Music journalism

Writing from the heartless?

“Hello? Hello? Is anyone out there?” But the silence whispers back at me. “They’re gone. Put your pen down and leave the stage. No one is listening. Music journalists are the tearful clowns of the 21st Century – pointless.” As I turn to exit I notice my barely beating heart feebly heading for the trapdoor. I stamp out its dying gasps and carelessly kick it into the void. Free from emotion, I take my first mechanical steps into the permanent, watery sunshine of mock ‘n’ poll writing.

During the past year, a growing band of paid scribes have provided the writing on the wall – the heart has been ripped out of music journalism. The Observer’s Fiona Sturges points to readership levels to support her claims. “In the past decade the music press has been in decline, losing both its authority and commercial appeal,” she states. The NME is losing readers at an alarming rate. Last year’s circulation stood at around 70,000; 230,000 down on the mid-sixties.” And Devon Powers, a writer for PopMatters, laments, “it’s the end of the world as we know it and I don’t feel fine. The real question seems to be a matter of when music and music journalists lost their revolutionary dream.” But do these observations merely mirror the vacuous and sensationalist writing that the maligned journalists are accused of? Or is it really the final curtain for music journalism?

Popular music and its commentators changed in the fifties and sixties. Influenced by the beat generation, writers such as Hunter S Thompson ditched the traditional journalistic rules of factual reportage. Instead their work reflected the emotionally kaleidoscopic and immediate nature of the music they wrote about. There could be no collective truth about the meaning and value of one piece of music in relation to another. Personal, impassioned and critical opinion was everything. The term gonzo journalism was coined to describe this movement. And for the next decade writers like Nick Kent, Chrissie Hynde, Charles Shaar Murray and Julie Birchill brazenly wielded the gonzo torch. Sturges refers to it as an era when music journalists, “struck furious blows at the pop orthodoxy. It was a time when readers looked to individual writers to shape their opinions. Who was writing what was almost as important as who was being written about. Rock journalism was urgent, exciting and loaded with arrogance.”

By the early eighties one of the strongest and most respected voices in gonzo journalism was protesting at the worthless state of music. Lester Bangs believed in rock ‘n’ roll as a spirit that imbued and transcended songs. But he saw rock ‘n’ roll as a dying force and vented his frustrations. “I don’t know what I’m going to write about, blasted Bangs. “Music is the only thing in the world I really care about – but I simply cannot pretend to find anything compelling in the choice between pap and mud.” And according to Bangs, following this decline in music quality was a herd of market-led editors and acquiescing journalists. “The NME is the king of that,” he spat. “They were political for a year and a half when it was correct to be and then they were into fashion. They (the magazines) don’t want you to say anything bad because they don’t get advertising bucks that way. So the magazine becomes a facet of your groovy modern lifestyle. Well fuck that shit. I don’t want to be used just to sell product. You have to go by what you believe in, what you feel.”

Bangs died a couple of weeks after these comments but his sentiments still hold sway. “Writers and editors are less preoccupied with promoting quality music than trumping their rivals with big-name interviews,” comments Sturges. “Q is now a glowing example of all that is wrong with the music press. It’s the pop industry’s answer to Hello!, a glorified fanzine that gains access to big-name musicians because of its bland, non-critical approach.” Barney Hoskyns, a staff writer for the NME from 1981-86 expands on this, outlining a possible cause of the bland writing. “Music in all popular culture has become diffuse,” he asserts. “It doesn’t have the same kind of tribal power. You can read about pop in any kind of magazine. Wherever you find it, there’s a uniformity of approach and style. You get everything served up in easily digestible pieces.”

Rather than harking back to the old rock and roll revolution shouldn’t we be recognising the changing social and cultural context that music exists in? New music – good and bad – that is written and played from the heart still exists and so do publications that capture and comment on these outpourings. But as music has become more diffuse, so have the means of hosting and accessing it. Insightful music journalism is still relevant, especially when it comes to exploring beneath the public veneer of a band or solo-artist. However, it’s not as vital as forty years ago because the internet is enabling more and more people to bypass reviews and make a first-hand judgement. Hierarchies and orthodoxies are being eradicated, which takes us back to the heart of the rock ‘n’ roll spirit. When asked what makes his opinion better than that of the average person on the street, Lester Bangs replied, “Nothing, let them do it!” So if anyone can play rock ‘n ‘roll, anyone can write about it? “Fuck yes! And does,” was Bangs’ opinion.

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