Katherine St. Asaph’s review of “The Altar” by Banks


Artist: Banks

Album: The Altar

Critic: Katherine St. Asaph

Publication: Pitchfork

Writing Disorders: Idea Fever, Infectious Punctuation, Scorn Disease (mild)


Katherine, I want to shorten your name. See, if I were a music writer I’d just go ahead and address you as “St. Asaph.” But I’m not, and your full name makes me feel like I’m writing to my Edwardian pen pal.  So forgive me if you prefer “Kat” or some spelling of “Katy,” but I’m just going to call you “Kate” from here on out.


Kate, I was on the fence about the decision to feature you here. You’d be the third woman in a row, and that’s probably tantamount to something horrible. But beyond that, you seem to radiate positive energy outside of your dreary freelancing, and I don’t enjoy scolding an earnest smile nearly as much as a sour, puckered frown.


But your writing has serious flaws, and I don’t think I’m alone in that belief. It’s full of jumbled, cluttered thoughts. It’s the kind of writing that screams out for editors over at the Pitchfork fart mill to do something resembling work. But whatever. I’ll pinch-hit for them again, but if I end up giving bad advice, just remember that I’m only an amateur.


Kate, let’s go over some basic things that can help push your writing into a state of readability. First, try to pare down your thoughts. Even your short sentences suffer from bloat. They’re painfully bloated with gas. They need relief. So let me show you what a little editing can do:


“Alt-R&B artists love to evoke turn-of-the-century R&B, albeit a version of it in which everyone was Aalihah”


Alt-R&B artists love to evoke Aalihah’s take on R&B.


“The other thing you’ll hear Banks’ music described as is “dark pop.”


Other people describe her music as “dark pop.”


“The track’s a standout, in that it sounds like it’s off an entirely different record.”


The track stood out to me because it sounds so different from the rest of The Altar.


Yes, yes, I know it’s not YOUR writing, and I understand how you might feel that I sucked a lot of gas out of those rickety jalopies. But come on — is anyone really going to argue that my rewrites are HARDER to understand or that they sacrificed the thrust of the sentences for the sake of brevity?


Kate, those were actually some of your shorter, clearer sentences. The really thick ones require a lot more attention. Few hallmarks of Pitchfork reviews irritate me quite like the overload of poorly conveyed tangential information. And it doesn’t just happen with exposition. I’ve been reading your reviews for a while now, and I’ve noticed a few trends. The most relevant here is that you’re keen on dropping the most elaborate, passive-aggressive sneers possible…but that you struggle to convey them in writing. Let’s look at one of your sentences:


“The conceit, your basic tale of fuck-the-haters-I’ve-got-self-love-but-ooh-what-kind? (in an interview with Zane Lowe, Banks boasted that it had “so many meanings,” which is weird because the slang has one or two) is so anodyne in 2016 that True Grit kid Hailee Steinfeld’s done it with mild bowdlerization.”


Ugh. All right. How…to…explain…this…


Kate, picture someone trying to juggle a soccer ball, dance ballet, and give a footjob at the same time. Any of those tasks alone require impressive coordination. But if you tried to COMBINE all three into a performance, you’d most likely end up with an embarrassing mess. It’s not so different from a sentence crammed to the brim with three complex elements. They don’t mesh well, and it’s hard to decipher the point you’re trying to convey, even if the point only ends up being your commentary on a “basic tale.”


So let me make a couple of suggestions. First, you could pare it down. Maybe keep the 10-hyphen string of words and the tangential reference to the True Grit kid. Or maybe pair the True Grit kid with the giant parenthetical thing and condense the Mandingo hyphenation into something more manageable like “derivative self-love.”


Or **BETTER YET** maybe realize that it still reads like garbage and just rewrite the entire thing from scratch, asking yourself whether you’re commenting on the music or the person and whether that might be clouding your better judgment as a writer.


See, normally an editor would do that. She’d step into the editorial process before the review got published to ensure that ideas were communicated effectively. But as I’ve lamented a trillion times before, a Pitchfork “editor” is about as useful as a plumber slow-jerking on a homeowner’s broken toilet for three hours and then leaving. So unfortunately the responsibility falls on the writers. And as you’ve demonstrated here, not all writers are well-suited for the task.


But anyway…let’s move on to a little tool called (parentheses).


“Where Banks might have brought menace to the void, she substitutes vocal gimmicks: stage whispers, clipped runs or, bizarrely, a gulped cadence that suggests she’s either choking through a straw or greeting an approaching cat.”


Kate, you really could have used parentheses in that sentence. But if you’d used them to the extent you did before, the aside would have run from the start of the sentence all the way to “suggests.” Putting that much inside parentheses looks like crap and creates such a wide gap between clauses that you force readers to go back and reread the first piece to make any sense of the second. But there’s another way to use parentheses for a more useful and humble purpose. Take a look at this:


Where Banks might have brought menace to the void, she substitutes vocal gimmicks: stage whispers, clipped runs, or (bizarrely) a gulped cadence that suggests she’s either choking through a straw or greeting an approaching cat.


I still don’t like it. I think it’s unnecessary when you could have just switched “a” and “bizarrely,” but at least it got rid of the confusing commas in your original. I think parentheses are better suited for more subtle applications, but maybe it’s because I’m a dog person and unfamiliar with how people greet approaching cats or why you thought that was the most illustrative comparison.


Kate, I didn’t like this review, but I do sympathize with your recent life challenges. By way of apology on Twitter, you explained that you’d been recovering from an illness and were in the process of moving, but that you would try to do better next time. I was pleasantly surprised at that. Normally when I tweet at people, they just block me or send GIFs of black women waving goodbye. But while I do appreciate your words, I don’t think I’m the one to whom you should be directing an apology. I think you’d be better off dropping a note to Jillian Banks, the one who spent months mapping and recording the album that you so clumsily critiqued here. You didn’t like it — that’s fine. It’s not your obligation to warm up to an album simply because the musician put in the effort. But the idea that an artist deserves a jumbled pile of snark from a writer whose main priorities at the time were packing boxes and blowing her nose — I’d say that’s the one with a “fatal flaw.”