I believe in the past I’ve made my distaste for music journalism, broadly speaking pretty clear. It’s not that I think it shouldn’t exist, it’s mostly that I read very little writing on popular music that I find engaging or worth my time. I really like to read reviews of movies. Not because I need someone else to tell me what I should watch or not (although that can be nice sometimes) but because I think a good review can add to a discussion about a movie, or make me think about a film in terms that I hadn’t considered. Writers on film have generally done a pretty good job at figuring out how to have a discussion about film in a way that is engaging for cinephiles and accessible for a general audience. Music writers typically have not figured this out just yet. The problem with writing on classical music is that it’s often way too academic for anyone outside of the community to be able to engage with it. Meanwhile, writing on pop and rock music is often so watered down that it doesn’t actually say anything.
One of the reviews I turn to often for this discussion is the Pitchfork review of Rehearsing My Choir by the Fiery Furnaces. The writers biggest complaint is that there aren’t any moments on the record that are poppy enough. I believe she says something about not being able to curl up on the couch and cry to this record (although I’ve totally done just that). The thing is that she’s not wrong but at the same time anybody who knows even vaguely what The Fiery Furnaces do would know that they’re not coming to those records for emotional hand holding after a long day. The writer of that review is holding the band to a standard that doesn’t apply to them. It’s like listening to Black Angels and complaining that there’s not enough hooks.
What I want out of music journalism is writers who know how to describe music and contextualize it for their readers. I think it was a review on the Needle Drop of one of the newest Godspeed records where he keeps saying, “Oh it just sounds very mysterious.” What does that mean?
I recently read the 33 ⅓ book about the Fugazi album In On The Kill Taker. Fugazi is and always will be one of my favorite bands of all time and although Kill Taker is not my favorite record of theirs I understand why it was chosen for 33 ⅓. If you haven’t read a 33 ⅓ book, they’re these pocket sized books about different albums. There’s almost 140 in the series. They usually break down a record song by song and give some biographical information and make an attempt to talk about why the album is important culturally. Some of the books are better than others at this.
The book on In On The Kill Taker was okay. I’m glad I read it but only because I’m a huge Fugazi nerd. I’m not convinced that someone who doesn’t already know a lot about the band would get much out of it. What I mean is that the book gives general information in a way that anybody who has listened to the album once will already know. And when it gives specific information, it’s only information that is relevant to a small subset of Fugazi fans. There’s no middle ground. And of course this is the hardest part about writing about music of any genre. You don’t want to be so specific and analytical that the general reader can’t take part, but you don’t want to be so general that it becomes uninteresting.
What was particularly frustrating about this book is the way it talked about the music. Again, you can’t say something about syncopated lines and modal figures because only a few readers will know what the fuck you’re talking about. But describing a song like this, “It goes bee boo ba dum dum dum,” is almost worse. Let’s say you’ve decided to read the book without having listened to the album for some reason. Do you have any idea what the song sounds like? Can you come even close? The answer is almost definitely no. What’s even worse is that the author will then sometimes intersperse chord names into the description. Telling me that a song starts with an Eb chord doesn’t do anything to strengthen my engagement or understanding of the music.
Further than that, he totally fails to make any definite conclusions about the music, and when he does he doesn’t back them up with anything. The chapter on “Smallpox Champion” starts with an indictment of upper middle class white rock stars singing about the way that minorities and marginalized communities have been abused in America. So is he trying to say the same thing about Fugazi? Is he criticizing them? Is he trying to say that they’re better than the rest? Who knows? Later in the book he discusses, “Walken’s Syndrome,” one of my favorite tracks on the album. The author hates it! Which is fine. My problem with the book isn’t that he doesn’t like this song. My problem is that he doesn’t explain why he feels it’s not a good song. He’s not adding any perspective to the music. There’s no analysis which makes him less of a journalist in this moment and more of a tape machine, just repeating facts. He explains that Guy Picciotto wishes he chose a different title for the song and then he goes on to say that the song is the most boring part of the record. Okay?
The author (I don’t know why I keep referring to him as the author - his name is Joe Gross) then goes on to claim that the last two tracks are both great closers and should be in the same chapter. Again, I wish he would explain why he thinks that. In my opinion, “Instrument” would be a real bad way to end a record. And to reiterate, my issue isn’t that we have a difference of opinion. It’s that Gross isn’t doing the work of a writer. The chapter on “Instrument” and “Last Chance for a Slow Dance” just feels like he was rushing to meet his deadline. (interestingly enough, I have the same issue with the Fugazi chapter in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life - he devoted so much time to Minor Threat and Black Flag only to gloss over Fugazi).
There’s also a constant tension in the book between both his intentions and the band’s intentions. A lot of the story of the record is told through interviews with Fugazi, Jem Cohen, and Ted Nicely. But what happens is that Gross claims multiple times that Fugazi chose to keep their lyrics vague and open to interpretation. But then they turn around and explain every song in detail to Joe Gross. So did they actually want to keep things vague? Did they want this book to be the only place that the songs were analyzed? Maybe they never wanted to leave things open to interpretation? I genuinely don’t know what the answer is and my big problem with the book is that Gross doesn’t seem to notice the inconsistency.
To be honest, the interviews are the best part of the book. And to be fair Gross does point out that Ian Mackaye is really good at giving interviews, but the problem is that Gross isn’t particularly adding anything to the discussion. Perhaps the most interesting moment is when they discuss “Great Cop” and Ian Mackaye presents this lineage of the song, almost ten years in the making via different bands until it finally got committed to tape by Fugazi. What the book needs more of is that. An actual history of the writing process. The book falls apart (especially at the very end) when it relies on assuming that the reader has a cultural framework for discussing grunge in the early 90’s. Gross refers to this constantly but never attempts to analyze how Fugazi fits into the punk explosion of the era. Are they peers or are they separate? I think there’s arguments to be made for both sides but Gross avoids the question entirely - and for the record it would be great to read something about 90’s rock music that doesn’t solely rely on reminding the reader that “nobody expected Nirvana to be huge but they changed everything!” But he also simultaneously makes a point of showing the reader that lots of other musical styles were popular at the same time. (There’s this really weird moment where he refers to the Silver Jews as Pavement for people who want more Pavement out of their Pavement…). He supposedly does this to prove that it was a huge feat that Fugazi independently distributed a charting album in 1993 but of course he’s unable to settle on one point. The afterword is the worst part of the book, where Gross waxes poetic about what Fugazi achieved and how maybe no one could do it again? Again no one is really clear on what point he’s trying to make. Is he optimistic? Is he defeated? Is it both?
The book is most successful when Joe gets out of the way and lets the band speak for themselves. Maybe it just should have been an oral history? It really should either be entirely interview based or he needs to have the confidence to make some actual points about the music and create a real analysis. And the analysis doesn’t need to be heady or overblown, but it does need to create a picture of why the album mattered MORE than having sold a lot of copies. There have been a lot of albums that have sold a lot of copies in the past that nobody really talks about anymore. But 25 years later In On The Killer Taker is generally regarded as an important milestone in punk music. Joe Gross’ book should have told us why.