For every person in the world, music is a personal feeling, and is one of the most subjective arts there is. Last month one of my favourite musicians of all time, David Bowie passed away. This made listening to his last album, ‘Blackstar’ a very emotional experience for me. The album captured the mixed feelings of someone I had admired and looked up to since my mid teenage years as he went through the final stages of his life, and made it a difficult listen.
Despite having strong personal feelings towards the music, when it came to reviewing the album I stalled and couldn’t find an angle to take on it. How was I supposed to objectively review something that can’t be anything but personal to the listeners previous experience with Bowie’s music? How was I meant to be a ‘voice for everyone’ as so many editors for magazines tell you to do, when that entails not only separating your own experience somewhat, but also having no particular audience in mind, and not even acknowledging other interpretations.
Objectifying music in writing has been happening for so long now that new writers – such as myself – spend so long attempting to perfect the art of how to write a review in an objective and unbiased manner, that it starts to drown out the reasons why they started. Music isn’t unbiased, and when you’re writing objectively in this way, you’re not giving recommendations, you’re not even attempting to educate people who want to learn about music – the only audience is going to be other music writers and the only people whose egos are being stroked are the authors’, not even the musicians’.
Music writing needs its personality back. This doesn’t mean we have to say ‘I feel this way and it’s MY OPINION’ in every single review, but there is something so sterile about the way in which art is reviewed. The human race is built to connect with other people’s emotions and feelings, and if no one is inserting themselves or their personalities into their reviews then there’s very little chance that people are even going to be interested in your recommendations. It’s the reason why so many people merely look at the score when reading album reviews. The amount of people who go to album reviews to read it are either A) Music writers themselves, B) personally invested in the author of the article, or C) needs their opinion validated on an artist that they’re incredibly invested in. I don’t need to stress how detrimental this is towards independent artists struggling to get anywhere; if they don’t get that Best New Music tag, or aren’t reviewed by an infamous writer, they have little hope.
There is always a certain level of objectivity involved in music writing, as inserting personal politics can be a dangerous thing distracting from the art. We’ve got to a point where think-pieces try to capture a moment of culture and say ‘this is how it is’ without recognition of other interpretations. But if articles are written in a manner in which they portray it as their point of view, and a passionate interpretation, then it’s another voice in a conversation. Not only that but another passionate voice in a conversation does a lot more to engage people than a flaccid review written in a way that sounds like an exclusive members only club.
Roger Ebert could command what films people would go to see much like Anthony Fantano does with his fanbase. Ebert was a lover of film and it was shown in his reviews, which is why he eventually became one of the most famous film journalists of all time. You got the impression that this was a man who loved what he was doing, and inserted himself into every picture he saw. Fantano does the same to a certain degree; standing in front of a camera gives the audience no option to hear this man’s passionate and honest opinion. Although Fantano may have people who don’t enjoy his reviews (or some of his fanbase), there’s no way that any one of them can detract from the fact that he’s passionate.
There are brilliant music writers out there, who know how to structure their reviews in ways that are personal and engaging, but this isn’t the mainstream. The mainstream reviews and articles we see either have too much business behind the writing, or are deliberately obnoxious to garner clicks. The amount of parenthesis inserted into reviews these days in order to sound more clever than they need be, is incredibly exclusive to anyone outside of that world. Both of these attempts to garner readership are unsustainable so long as people aren’t inserting themselves into music. I, myself have been guilty of writing in this manner as someone whose up and coming in music writing, and has seen the way in which other writers write, I’ve been influenced by the music writers of now.
This month I have been taking part in the ‘Music Writer Exercise’ (or #MWE), in which you listen to an album that you’ve never heard before and write a one tweet review on it. It has been so refreshing to see so many voices in conversations about music, and seeing people coming up with the most inventive ways to capture how an album sounds in 140 characters. This is what music writing should be about; spreading the word, not treating music simultaneously as dispensable and exclusive to the people with the highest word count.