“The world don’t need any more songs.” —Bob Dylan
If you follow me (or the AV Club) on Twitter, you probably read yesterday’s collaborative post between Steven Hyden and Greg Kot, titled How Long Does It Take to “Get” an Album? It’s a thoughtful piece, and although it’s pretty well summed up in its title, it justifies its length with some thought-provoking questions and excellent points about one of music criticism’s most enduring debates.
I read the article with great interest, both as a critic and as someone who has written at length about our changing relationship with music, and while I ultimately would have preferred a more personal/emotional analysis of the issue, it certainly sparked a lot of discussion among the Popdose crew — we’ve been talking about it for the last 24 hours — and it jarred loose some thoughts I’ve been mulling over for the last few months.
For most of my life, I’ve been what you could politely call a voracious music fan. (“Obsessive” or “needlessly acquisitive” would also fit.) If something was out there, I probably wanted to hear it — especially if it was weird or potentially very shitty or seemed to have no reason to exist. I never had to like an album, I only wanted to experience it. I didn’t want to miss anything. Because who knows where you’re going to find your next favorite song? It could be proudly emblazoned in the grooves of a Grammy winner, or tucked away in the dusty corner of a long-forgotten Asia album. Hope springs eternal.
Or it did, for me, until sometime last year, when that lifelong compulsion to listen started to ebb, and I found myself merely craving the comfort of the songs I already knew by heart. Part of it, I’m sure, is simply a byproduct of edging into my late 30s; no matter how open to new sounds you are, I think you’re bound to reach an age when nostalgia overtakes you. But it’s more than that. I was tired.
I’ve always been sort of ambivalent about writing reviews. I started doing it in the late ’80s, back when critics, though still maligned, functioned as gatekeepers and heralds. Commercial radio didn’t suck nearly as much as it does now, but there was still a relatively small subset of new releases that made its way onto the airwaves (or onto MTV); if you were really curious about what was out there, you had to browse the release sheets posted at your local record store and/or in the back pages of Billboard, and then leaf through the review section of your favorite rag. (And there were a lot more rags to choose from then, too.)
It’s important to point out, though, that no one I knew at the time intellectualized it this way. Writing reviews was just something you did if you wanted to write about rock & roll, especially if you were a young grunt shucking and jiving your way up the ladder. It was an easy way to pocket free music, and less nerve-wracking than doing interviews. The pay wasn’t great, but the new releases never stopped coming, so if you were willing to put in the time, you could grab a lot of work for yourself.
And often burn out in the process, which is what I did in the ’90s (twice!), and which is why, when I stumbled back into writing about music with Jefitoblog, I mostly avoided new reviews. There were zero stakes — I didn’t think of myself as a critic anymore, or even really a writer. It was just about me, my experiences with the music, and a surprisingly addictive dialogue with a growing number of readers. Five years later, I was writing anywhere between two and ten CD reviews a week.
So what changed? A lot of things, most of them gradually. I started writing professionally again, and the pay still wasn’t great, but there were more new releases than ever — and all kinds of new ways to get them. Trying to cover it all — even a small chunk of it all — is like sitting at a trough with blinders on. There are months worth of columns I barely remember writing, and albums I hardly recall. They just kept coming.
And as I gradually felt myself losing the hunger and the discipline it takes to keep up, my perspective started to change, too. I’ve said this before: Entertainment writers really aren’t gatekeepers anymore, and they certainly aren’t the heralds they once were. Everything is so readily available that there isn’t even a gate anymore. No one needs a critic to know what’s coming out, and anything that’s out can be heard or seen for free. The purpose of new music reviews has changed — they now exist almost entirely to draw traffic (and, not incidentally, start arguments). Everyone has a public voice now, and the ability to express your opinion where other people can see it is no longer unique.
A lot of things have changed, to put it mildly. But two constants remain: One, a good writer can express coherent thoughts in a distinctive voice, and two, those thoughts have a contextual depth that only comes from long-term immersion. These might sound like small things, but I think they’re precious — particularly now, as we desperately trawl an ever-expanding ocean of data, looking for an echo of resonance. How do we find it? Who do we share it with? What does it mean to us?
In other words, no, our job is no longer to define your cultural experience, but that’s a good thing, because that was always the writing’s least important function anyway. All that’s left now is what really matters: our capacity to reflect that experience.
So what does that mean for me as a writer? This is the question I’ve been trying to answer for the last few months. I still think new music reviews — even the pithy-few-paragraphs ones that Hyden and Kot were debating in the AV Club article that started all this — have their place, primarily as conversation starters for groups of people who have strong feelings about the artists or albums in question. And I think Popdose has been blessed with a number of writers who are consistently able to wring (occasionally startling) new insight from the format. (Example: Rob Smith, whose Can’t Say No series is pure magic.)
The problem, though, is that we — as publishers, writers, and readers — have allowed this type of discourse to take up too much room. The consume/response cycle is so compressed, and the pace so relentless, that real meaning slips away. We grow numb — all of us — and the result is the barrage of memes, lists, and glanced-at links that continually churn to the top of our social media feeds. There isn’t enough time to really absorb any of it, and in-depth pieces get crowded out by regurgitated press releases, video embeds, and cheap snark.
What’s important to note, I think, is that our ability to gorge ourselves on information is relatively new. Our responses to all this data are still evolving. I’m encouraged by sites like Longreads, where longform content is king, and publications like The Awl, where it’s part of a balanced diet. And, of course, this little site right here, where we’ve always tried to follow our collective muse — and been lucky enough to attract readers who appreciate it. (Case in point: Judd Marcello’s column about Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble, which was one of the longest — and most highly read — posts in our recent history.)
My response to all of this — for now, anyway — is to try and slow down. To be willing to miss things, if it means having the time to truly experience others. To try and recalibrate my listening — to reconnect with what music’s always meant to me, and discover what it really means to me now. And to apply all of this to my writing by focusing as much as possible on the most timeless aspects of our shared experience.
In the short term, at least, this means more profiles and interviews. I started Popdose because I wanted to be connected to something more than just a lonely blog, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of the group of writers we’ve become. But collaborating is messy, and writing is a pretty solitary activity by nature, and it’s easy for us to drift into our separate corners. Too often, I’ve lost sight of that collaborative ideal. Similarly, I think it’s easy to shrink away from the thought of reaching out and discussing art with the artists who make it — as I said earlier, it’s a pretty nerve-wracking process, even if you’ve been doing it for a long time.
But it’s also where we illustrate the connections that keep us coming back to the art. I’ve recently started re-reading Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting, and it’s been a breath of fresh air. I don’t know how we let ourselves get away from in-depth, music-focused pieces like these — either as writers who have forgotten about writing them, or consumers who didn’t support the magazines who ran them. Reading the wisdom of songwriters like Mose Allison and Bob Dylan, patiently extracted by a fan’s fan like Zollo, has helped reawaken me to the possibilities of a place like Popdose.
So let’s slow down together, shall we? Stop worrying so much about what’s coming out next week, and take a minute to listen for the echo of a song that taught you something about yourself, or helped you realize a truth, or brought you the kind of joy that lasts a lifetime. Or just made you feel something. What happens next might surprise you.