Robert Christgau to Deena Dasein
I’ve been asked the best way to write a record review for decades, and I always say the same thing. First, figure out what you really like—not what you’re supposed to like, not what you wish you liked, and please please please not what your editor wants you to like. Second, figure out the actual reason you like it, as distinguished from a cool argument for why it’s good. Third, use your writing skill, your emotional investment, and your sense of humor to transform that actual reason into a smart and/or funny and/or compelling and/or intrinsically interesting argument for why it’s good. Maybe even a cool one.
This process takes time. First of all, listening time—I’ve found it all but impossible to complete an album review I’m proud of until at least 48 hours after I’ve first heard the music (72 to 96 is the preferred minimum), and would strongly advise against reviewing a single without giving it multiple plays over the better part of a day (hahahahaha). And then there’s writing time. This has only taken me half an hour or so, but I’ve been thinking about these matters for 40 years and have translated my conclusions into language many times before (and I bet I’ll start having word-choice and omission regrets within minutes after I hit send). Sometimes you get lucky, and plenty of good writers are faster than I am. Most of them, however, are not. Good writing takes time. Good writing takes time. Good writing takes time.
IRWIN CHUSID (WFMU radio personality, author, historian, and ex-journalist)
Write about music because you’re passionate about it. If you don’t love music, write about something else.
Remove yourself from the story. The story is about the artist, not about you, where you discovered their music, or that they vomited on your sneakers. Delete all first person refs about the girl who dumped you, how little sleep you got the night before, your loathing for major labels, or your Catholic hangups. Write like a focused journalist, not like an adolescent craving attention.
Don’t expect to get paid for your writing. Doesn’t mean you never will, but it can’t be your primary objective. Write because you feel compelled to express an opinion, but keep your day job. If you don’t have a day job, get one.
Don’t dismiss major artists or knock what’s popular. Some hipsters need something to sneer at. It’s an obnoxious bottom-feeder pose.
Keep your politics out of the story. If you’re writing about music, your political views are irrelevant, intrusive, gratuitous and probably banal.
Read other writers and note what you like and what you don’t. Celebrity writers often commit egregious sins; obscure writers can exhibit immense talent and ingenuity. Learn from both.
Drop the words “virtually,” “literally,” and “basically” from your vocabulary. Sean Hannity owns them.
If you are assigned a word limit, try not to exceed it. If you do, don’t complain when an editor makes cuts to your Pulitzer-grade prose. That’s what editors are trained to do.
Revise, rewrite, refine. Good writing rarely occurs in one draft. And for your dignity’s sake, use spell check.
JOSHUA CLOVER (former senior writer—Spin, The Village Voice; current professor of English Literature)
In the ‘90s, when I was a music journalist, I wrote for several venues, from ‘zines to free weeklies to glossy nationals. The amount of self-determination one had—which words, to say what things—was inversely correlated to the amount paid. This was absolutely the case. One job of editors was to enforce this, while making it seem like it wasn’t a rule at all—that it was natural, or that it wasn’t actually the case. Because this is an invariant rule, one makes decisions within this context.
I don’t imagine this industrial rigor could have vanished. But clearly music journalism has changed. I figure going into music journalism now is a bit like going into shoemaking; it’s not something that individuals make a living at anymore, so you better fucking love it and you better make insanely beautiful shoes. If you’re just going to compete with factory-made shoes for a tiny slice of the affordable shoe market: ugh.
BYRON COLEY (columnist—Arthur, The Wire, Bathyscaphe, etc.)
It’s unclear to me why anyone would—given the extant models—want to become a music writer these days, but aberrant behavior is nothing new, so I’ll assume that when Jason says it is true, it is true.
When I started doing this crap, in the mid-‘70s, I was well aware that rock scribe was the bottom rung of all cultural ladders, but there were heroic weirdos who made it seem like it’d be fun to do (R. Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Robot Hull, Metal Mike Saunders, Andy Shernoff, Nick Tosches, Nick Kent, Mick Farren, etc.) and that was enough of an impetus. I was happy enough to get free records, a few bucks, and be able to write about musicians I genuinely dug.
As time when on, however, I found that the vast majority of paying gigs had to do with stuff I wouldn’t walk across the street to wipe my ass with. But for whatever reason, I managed to resist the lure of the lucre (although I did take ad copy gigs and write crappy bio paperbacks about utter turds), and although I never made much money from the writing while it was happening (apart from a few brief years where I was the Underground Editor at Spin), I actually feel pretty good about what I did. My juvenalia can be styistically labored and somewhat questionable aesthetically, but it was all written from a position of caring deeply about music, and trying to express that as well as my poor skills would allow.
I could have made a bit of money at it if I’d been willing to kneel before popular altars, but my long-suffering wife of 30 years has managed to keep herself employed in a manner that I have never had to. So my real advice is this—if you really and truly want to write about only those things that move you, marry above your station. Unless your taste is so populist you actually wanna ponder the hits of the day, there’s just no other way to do it.
DEENA DASEIN (freelance writer—Illinois Entertainer, etc.)
Want to write about rock in order to earn a living, hang with your favorite musicians, and get tons of swag? If so, I’ve got just the thing for you, the sign on the entrance to Dante’s version of hell: “Abandon all hope…” You’re too late for the party—that ship sailed decades ago. The few rockcrits still enjoying such bounty are on the endangered species list as magazines and newspapers go belly up.
But if you wish to write rock criticism because you love to do it, this is your time. The Internet and the current cult of the amateur will allow you to hone your craft without having to don the straight-jacket strapped on those who went pro. You won’t be required to genuflect to the rockcrit worldview—with its canon of saints (Bangs, Cobain, ad nauseum), party line of acceptable artists, and required verbal tropes like “visceral.” Nor will you have to kowtow and hype the newest corporate crud.
You still need to know as much about music as before—the various histories of styles, artists, scenes, labels, and fan-bases. And beyond music, you should have a grasp on the world, allowing you to provide value-added contexts to your reviews.
Obviously you need to distinguish your work from the cybertrash of those who don’t know the difference between venting opinion and making informed judgments that appreciate an artist’s work on its own terms.
What you get out of this is a wider and deeper taste and, maybe, Pitchfork might pay you enough for your morning coffee, if you take it black.