Why write about music? What’s the point?
Music is vocal, instrumental, melodic, mechanical, organic, arranged, composed, improvised, audible. You listen to it. You hear it. When it hits you, you feel it. It is as much art as it is science.
With the magnitude and magic that music holds, writing about music feels like trying to recreate a Van Gogh with no paint within reach.
In 1983, Elvis Costello told Musician magazine, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture - it’s a really stupid thing to do.”
I don’t disagree. How can I? He is absolutely right, and yet I continue to spend hours a week writing about music, thinking about what I want to write about next, making sense of the why. Writing about music is intricate. There’s no correct approach, and yet there is much continuity. When you read a piece of music writing, whether in prose, poetry, journalism or other forms, music writing is recognizable and categorized as such.
As Robert DiYanni writes, “Good music writing, nonetheless, somehow succeeds in making sense; it makes sense in what it says directly about the music, and in what it suggests indirectly, in what circumscribes the music as well.”
Music writing is an autobiography of the writer, with it being nearly impossible to detach the experience of listening from the writing. Writers attempt to be objective, but even just addressing the music in question, as spotlighted and separated from millions of pieces of music, exposes bias in the choice to spotlight a particular piece. Not everything gets listened to by everyone, and not everything is focused on in writing. Such is life. We are overwhelmed by material, and gravitate towards what finds us and what we seek out.
My music writing from 2005 focusing on an album or song would be different than if I revisited the assignment today in 2015. The music is timeless, the writing is not. Maybe that is reason enough to write about music. We want to create a written record of the music during the time in which it spoke to us first.
Instilled in me as a young writer was the very fact and responsibility to honor a record by giving it your time, knowing full well that its creator spent countless hours and late nights working on sharing its soul, its self expression, its blood, sweat and tears with listeners. If someone can spend a year working on 13 tracks, I can spend a week listening. It’s a respect that is simple. This practice has strengthened my writing, and separated me from the frenzy that is contemporary digital media culture.
When music met the Internet for the first time, music journalism was changed forever. The relationships between technology and music distribution, technology and music creation, as well as technology and the written word are ever-evolving. As long as music in general continues to intrigue us, so will the human desire to sort it out in written language we can see in front of us and read and digest and revisit. The question why write about music can be answered with another question - why write about anything at all?
I agree with writer Tiarney Miekus who wrote that music writing is a church of innovation saying, “Yet to me ‘good’ music writing is Serious (even when it’s humorous) and Important (even when what’s being reviewed isn’t). This is perhaps a cringing sentiment in this postmodern heyday where one can’t innocently speak words like Serious and Important in art, without being labeled some naive sap.”
Music writing is more than headline click bait. Culturally, it needs to be more than what’s the newest, catchiest single topping the charts, more than an artist bio, more than a 400 word album review, more than three out of four stars. But for now, I am working on sharpening my swords, reading as much music writing as I can, balancing my writing work with longer form research/writing kept temporarily private and weekly blog pieces shared online to as many people who will read. I remind myself often that I haven’t forgotten to enjoy music, just as I haven’t forgotten to enjoy writing, and maybe that's why I am where I am.
What I do as a music writer is serious and important and one day it will make more sense to me. My answer to "why do you write about music" will grow into something more complicated than passion or interest or a simple "I like to," just as music writing's art and philosophy in general will continue to be refined as we navigate these strange waters together.
For now, the records will play and the words will flow.