Why do music writers seem to care more about music than writing?
The worst journalism in the world happens in music reviews. And the worst music reviews aren’t written by aspiring college journalists. They’re written by middle-aged white men who should know better.
From 2000 to 2008, I was an editor at the world’s largest jazz magazine – which you’ve likely never seen. It’s called JAZZIZ, and it was mortally wounded during the Great Recession. It’s dwindled from an 84-page monthly to a 42-page quarterly.
I left JAZZIZ when it fell three months behind on paying its freelancers a measly $40 per review – at the same time the publisher bought himself a new BMW sedan. Such is the life of an entertainment journalist.
When I was hired as assistant editor (I later became managing editor), I inherited 15 reviewers, all white guys between 30 and 60 years old. I was also the part-time adviser for a college newspaper a few miles away. I quickly learned the students were better writers than the old farts. They were more eager to learn, too.
Jazz musicians tend to believe they’re better than everyone else: smarter, deeper, and nobly toiling in obscurity to preserve an art form the rest of humanity is too stupid to appreciate. Not surprisingly, such pomposity rubs off on the reviewers who critique them.
So you can imagine how hostile those reviewers were when I challenged them on the basics of comprehensible writing. The only tactic that succeeded even a little bit was quoting their own crappiness from the 12 monthly issues before I took over.
Looked like this…
10 Tips for Shitty Reviews
Dearest JAZZIZ writers, please avoid the following. Everything in quotes actually appeared in your reviews this past year…
1. Useless lists of names
“Selections are dedicated to Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Keith Jarrett, and Chick Corea, and are written by Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, and George Shearing.”
Nothing stops readers deader in their tracks.
2. Vague, lazy writing
…about artists whose “music is often pretty challenging” and perhaps “possibly groundbreaking,” although it “goes a bit overboard” and needs “a good deal more variation.”
Oh, and they “record somewhat sporadically.”
3. Thick, dull writing
…about soloists who “took part in some key junctures of the music,” duos who “are able to find mutually stimulating modus operandi,” and trios who “entered the jazz peerage rather surreptitiously.”
My kingdom for a crisp and concrete fact.
4. Shows off
…by dropping a lot of musical jargon – “playing contrapuntally,” “right-hand filigree” – instead of describing the music in plain English.
This doesn’t make you cool. You’re just a reviewer. Nothing can make you cool.
5. Offers advice
“I hope that on his next album McCoy will once again play like himself and maybe extend what he’s been doing.”
No one cares about your hopes. When reviewers die, no one weeps.
6. Makes no fucking sense
“On the title track, the 62-year-old Newark native’s moiré baritone and pastel piano paint a moist picture of a tantalizing assignation.”
No one wants a pastel piano or a moist picture.
7. Ignores the album
Opens so broadly – “Jazz has spread the world over, but the world has also found its way into jazz” or “Although the big band era was finished by 1955, its demise had begun at least 10 years prior” – that it takes half the damn review to sum up the history before critiquing the damn album.
8. Wastes adjectives
“Funky beats.” “Soaring anthems.” “Crunchy guitars.”
Aren’t all beats funky? Aren’t all anthems soaring? And trust me on this: Nobody knows (or cares) what a crunchy guitar is.
9. Makes hyperbolic predictions
“So The Manhattan Transfer as we know it will certainly be around for another 28 years.”
Half the group was born in the 1940s, the other in the 1950s. They probably won’t be alive in 28 years.
10. Tries too way hard
“Wha-hoo! Dat you, Dan Hicks? Man, last time I heard any new music from Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, I was still single, in college, and about 20 pounds lighter. One pound of that was hair, and all of that hair was black – none of the white stuff I’m sportin’ up top my head and beard these days.”
If this last one is lost on you, we have no further business to conduct.
Just over half of the reviewers improved, most reluctantly and/or marginally. About half wouldn’t budge, so I gradually fired and replaced them with younger, hungrier, and better talent.
Alas, my efforts didn’t survive my editorship. Here’s the first paragraph of the latest review on the JAZZIZ website…
A palpable strain of melancholia has long been a hallmark of the arts in Argentina, whether expressed through the brooding short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, the sonic turbulence of Astor Piazzolla’s tango nuevo or the stormy neo-expressionism of composer Alberto Ginastera’s symphonic works. It’s little wonder that the Buenos Aires neighborhood said to have the world’s highest per-capita concentration of psychologists is called Villa Freud. If angst jazz has a birthplace, Buenos Aires, a lovely but inward-looking metropolis, can certainly lay claim to it.
…which, of course, doesn’t even mention the artist or the album.
So to all you aspiring reviewers still in college: Take heart. If you can just not suck, you’ll always have a shot.