blood. I think you're an incredibly nice guy and I don't want you to think I'm picking a fight. I'm not. I just haven't been blown away by the stuff you've submitted in the past. I realize it's impossible to critique someone's art without it coming off as a personal affront."

Needless to say, I was at first offended and hurt. I had essentially given him my children to watch and he had returned them to me, hands over his eyes, shouting, Your children are ugly UGLY! to me and moreover, they needed braces for their awful over-bites.
I had no idea how to react. Art is subjective but maybe his subjective was better than everyone else's? I took a deep breath, paced around the room, and wrote him back. To make a long story short, he apologized an hour later.

But my ego nursing is not the intention of this post. See, I've been having a very weird reaction to music journalism these days. Granted people tend to care the least about music journalism than any other form of cultural musings. It's generally pretentious, unapproachable, self-referential and snarky. Most music writing is by journalists for other journalists. It's a creative masturbation. Look what I know and you don't.
When was the last time you read about an obscure band and immediately went out and bought the record. It won't happen too often unless you're out there searching for that sort of thing. Most purchases or discoveries happen through recommendations and through the word of mouth of friends. It's quite common that someone will call me up and ask me for new music. Based on the trust we've developed over the years, he or she will thereafter go out and purchase (or download) my recommendation. Once again, because he or she trusts me.

Sasha Frere-Jones, the pop music critic for the New Yorker, is a great example of a music journalist you can trust. But journalists cite his evocative writing so often that it's almost become a cliché. When discussing his method with a friend of mine, we were able to discern why his tone is more effective than the crap that's so overwhelmingly available in abundance. Sasha is a writer foremost. He develops scenes, scents, tastes, looks, colors and he does so sometimes even in-between words. When I sit down to write, I try to emulate his style. He writes like he is there to record pop history, observe and absorb and then share with the masses. While I do have a gripe with Sasha's subjects of choice (how many New Yorker readers are going to buy a Hold Steady album?), he writes like the musicians or band in question is the reason for the article. Frere-Jones doesn't seem to have an ulterior motive. He's there not to boost his name or craft. He is there to recommend a record to you, the reader, because he loves it (I've yet to read a truly negative feature of his in the New Yorker) This is why we trust journalists like him and Jon Pareles and Kelefa Sanneh from the New York Times. They are writers foremost. Not entertainers or clowns.

Speaking of which.... recently, the Village Voice hired wunderkind writer Nick Sylvester. Sylvester, from what I gather, is 24, a Harvard graduate, and a staff member of the sometimes-ridiculous Pitchfork Media. Currently, he is posting regular blog entries for the Village Voice website. Not that you or I read the Voice website all too often, but within the geeky music communities, Sylvester is discussed often. All the while I say, we're wasting our breath and time. Er...kinda like I'm doing now

Unfortunately, it's writers like Sylvester that take the greatness out of music journalism and turn it into a "look at me"-contest. When we read a Sylvester piece, we are being entertained by a child that so desperately wants our attention. We hardly learn new things about the band or musician he is writing about. Generally, we learn things about Sylvester. Why does this bother me so? Nick Sylvester is perpetuating the most unattractive qualities of man: self-involvement, snarkiness, gross narcissism, ugly humor, silliness, sarcasm and plenty of fragment sentences. He is the Chuck Klosterman of the blogger-age.
Not to say that Klosterman is a bad writer. On the contrary, Klosterman, when he is not writing about himself...which is like, never, is a witty, insightful voice for our time. His cover story for Spin Magazine on U2 was seriously original, exposing us to a side of Bono we're rarely, if ever, privy to. Sometimes, we'll catch a glimpse of genius. Despite the unprecedented hating and piles of mud saved for the Spin contributing writer, ultimately, he's a smart dude.

You wouldn't know that though by the reviews of his newest book Killing Yourself to Live. Based on what I'm reading, the collection of essays isn't poorly written--disclaimer: I haven't read it and truthfully, I don't plan to--but rather all the criticism points to Klosterman's prose/verbal wanking. Everything in his life exudes profoundness and everything profound generally involves him. It's obvious and apparent that Klosterman is so insecure that he has no choice but to be in love with himself. But what Sylvester and Klosterman and hundreds and hundreds of lower-tiered writers like them don't understand is that we eventually get tired of the friend that always and only talks about him or herself. After countless conversation, for once, we'd like to be asked how we're doing. While reading anything by the aforementioned me journalists, I wind up feeling neglected like it didn't make a difference whether I was reading or not. I'm not reading to feel belittled, am I? Sylvester more than Klosterman makes us feel stupid for not sharing his opinion and I semi-resent him for that. Sorry, I'm sensitive.

The reason I initially started writing was for the thrill of sharing ideas, music, and thoughts. I always considered my written word to be a small drop in the larger waters of dialogue. As both time and my career progressed, I've humbly received incredible and rewarding feedback from readers and it means a great deal to me. It's one of the main reasons for my continuing in doing this despite the occasional opposition. And while an email such as the one above can shake the foundations of my confidence (once again, I'm sensitive), it takes a few minutes for humility to set in and for me to remember that my words, like those of that very critical editor, are not the end all or be all.

I know of a few writers that could use the same reminder.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

great entry, a. i mean really, youre just circling back around to the titular sentiment behind why you started this blog in the first place. and in the most eloquent of ways. bring back sincere music journalism! lets make a tshirt. xoj.

5:26 PM  
Blogger thelonious6 said...

nick sylvester probably believes that since so many people are exposed to his material, it must be worth reading. unfortunately, in the microcosmic world of online music journalism, the garbage is easier to find than the true selfless reviews that add to anyone's bona fide interest in discovering fresh music. yes, he a douche bag, and yes, we all believe we're better off reading rolling stone than his blog on village voice. but nothing will ever change--unfortunately, he bolsters the harvard stereotype entriely too perfectly. all you can do is attempt to be more tolerant of this prick's attempt as a music critic-because at the end of the day, he's thrilled that we're wasting time discussing him.

11:45 AM  
Blogger m. said...

amen to this post. uh...but don't read my blog then. it's all about me. thankfully, no one knows who -me- is.

8:48 PM  

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