What's the Write Word? Part 3: Greg Kot to Ann Powers

by Jason Gross

31 May 2010


GREG KOT (music critic—Chicago Tribune; author—Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music; co-host—Sound Opinions)

It helps to be slightly insane. Don’t do this unless you are absolutely crazy in love with writing and music, preferably both. It’s the same impulse that makes people want to join bands. The tangible rewards are usually negligible, especially at first and usually for a lot longer. It’s the intangibles that make it so rewarding, but you’d have to be nuts to want to do this for a living. I lucked out. I got a gig at a big-city daily. But I’d still be writing about music whether I got paid for it or not. I need it more than it needs me.

If you can’t imagine doing anything else, then get going. Just as Larry Bird learned to play basketball by shooting hundreds of baskets a day when no one was watching, a writer needs to work every day on digging out his voice when no one gives a shit. I define rock ‘n’ roll as “amplified personality.” Writing is much the same—a quest to find your true voice after you strip away all the influences and insecurities that mask it. Once you find that voice, amplify it. Make it imperative for people to hear, even if they disagree with much of what it says. Your value lies not in catering to your readers in hope that they will agree with you, but in engaging them in a spirited and frequently contentious dialogue about music. Music matters—it is one of the best reasons for living—and your readers take it very personally. You should feel the same way, and if you don’t, don’t bother.

You aren’t the last word on a subject, the great oracle who knows all, but a discussion-starter, a thought-instigator. You are a tour guide, an educated listener who steers your reader to a particular unseen back alley of music and says, “Here’s why you should pay attention to this.” Strive to educate, illuminate, and entertain. Put your subject in context, describe the music without resorting to jargon, strive to be nuanced rather than snarky, and never, ever use the word “seminal.”


JOHAN KUGELBERG (writer and curator of 20th century pop culture; author The Velvet Underground—New York Art and Born in the Bronx—A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop)

Our old pals Raoul Vaneigem and Guy Debord would often in mid-pontification, take a little break, slurp a bit of calvados, and state with a calm and clear voice that information and communication don’t necessarily correspond: that the nature of informing only goes in one direction, and that even as the attempt is to inform, one has to do that through the guise of communication.

So it that it? The snarky comments on your music blog is how your (no doubt) insightful text about the merits of “Psychotic Reaction” vis-a-vis “Carburator Dung” grows in scope and scale as the snark actually adds to the level of meaning of the original text? I think “Fuck No” is the correct response.

Music writing ultimately is about shared enthusiasm, one would hope. Fear in my heart has my nostrils flare (and my flares nostril!) as the current Heineken advertising campaign states “Don’t Listen to Critics: Be the Critic”, which as far as quality music writing goes makes me think of how blogging and snarking and waxidermying is the bane of enthusiasm, replacing it with the nasty solipsistic crapulence of connoisseurship. The idea that your choices, your taste adds meaning to your life, and that such imposition of will towards others will not only make you feel better about yourself, but also means that when you die, God and his pals are going to await you on the other side of the pearly gates holding up score cards “5.9, 6.1, 6.0”, Olympic ice skating-style, identifying just how goddamn cool and edgy and hep your cultural consumption-choices were, infusing the notion of preferring Television over Dire Straits and Burning Red Ivanhoe over Gasolin’ actually is significant in our smelly old world where what once was directly lived now has receded into a representation.

The holy troika goes as follows: you get down with a jam, you get infused with the holy spirit (Tiny Tim said that we are obliged to find out as much as possible about that which we love), and you decide that instead of being one of those creepy cultural keepers-of-the-flame, to become a raging enthusiastic pop-culture pyromaniac, attempting to set as many minds ablaze with your accumulated gnosis.

Share and spread enthusiasm; don’t player-hate, don’t snark—negative reviews are easy, and blasts of pure unfiltered happy-making are hard. Don’t succumb to the dark side. Stay away from snark. Don’t post shit-talk on forums.

All aspects of your life will be informed and infused with this. Your love life will improve, you’ll make more bucks, you’ll be a happier person and babies and babes and geriatrics will smile at you.


BEN LAZAR (writer—Deeper Shade of Soul Blog; manager, producer—Tenth Avenue Music)

Ladies and gentlemen, if you write, no matter your opinion of your own writing, make sure that you know yourself and continually create yourself to be a writer. That doesn’t mean you’re good or bad, professional or amateur, it just means you’re a writer—and it keeps you in the game of writing instead of taking yourself out for no good reason.


NORMAN LEBRECHT (author—The Maestro Myth, The Life and Death of Classical Music, Why Mahler?; international columnist and BBC broadcaster)

Write about things that matter to you and that no-one else is tackling. When I became smitten by classical music in my 20s, no one could tell me why I felt the way I did. The big-name reviewers worshipped cults of Great Composers and Great Conductors without explaining what was so great about them, and no-one dealt with the mechanics of the music business—how and why concerts and opera looked the way they did. Those were my starting points. I have never stopped.

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