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Why Writing About Music Is Hard For Me

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Music journalism and I have had a rocky relationship. If you have read any of my reviews, such as the one about Mr. Rogers’ album, you will see that I am not writing about music in a conventional way. My writing style probably drives some readers and editors crazy but you know what, I don’t care.

I read hundreds of music articles and reviews a month and, as with regular journalism, it is the unconventional reviews which break the usual rules that I find the most interesting. It is what I do here. If an album reminds me of something I want to say that is semi-related I’ll take it there faster than another rap artist gets his ass capped.

Why?

Well, it’s partially because I think music reviews that go beyond just telling the nuts and bolts are more entertaining to write and to read. I will take a review by rock critics Greil Marcus or Lester Bangs over a typical music reviewer any day and because I am insecure when it comes to writing about music.

I entered California Polytechnic University in Pomona, Cal in 1991. The school was well known for its architectural, electrical engineering programs as well as other fields. What it was not known for was its journalism program, which is the field I switched to within six months of my start there.

The bad news? The program was so small there were less than 30 students taking the newspaper part of the program, which meant everyone worked for the twice-weekly newspaper, The Poly Post.

The good news? The program was so small everyone had to work for the newspapers. I mention this not to brag – far from it – but to admit something I don’t usually share. You see, after graduation I went on to work for newspapers for about 15 years, writing an average of 10 stories a week. I wrote mostly news stories but also columns, book reviews, etc. I wrote about everything from how to build a meth lab – during a murder trial involving a fire – to serial killers, to many school board and budget controversies. There was, however, one area of journalism I steered clear of: Music journalism.

My first assignment as a newspaper reporter was to cover a fusion jazz concert. I had no idea what fusion jazz was and rather than do the smart thing – research it – I just went to the show. I listened, I took notes, and then went up to interview the lead singer. My first question: What is fusion jazz? Having shown my ignorance the interview went downhill from there. My Editor said it was barely publishable but he printed it.

My next assignment was to cover a Cajun band concert. Did I learn from my first failure? Did I have any idea what they were doing?

No.

So I began the interview by again demonstrating my ignorance asking them to explain what Cajun music was. They answered but it was difficult to evaluate how good it was when I had never heard this type of music before.

Soon I switched beats and began covering other subjects at the newspaper and when I was editor the last thing I needed to do was worry about whether I was missing some music journalism gene.

I attended some great concerts – the Untouchables, Mojo Nixon, No Doubt (back when they were good ska instead of crappy pop), Dramarama and the Meat Puppets – but I let others write about it.

But when Social Distortion came to town I decided it was time to try again. Big mistake.
I had liked their earlier albums but considered their new album a poppy sell-out. I had heard rumors that there had been rioting the day before when they played another local college.

I went on to break two tenets of journalism: Double check all facts and keep your opinions to yourself during an interview.

The guys in the band were all friendly and cool until they asked me whether I was ready to begin the interview.

I began by asking them about the riot the day before. There was no riot the day before, lead singer Mike Ness said. Rather than acknowledging that he was probably right I held my ground and he grew increasingly frustrated.

Fine, he said, let’s move on. What other questions do you have?

Well, I said, trying the oldest journalism trick in the book some say you guys have sold out.

“Who says that?” He asked. I think he’d seen this trick before.

I admitted I did.

He asked what I knew about selling out and he had a point. I began eying the door which was a good thing because it’s exactly where he told me to go.

The article was a mess, a disgrace. It was a low point in my journalism career. I swore I would never try music journalism again.

And yet, here I am. It always reminds me of the classic line, which has been attributed to various musicians: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I wonder: Am I alone in this struggle?

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://www.txrollergirls.com/hotrodhoneys/melicious.htm Melicious

    Jeez, dude. You had the opportunity to talk to Mike Ness and you accused him of being a sell-out? Seriously?

    Have you yet learned the research lesson? You know the history of Social D, right?

    I’m sad now.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com Michael J. West

    I’m right with you, Scott. To me, as a matter of fact, the concepts of music and journalism are completely at odds with each other.

    That said, I can’t stand Greil Marcus, either. I find his writing bloated and way too convinced of its own depth and importance. Lester Bangs, though–that’s what it’s all about.

  • Scott Butki

    Yeah I called him a sell out. At the time I was
    going to shows by Bad Religion, Fugazi and Seven
    Seconds and compared to them Social D sounded like they were going poppy.

    And yes I’ve regretted the question ever since which is why I still remember it and mentioned it.

  • Scott Butki

    I’m not saying I like reading Marcus. I agree that some of it is unreadable- but I like that
    he lets music take him in a direction and then
    goes with it rather than feeling a need to stick
    with a precise structure.
    Just as some music is best when it breaks the usual rules – be it Alice’s Restaurant (long) or the Minutement (short punk songs) – so is that true for music journalism, I think.

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    Yeah, Lester Bangs is probably the greatest ever. Greil was good early on but indeed became pompous and, worse, boring.

    Either of you read the more underground late great Claude Bessey of Slash?

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com Michael J. West

    I think so…I’ve got a bunch of old issues of Slash for research sake…

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    Claude was a friend, inspiration and colleague for a brief but intense while.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    Lester Bangs, though–that’s what it’s all about.

    abso-freakin’-lutely.

  • Scott Butki

    I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while
    but a few events – namely struggling to write some reviews I need to write (see how I just nicely procrastinated it) and Dawn’s piece about Rolling Stone prompted it.

    My two favorite writers about music, who similarly break rules as they do so, are Sarah Vowell (she used to write for Salon but I’m not sure if she has a current regular writing gig) and Nick Hornby (who writes for the New Yorker in addition to his novels.)

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    Vowell is hilarious. love her books. i have hornby’s songbook thing. it’s pretty good too though i don’t really share his taste in music.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com Michael J. West

    I love Vowell, too, but I don’t particularly like Hornby as a music writer. It may have just been his scathign review of Kid A–Radiohead’s best album IMO–that turned me off of him.

    But I generally have a thing against novelists doign music reviews. Whenever I read one of Dave Eggers’s columns in Spin I want to wring his fucking neck.

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    Scott, you might want to close the italics on that Mr Rogers review, it made my eyes go funny.

  • Eric Olsen

    Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

  • Scott Butki

    Eric, are you just repeating my last line or its sentiment?I tried once to track down the source of that comment but it’s been attributed to several different people.

    Christopher, Are you eyes still funny or is the problem now fixed?

  • http://www.tresbleu/blogspot.com Sister Ray

    I didn’t always agree with Lester Bangs, but a lot of the time he was spot-on. I need to pick up a copy of “Psychotic Reactions..” again.

    I wrote some concert reviews for a couple of newspapers – it can be stressful to sit through a concert knowing that you have to write something insightful about it asap, for your job.

    My biggest brush with greatness in writing concert reviews was speaking with a publicist from Interscope who personally knew Trent Reznor. I manfully (womanfully?) restrained myself from blurting out how cool that was.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Writing about music has always been fairly easy for me simply because I am such an obsessive nerd about it.

    When you know your subject matter really well it really helps. When I actually do write about it, I always try to put things the same way I would when talking to someone about them in a normal conversation.

    I managed record stores for many years so I got lots of practice recommending music to people. So again, there is no replacement for knowing your subject matter.

    I spent a lot of time in high school and college combing through rock magazines like Creem, Circus, and Rolling Stone and imitated a lot of those writers in my earliest reviews.

    I idolized Lester Bangs in those days (also guys like Robot A. Hull…anybody remember him?).
    But since my sense of humor can be a little dry, I learned through trial and error that it was usually best not to try attempts at being funny in my writing.

    Later, when I started to really like the more analytical style of guys like Dave Marsh and Griel Marcus, I started doing that type of writing and found it felt more natural. More like my true voice.

    These days though, like I said, I just try to write the same way I would talk to somebody.

    Which occasionally drives the people who end up editing my stuff positively batshit.

  • http://www.tresbleu/blogspot.com Sister Ray

    I remember Robot A. Hull and all of Creem! Loved it – my lifeline to another world during high school.
    I would not be Sister Ray today – literally or figuratively – if it weren’t for the influence of Creem.

  • Scott Butki

    Sister Ray, I’ve had that experience both with concerts and movies. That’s why I prefer reviewing dvd’s – you can go back and watch it again if you don’t think of anything profound the first time.

    It reminds me of when I had to do a preview and a review of a Meat Puppets concert.
    As a guy focused on lyrics in music I didn’t what to do with a band like that since I could make no sense of the lyrics and didn’t think of a decent way to ask so i just tried to write around it.

    I think my brush with greatness was previewing this band called No Doubt who were ska-heavy. Then they came out with a new album that was poppy and I panned it and they became the next huge thing.
    Oops.

    Then there was the time I did a newspaper profile – and an English paper – on a guy I was fascinated with who lived in my dorm. He was a Hari Krishna straight edge punk guitarist who could do things like hear a song like Sweet Child of mine once and immediately figure out how to play it. I went with him to concerts, went with him to temple.
    He played in a band with this guy named Zack.

    Zack De La Rocha.
    Of course I focused my story on Vic but Zack left that band and Rage Against the Machine became his new project and he became huge.

  • Scott Butki

    Glen, I’m jealous. I envy you -I’ve always wanted to be able to write easily about music and to
    work at record store collector.

    That’s why when I read High Fidelity I was enamored of the main character.