An occasional series of mental diarrhea on stuff that makes me tick and whatnot…
Ok, so it seems that there has been a bit of (slightly deserved) fallout from the recent published review of Eistnaflug. But it has kind of helped to keep in the spotlight the role of decent music criticism at the paper that occasionally lets me write for them.
You see, for a while this year, there’s been a much great, shall we say, scrutiny, over what the Grapevine has been published about music in general. Most of this all started when Sindri Eldon and I attended this years Músíktilraunir music contest and we had the sheer temerity to suggest that some of the bands in the final weren’t that good at all (remember, a lot of the musicians in these bands wee teenagers). Letters were published taking to task how we wrote about music, and i and other people were getting accosted by friends and musicians and made to basically justify our actions. At one point, Sindri even had to write a piece explaining his position with regards to how he judged music and that sometimes people and artists needed to wring their neck in with regards to what he wrote.
Now all of this is fine with yours truly. In fact, a decent ding-dong argument can help to clarify and crystallise your opinions of certain subjects, plus help people on both side understand when the other party i coming form. It’s all grist to mill so to speak. But there was one comment i encountered quite a few times when people would speak to me about how we write about music;
“Why do you have to be so nasty?”
well to be honest i never thought i was that nasty. Not to those who deserved it musically anyway. But the fact is that much of the best (or at least more memorable) criticism in culture and politics has often swayed more towards the pithy, prickly and sarcastic. So in this post, I’m going to take a look at some of the things that influences me to write the way i write like a masturbating chimp.
Now it may not surprise you, but i find a lot of music reviews in Iceland rather boring, even my own. Often, if a review is, say, 500 words, then at least 400 of them will be of the form “This is band X. Band X is a 4 piece that is made up of members A,B,C and D. They are from Blah Blah and released and album in 2005 titled ‘Bum fluff’…etc, etc‘. Then there will be a few sentences saying “this was a great album, lovely lyrics,etc 4 out of 5 stars!”. Basically it would be an understatement to say that they’re a bit dry to read.
And this is a similar story for a lot of the music press around nowadays. I have a subscription to the Wire and i usually dip into the Quietus and a few other blogs about once a week. But i don’t buy magazines nowadays, nor do i really read much of the big online zines such as Drowned in Sound or Pitchfork. It’s all a bit wet and weak to me. No real conviction or bite that will either exhilarate, challenge or sometimes even shock you.
When i was in my teens and reading music magazines (mostly NME, a little bit of Kerrang! Melody Maker is there was nothing else), i was brought up with writers such as Steve Lamacq, Simon Reynolds, David Stubbs and Caitlin Moran. But i was mostly drawn to the Iconoclastic ranting of the likes of Steven Wells (and to a lesser extent Johnny Cigarettes), a man who often used his politics to definie his taste in music and often really went to town over music or artists that he disliked, whether it was Morissey (“He lives in a fusty fantasy world concocted out of Ealing comedies, Keith Waterhouse columns, Alan Bennett monologues, black and white kitchen sink dramas and the films of George Formby.”) or Travis (“I’ll tell you why it rains on you, because you’re a cunt!”). Like him or loathe him, it was almost impossible to deny he made an impact. His, at times almost insulting, prose covered a passion towards music, a section of culture that he truly cared about.
But i left all of that when i went to university in the mid 90’s, and the quality of the writing went downhill (roughly at the same time as the rise if Britpop). Instead, i ended up gravitating towards an unlikely form of inspiration for future writings: Television.
As a reader of the UK Guardian, i often read the saturday listings pullout section The guide. Its most interesting feature was the review column of the week’s television. During the ’90s, it was known as Tapehead (referring to the VHS preview tapes of TV) and it was written by Jim Shelley. Unlike a lot of the music journalism of the time, Shelley’s columns were acerbic, cutting, and most of all, funny. When he took a dislike to certain people (Richard E Grant) or certain programs (Brookside), he attacked them with a relish i hadn’t really read from anyone since the likes of Wells. Through the decade i was a loyal fan and read his stuff religiously and bought the book of his collected columns, “Interference”, which i recommend people buy if they ever come across it. Anyway Shelley left in 2000, only to be replaced by someone even more vicious and cynical. that person of course was Charlie Brooker.
Before joining the Guardian, Brooker was a video games journalist and the creator of satirical TV website TVGoHome, which is still online if you want to have a look. Taking over in 2000, the column was renamed “Screen Burn” and for someone like me it was a revelation. If Shelley was acerbic and cutting, Brooker was utterly savage, pessimistic and highly profane. And god were they funny. I mean, actual laugh out loud funny. Often writing about programmes that he took a massive dislike to (which, he admitted, was much more interesting that writing about stuff he actually liked), he displayed an excellent gift for the “ungodly” metaphor and “graphic” simile that certainly left you in no uncertain terms as to the mental images he was branding onto your mental screen. Take this little example when writing about Cilla Black and Blind Date;
“Not that even the most demented angry mob would want to meet her in the flesh: either there’s something wrong with my reception or she’s starting to resemble the result of an unholy union between Ronald McDonald and a blow-dried guinea pig. And that voice: Christ. The singing was bad enough – she sounded like an angry wasp trapped in a shoebox, butchering melodies with the ghoulish efficiency of Jeffrey Dahmer – but even though she no longer bursts into song, her incessant piercing squawk is still enough to make me want to slice my ears off and hurl them into another dimension”
Now if i wrote anything in Iceland that was half as nasty or funny as Brooker, i would probably need to get my phone number changed and round the clock protection for my house. I remember a friend of mine telling me that her dad, who wrote for Morgunblaðið as a theatre critic, received abusive phone calls after he wrote a piece saying that a successful play on production wasn’t that good! they’re just not really tuned towards that kind of writing to be honest.
Of course Brooker has since left TV to do general punditry, while making excellent shows such as Nathan Barley, Screenwipe, Newswipe and Dead Set. Most of his columns and article have been serialised into several books, which i also recommend you get hold of.
Brooker was replaced with Grace Dent, who is a much more calming presence. And while she is more positive and not as nasty, she can be just as cutting and vicious when she needs to be. And just to be on the safe side, her replacement on the column about Soaps, Daniel Maier, is already showing to be a one to watch.
So i do have many and varied tastes in what influences my writing, but it’s fairly safe to say that the biggest influence has been not with traditional music journalism, bur rather paeans and critiques on the cathode ray box that lurks ominously at the corner of your sitting rooms right now…