Lately I've been coming to grips with my conflicted relationship with writing about music. Obviously it's something I like to do, but I've thought long and hard about whether I want to keep it as something I just do for myself and for fun, on these blogs and on message boards, or if I want to try my hand at professional criticism. My only real previous brush with semi-pro music writing was almost 5 years ago, when I wrote for Pitchfork. This was kind of back before they were the behemoth that they are today, although they were well on their way at that point. (I was there at the time of the infamous "wizard's cap" Kid A review, which at the time brought a big jump in hits because this was at the peak of the Napster stuff and it was a big coup for them to download and review it weeks ahead of time and beat all the print mags to the punch.) I was pretty aware of their flaws and limitations even before I got inside the organization, but I thought that once I was in I could do my thing and maybe thrive. I didn't really fit in with the house style, though, which at the time moreso than now was really jokey/snarky/conceptual reviews, none of which I really did. They'd actually add jokes and humorous asides to my reviews, which were apparently too dry for Pitchfork. After 3 months of grinding hard to meet deadlines even though I was broke and couldn't afford to buy CD's and had to depend on promos that were always mailed out late, and was on the bottom of the pecking order so I end up with the really bad no-name promos and wrote a lot of negative reviews (but didn't take the opportunity to give exaggeratedly low scores or write a funny crazy high concept review), I was kinda relieved when I was let go after having a spat with Schreiber.
So that kind of left a sour taste in my mouth, as far as the whole writing for other people thing. I realized for one that I wasn't wild about word counts, and I like to be able to say exactly as much or as little as I have to say without having to chop it down or pad it out. Plus my real ambitions have always been with making music, not writing about it. I have enough respect for criticism that I'd like to do it well if at all, but if I had to choose I'd rather make ok records than write great reviews of them, that's just where my priorities are. And while there are plenty of respectable critics who are also musicians and I don't really buy the critics-are-frustrated/failed-musicians line, I think that most really good critics are pretty happy doing what they do and just don't have an itch to scratch as far as making their own music, which is fine. But for me, if I was just a critic and nothing else, I would be a frustrated musician.
But then, I started a couple blogs, and in the past year I've probably written more about music than I had in my entire life before then. It was still a comfortable distance from 'real' criticism, though. In the past 3-4 years that I've been an active participant of ILM and, subsequently, the blogosphere, I've gotten a pretty good glimpse at the world of music criticism and certain communities of critics. And while I've gotten to interact with and to some degree get to know a number of published critics (several of whom are linked on the right), and respected their ambitions in that field and wished them well in racking up bylines, I was still pretty convinced that that was simply Not For Me, and was pretty content burning my free time and energy detailing new and sometimes ridiculously obscure rap music on Gov't Names, just because I'm a nerd and that's my idea of fun. I mean, blogs have really spoiled me as a writer. I never have to worry about editors or wordcounts or who my audience is. I don't have to worry about if something's relevent enough to write about. You can assume a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader without having to over explain anything. And this can make for insular, in-jokey writing, but for me it's been pretty crucial when writing about hip hop, where there's a few miles of subtext underneath any given song and it feels condescending to go over all of it every time.
In the past couple months, my mind was so far from the notion of reviewing records for someone else's publication that I had seriously considered asking Pitchfork to remove my name all my reviews, to erase any evidence that I had once been a real critic in any capacity. I just didn't want it to be Googlable anymore. The only thing that really stopped me is that I couldn't think of a suitable alias to tell them to use, or a way to make the request without it sounding like "I'm embarrassed to be associated with your site". Which I kind of am, but it doesn't really matter that much. Besides, I can probably name a couple dozen past or present Pitchfork staffers who I can vouch for as writers and/or as people. So I don't mind being in that company. And I'm not particularly proud of any of my reviews for them, but I'm not quite embarrassed either. I was 18 at the time, and by that token, they're alright. But so little of it was about music I gave a rat's ass about, and if I look to them for anything now it's to learn about my weaknesses as a writer.
But anyway, after all this convincing myself I didn't want to be a critic, a funny thing happened. Last week, out of the blue I got 2 e-mails in the space of 3 days, from editors from publications I read and respect, asking me to write for them. I was on the verge of politely declining the first when the 2nd arrived, and at that point I started to think maybe this was an omen that I was being stubborn and shouldn't ignore the opportunities I was being given here. That, and it all came as too much of a ego boost to treat ungratefully. Let it never be said that I'm invulnerable to appeals to my intellectual vanity. So I said yes to both, and I've been turning it over in my head ever since, regretting the decision one minute and being completely at ease with it the next. But mainly I know it was the right thing to do and I just need to get over my hangups and reprogram myself out of a few years of aversion to writing in any kind of mediated or controlled environment.
What I'm most intimidated by, oddly enough, isn't having to not write like a blogger. I'm more afraid that I'm going to swing too far in the other direction and try too hard to write like a real critic. I know how I can freeze up in front of a generalized audience. That's how I ended up with those dry, stiff Pitchfork reviews. And even though both of those editors persued me on the basis of my blog writing and have no intention of messing with the voice I've already established there, I know I'm going to have to really struggle against certain instincts just to preserve that voice in the forum they're giving me. On the upside, I have a lot more freedom write about what I want to write about now. One of the reasons things didn't work out with Pitchfork is that I didn't come in as the token rap guy, so it was an uphill battle to get permission to write about any rap at all, and ultimately I lost. But now that I've got a couple hundred Gov't Names posts under my belt to show I can write about it, my new editors will probably expect me to write about rap to the exclusion of other music more than I want to. That's a minor detail, though. Bottom line is, I can and do enjoy writing in a way that's suitable for proper record reviews, and I look forward to trying my best and applying all the skills I've learned and preferences and opinions I've acquired since the last time I tried. And if things go well with these 2 gigs then maybe I'll really get out there and start freelancing. But one step at a time.
Labels: Baltimore City paper, Pitchfork, some shit I wrote, Stylus