Album: Nothing’s Real
Critic: Sammy Maine
Publication: The Quietus, 2016
Writing Disorders: Detachment Syndrome, Jargon Palsy
Sammy, I like your name. One day when I get a boat, I’m going to name it the Sammy Maine. And if I ever run aground off the treacherous Rhode Island coast, there’s no doubt in my mind that AM broadcasts will shock the listener with news of the wreck — the wreck of the Sammy Maine.
Ah…“the listener.” Sammy, I didn’t think your review was sloppy or insufferable like some of the other runny meatloaf I’ve featured here on RipFork. I just thought it was dull and impersonal. So rather than complain about the writing itself, I’m going to spend a few paragraphs blabbing about a concept that’s infected music reviews for years, not just your own.
Let’s talk about “the listener.”
The listener is the viewer, the reader, the eater, the traveler, or the gamer of the music writing world. It’s the impersonal third-person recipient of a writer’s very specific takeaways. The listener is neither he nor she, only ears that listen, but ears that still listen the way you know they will.
Sammy, I’m a weird man, so for me “the listener” stands out like a rash on top of whatever clumpy music jargon like “tumblr-esque aesthetic” is already curdling the paragraphs. It’s a telltale sign of Detachment Syndrome, the first of eight writing disorders that I detail here. Look, I get that you and many other stiff, timid music writers are probably concerned about editorial distance or objectivity when expressing feelings on an art form that soundtracks everything from sex to grieving. But it boggles my mind to consider how many writers have thrown burqas over their own feelings in vain attempts to accomplish that.
Here’s what bothers me, Sammy. When you argue that Shura’s album is one that “the listener will not only relate to but will remember,” or that Shura’s delivery allows “the listener to build a connection,” it doesn’t read like someone’s unique thoughts on a collection of music. It reads like a needlessly dense press release that suggests people can enhance their lives by listening simply because they’re “the listener.”
But which listener are we talking about here? Is it the one who prefers “ex-Disney Channel superstars” or the one who craves the “notably accessible aspect” of Shura’s music? If we live in “a world” that “favours perfectly posed Instagram posts from its pop stars,” wouldn’t the listener most likely be the one going nuts for Selena Gomez because that’s the majority preference? Is that “the listener” you mean here?
Sammy, writing from this omniscient, suspiciously academic perspective drags music reviews further into a cold, impersonal hole. And for what? Why write like someone who’s a tenured music evaluator at Poppycock on Thames? You’re not a tenured music evaluator at Poppycock on Thames, Sammy. Maybe you’ve listened to more albums, have a better understanding of musical history, or have a sharper ear for details in the music. But you’re still just a listener — one listener — someone informed by her own psychology, prejudices, and preconceptions.
But that’s a good thing! I think one of the biggest misconceptions music writers have is that readers are disinterested in how writers’ personal lives affect listening experiences. But even something as simple as a writer explaining where they were when they first heard a song — that can go a long way. You might call it a “sprinkling of personality often left unexposed.” But on the flip side, refusing to open up at all can feed people’s stereotypes about music critics as emotionally stunted flakes who couch their superiority complexes behind impenetrable writing. And what’s even more ridiculous about your refusal to write in the first person is that you praise the strength of this musician’s “human aspect” in a stiff, robotic tone.
Sammy, how do YOU relate to Shura’s music? Why did this album strike a chord with you? Why did you let the music in and let your body move to the beats? Is there something uniquely Sammy Maine beyond the “accomplished performance” that made you want to put your appreciation into words? At the very least, this reader wants to know. I want to know, and I don’t think I’m alone.
All right, all right — Sammy, I lied. Now that I got all that “listener” junk out of the way, I really do want to complain about your writing because it bugged me. I promise I’ll be quick.
Let’s start with the first sentence:
“Modern Synthpop has seen the genre become an expansion of its predecessors, mixing Chicago House into its background, with more of a pop sensibility at its core.”
What’s that, you say? Pop smarts? Pop chops? Pop in the corner pocket? Nope, anytime a musician writes a song that an 11-year-old girl might find appealing, it MUST be branded with the hot iron of “pop sensibility” — so SENSIBLE, those poppers. Seriously, can the Council of Stuffy Tastemakers dream up a fresher term to describe this phenomenon in music, one that might entice “the listener” to learn more? It’s gotten so ridiculous that I’ve started tallying an informal Top Five of Jargon in today’s music reviews. Here’s where it stands today:
It changes by the week, but you’ve got two out of the five in this review alone, Sammy. And by the way, what’s with the framing of that introductory sentence? Is “Modern Synthpop” the protagonist who sees herself become an expansion of her predecessors? Since you’re married to “the listener” in this review, why didn’t you just write “We have seen modern synthpop become an expansion of its predecessors”? Again…there’s that “human aspect.”
Just one more thing, Sammy. It’s about abusing the word “the” when it comes to adjectives and verbs:
“as tracks saunter between the elated and the devastated.”
“a mish-mash of said influences with the unknown and the experimental.”
I’m starting to wonder if music writers follow any rules these days for adding “the” to words in order to come off as important or philosophical. I haven’t seen nature writers sing praises of “the aromatic” and “the pleasant” to describe a hike or videogame writers complain about “the frustrating” or “the pixelated” in games they review. Yet music critics push the envelope on a daily basis, writing praise or criticism like titles for the new fall lineup of soap operas. If you’re arguing that Shura’s music reaches for “the sublime” or conveys love in “the abstract,” that’s fine. Those are actual things. Just…tone it down a notch, please.
Okay, Sammy, that’s all for now. Don’t be a boat wreck, not yet. You love music and you’re a decent writer. Just work out the very fixable kinks. And if “the reader” doesn’t thank you for it, I will.