The Death of a Music Writer: A 20-Year Exit Strategy
This essay is longer than most, but it was important for me to write.
Three weeks ago I handed in my final music column for Towleroad. In the weeks before that, I contacted anyone who still paid me to write about music and told them I wasn’t accepting any more work. As of today, I have one more invoice to file — for about $800 — and as soon as that check is cut and cashed, this part of my life will be over. It’s the end of an accidental career.
Unlike a lot of the younger writers I’ve met in the past few years, I never had any aspirations to become a so-called “music critic.” If anything, I started writing about music as a response to how I perceived the criticism of the time. Conventional journalistic sacred-cows like objectivity and author-invisibility were valued (if not demanded) by commercial publications, while the mainstream music writer’s occasional divergences into the underground scenes with which I was most familiar revealed an almost boastful sciolism. The metaphoric representation of the-critic-as-“gatekeeper” went literal, and nonfiction writers had begun producing work in the voice of an omniscient narrator. So when Kurt Cobain showed up on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1992 wearing a shirt that read CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK, it was certainly an ironic gesture. But it also expressed how many of us felt.
In spite of this suspicion and even animus towards the medium, I decided in 1993 that my career as a health food store manager had probably peaked, and that if I had to do something for money, I should be my own boss. So I saved $3,000 and then poured it all into the launch of my own magazine. Almost overnight, I was a “professional” music writer.
When I first started writing about music, I only had two role models. One of them was a guy who interviewed his friends and wrote his magazine by hand, and the other was someone who only seemed to care about interviewing musicians for as much as he could steer the conversation into identity politics. Neither of them ever wrote about music in a traditional manner, but rather, with a deeply ingrained personal — and perhaps even fleeting — embrace of subjectivity. Still, these writers published work that was infinitely more interesting than the subjects they wrote about — in which the music itself was no longer a central focus (or in some cases, a focus at all), but a byproduct of ideologies, experience, and complex human interactions — largely because they weren’t fettered to convention. The marked presence of the writer was not an intrusion to the form, but a refreshing narrative intervention that did its own creative work. I wanted to be like them.
Anti-Matter got off to a clumsy start, but it got better. I found my own voice quickly, and the effect I was having really set in by 1995, when all of the sudden, a new generation of fanzines emerged that started to look and sound like mine. (This isn’t my ego speaking; editors often sent me their work through the mail, along with thank-you letters.) Reading these zines, I began to reflect on what I was doing: my strategy was, at turns, both empathetic and narcissistic, universal and obscure, prideworthy and cringeworthy. But more than that, these zines also somehow validated my ideas about music writing, and accelerated the process in which, for the first time ever, I began to self-identify as a “writer” at all. It was a life-changing realization. At roughly the same time, my phone rang.
“This is Rob Cherry from Alternative Press magazine,” said the guy on the other line. “I know you do your own thing, but would you consider writing a story for us?”
Even after two years of making a living by publishing my own output, the idea that someone else might want to pay me to write for them had never occurred to me.
Music writing in the 1990s experienced the same kind of upheaval we witnessed with the music itself. A new batch of writers had been culled from the underground because the commercial publishing world needed new experts, and all of the sudden, experience like mine — in the pre-Nirvana alternative and punk culture — became marketable capital. I could have milked it, but I didn’t. In fact, in almost 20 years of writing, I’ve never pitched an unsolicited story or sent clips to an editor or did anything to further my career, really. If my phone didn’t ring for a while, I just busied myself with something else — a band, a record label, a movie — until it did. My feelings weren’t hurt, I didn’t feel empty inside, it never felt like there was something missing when I wasn’t writing about music.
Maybe that’s how you know something isn’t your passion anymore. But it used to be.
By the time I moved back to New York from San Francisco in 2004, the new wave of music writers seemed to be calling themselves “critics” now. This amused me, if only because it seemed like calling yourself a “journalist” was a dirty word in 1997 and “critic” actually made “journalist” sound less pretentious. Before, we just reviewed records; now, we were expected to apply poststructuralism to the snare drum sound on Radiohead’s Kid A. Interestingly, something else happened: The magazine writer — who, in the new wave of post-punk criticism had finally become a marked presence in his or her own work — began to disappear again. It was almost as if the emergence (and short-lived dominance) of the narcissistic blogger was inevitable.
I started Nervous Acid in 2003, anonymously, and began writing about music with my self as the center again. Blogging felt more satisfying than anything I’d published in years — in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that no one paid me to do it.
For the record, I hated Brent DiCrescenzo’s writing for Pitchfork in the early 2000s. It was hyperbolic, esoteric, and borderline incomprehensible at times. I often finished reading one of his album reviews by scrolling back to the top of the page to remember what the hell he was talking about. Even Pitchfork itself seems to be embarrassed by DiCrescenzo’s review of Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity; it’s not on their site anymore, so I had to dig up the original through the Wayback Machine just to show you how ridiculous he could be. At the same time, I always felt that guy got to experience a really unique moment as a writer. For a short time, his work was instantly recognizable, entertaining in a car-crash kind of way, and totally fucking memorable. DiCrescenzo was a lot of things, but he wasn’t elevator music.
The other day I looked him up on the Internet and found an interview with him that Rob Harvilla used as part of a story he wrote on Pitchfork in 2004. It was the announcement of DiCrescenzo’s retirement.
“Writing about music is not very interesting to me,” he explained. “You find yourself having to write the same things over and over and over again. When a record’s really good, it’s easy to find things to say. When it’s really bad, it’s easy to find things to say. But when it’s just right there in the middle, that’s when you sort of have to amuse yourself.”
It’s hard to admit that I’ve been involved in something that I no longer find interesting, but it’s true. I get you, Brent.
Because the amount of thinking that I’ve done about this in the last several months is way too all-over-the-place to formulate any sort of cohesive narrative for what I mean when I say I no longer want to get paid to regularly write about music, I’ll simply list a few of the things that have weighed the most heavily on my mind before settling on my own decision to “retire.” These have been the most recurrent issues that I’ve been struggling with:
1. In spite of my good reputation for doing interviews — which I do still actually love to do — you can’t really squeeze blood from a stone. The interviews I did for Anti-Matter or for Alternative Press or for the Thursday documentary were memorable, in part, because both sides of the tape recorder agreed to let go and trust each other. But when the other side holds on — to their image, to their myth, to their ego, as so many modern bands are determined to do — the result is a form of Music Journalist Mad Libs. There are, in fact, few things that make me more despondent than when I know I’m about to write a story that’s already been told.
2. In the last five years especially, my personal taste in music has diverged so far from the critical consensus of my peers that I can no longer actually find myself in the discourse. The first thing I thought when I looked over Stereogum’s Top 50 albums of 2011 this year was that, truthfully, I don’t believe that there has ever been 50 must-hear albums to be released in any one given year. You might as well make a Top 400; it would be just as useful. But the other thing was this: I don’t care about at least 46 of the records on their list. At all. Like, you could put them on at a party and I’d probably take them off. That’s how far I’ve jumped off this train.
3. A few people have asked me why I didn’t care to throw my hat directly into the Odd Future Critical Meltdown of 2011, and I responded with what I believe to be the truth: I do plan to write about it, but not until enough time has elapsed that I can approach it from all angles in a meaningful way. Because there is more than one angle to it. In my eyes, this story became less about a group of teenage kids who will (I hope) eventually grow up, and more about a group of grown-up music writers who all seemed loathe to give up their precious “objective critical lens” and actually acknowledge that there are real people whose lives are at stake by the assumption that one can dissociate himself from words that describe physical and psychological violence towards women and gay people, and that the pretense of dissociating oneself from such violence in the first place is a result of denial or privilege or both. It’s about a new generation of music writers who were given the opportunity — but declined — to write about misogyny and homophobia in music culture with the same kind of FUCK-NO ferociousness of Lester Bangs’ brilliant (and subjective) 1979 takedown on racism in rock. Basically, I wanted someone with a powerful voice — someone at one of the major outlets, perhaps — to just say, “Fuck you. This is bullshit.” It all became very personal to me, and I’m sad to say I lost a lot of faith. But it also shook me up and took me back to the person I was before I started writing professionally: I am a first-person writer, with genuine experiences and corporeal realities that inform how I think and what I write. If you can listen to the word “faggot” hundreds of times and enjoy it via dissociation, then have at it, Impenetrable Music Critic. Someday, I’ll let you know how it feels to be a closeted sixteen-year-old kid who just found out that some friends of a friend killed a gay man while shouting that word.
As is the case with most things you do for a long time, the rose-color always gives way to blurriness.
V. THE FUTURE
To some extent, parts of this essay had to be negative. People who quit their jobs generally have problems with their job — that’s a given.
But that’s not to say that there weren’t a lot of incredible moments: I was probably the first person to write about the New York hardcore scene for a national music magazine. I got to be one of the first writers for EgoTrip, whose legend has now spawned books and reality TV shows and great success for its founders, who I respect so much. I’m pretty sure I’m still the only person who ever had the chance to write about punk rock in VIBE magazine. Matt Freeman introduced me to his father as “the person who wrote the best story ever written about Rancid,” and his father told me that this story was framed and hanging on his wall. I even published a book.
The fact is, I like writing about music. I enjoy reading about music. I adore my music-writing friends, and I always happily read their work. It’s just that it’s important for me to get back to doing it my way, to get back to doing it in a way that most people won’t pay you to write, and to get back to that place where you get to actually listen to records that you like as a rule and not as a treat for having had to slog through a stack of promo CDs you’ll most likely toss in the trash. In that sense, making a formal decision to quit writing about music isn’t just about my relationship with “criticism,” but about my relationship with music itself.
This is also to create a marker, to say that beginning in 2012, I need to establish myself as a different kind of writer. I have a short essay called “Five Reasons Why Hardcore is More Homoerotic Than Emo” set to be published in an upcoming collection for Soft Skull Press in June, and that’s a good example of the kind of music writing I still hope to engage in. But I’m also working on a book of nonfiction personal essays that engage with music only on a very peripheral level. It’s vague, I know, but when people ask, I generally tell them that This is a book about personal voids and the invisible things we use to fill them. My concerns in writing are changing.
Or they’re just going back to the start.
I didn’t become a writer to talk about records. I became a writer because I wanted to connect with people, to feel less alone, to investigate the idea that, maybe, we all keep the same secrets. For a long time I used music as a cover for that investigation. But the jig is up. I don’t have to work undercover anymore, so this is my way of saying I won’t.