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“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” So goes the grossly overused quote that has been attributed to everyone from Martin Mull to Frank Zappa to Elvis Costello. Regardless of who said it first, the meaning remains the same. Music criticism is inherently difficult: a fool’s game at best, a farce at worst.
That’s exactly why I love music criticism. And why I’ve devoted a huge chunk of my writing career to it over the past twelve years. It is indeed fundamentally difficult to put one’s feelings about music into words. It’s even harder to do so in a way that communicates even a fraction of the feeling that music can engender in us. Who hasn’t, at some point in their lives, read a music review that made them scratch their head and wonder, “What the hell is this person talking about? What are all these elaborate, distended metaphors for electric guitars, and why should I care? Who is this person, anyway, who presumes that their taste in music is somehow more valid and important than mine?”
I used to feel that way. Sometimes I still do. It’s that feeling of loving frustration with the limitations of music journalism–of dancing about architecture–that inspired me to become a music journalist in the first place. And that continues to inspire me.
On Saturday, March 2, I’ll be teaching a one-day, three hour class at Lighthouse titled Intro to Music Reviewing. It’s the first time this course has been offered, and I’m exceedingly excited about it. I’ve been teaching nonfiction at Lighthouse for eight months now, and my current and former students can attest to the fact that I sneak music criticism into my curriculum every chance I get. Even among other types of criticism–art, film, literary, etc.–music criticism is unique. It’s part journalism, part memoir, part rant, part poetry.
It’s also a great way to break into professional writing. In fact, that’s exactly how I did so–first at Westword, then at The Onion A.V. Club, Alternative Press, and beyond. Each of those opportunities built my confidence, my chops, and my momentum as a writer. They also led–in some cases directly–to the books I’ve written or contributed to.
In my Intro to Music Reviewing class, the emphasis won’t be on how much you know about music or even where your particular tastes lie. Any knowledge level or area of interest is warmly welcome. Even if you’d had some experience writing music reviews, my years as an editor for The Onion A.V. Club will help you sharpen those skills and point them in the best direction. Overall, though, it’ll be a fun and insightful way to stretch yourself as a writer–and maybe even discover something new in the quirky synthesis of voices and styles that is music criticism.
Music is a profoundly intimate means of artistic expression. It’s also a staggeringly popular one, especially now that it’s become increasingly easier to surround ourselves with music during every waking moment of our lives. That’s why it’s more crucial then ever for music writers to pay close attention to the sonic wallpaper that blankets us–to pause it and parse it and appraise it. To examine it with both telescope and microscope. To take it apart and put it back together. To build it into something functional yet artful.
Kind of like architecture.