By Devon Wendell
Growing up as an aspiring musician, besides practicing the guitar, bass and harmonica obsessively like a geek, I also read a lot of books, articles, reviews, and interviews on all kinds of music. In doing so I found myself most aggravated by the writing in the “major” music publications like Rolling Stone, Spin, etc. There were always historical inaccuracies, poor grammar and — most bothersome — overly used cliches in describing an album, performance, or artists.
Years later, I still read the stuff churned out by many publications and find the same old catch phrases. I see images of Lester Bangs’ ghost looking bored as he reads many of the obits on artists like Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. I find much of today’s music journalism as derivative and repetitive as the music of today, but maybe we writers are not completely to blame? Maybe we need better inspiration or, conversely, maybe we just to be annoyed by the work of several artists for a few months.
I do admit I’m a bit of a snobby-nerd and appreciate jazz and blues journalism over mundane, pseudo-hippie rock writing. But its time for a change in all those areas. So I’ve compiled a top ten list of overused phrases and words in the music journalism world that I feel should no longer be permitted. And I’ll admit that I’m just as guilty of falling back on these innocuous cliches as anyone on the staff of Rolling Stone. Especially when I’m overly tired, or just being lazy, a condition that both musicians and writers are familiar with.
But maybe I’m doing this to cleanse myself and push my intellectual barrier much further. I got an A+ in advanced Chekhov in college, so why can’t I find some new and more creative adjectives for Leonard Cohen’s latest music? I know he’s expecting more, so here you are Leonard. Let the exorcism begin.
1) “Prolific Artist”: This has been used way too liberally in reference to musicians who are simply down right lazy in regard to their body of work. It would seem most musicians are prolifically under-productive, even those considered the most brilliant. So let’s be prolific writers by continuing not to use these words.
2) “Pivotal Recording”: Here’s another one that’s been used way too much. Not every recording by, say, Bob Dylan, Sonny Rollins, or Prince can be called “Pivotal.” In fact, this term doesn’t always have to be used as a positive. How about trying it as a negative. Like, for example: “That new Justin Bieber recording is a pivotal recording in the world of crap?”
3) “Scorching, burnin’,” or “blistering”: These are frequently used in reference to an instrumental solo, mainly guitar. But we journalists should be trying our best not to sound like Jack Black or Beavis And Butthead.
4) “Eccentric,” “esoteric” or “weird”: Come on journalists, these go-to, cop-out terms are just another way of saying you don’t understand a lyric, a chord progression, or a musical style. It’s perfectly OK to say “What the Hell is this?” Or “Screw you Donald Fagen, I only got my GED or writing gig after my stint as roadie for Grand Funk Railroad!”
5) “Jazzy”: Rock journalists who know nothing about jazz will often use this one too freely when they hear a chord progression with flatted 5th, 7th, and 13 chords, basically anything more sophisticated than 3-chord rock. Sorry to break it to countless rock journalists, but there was nothing “jazzy” about the Grateful Dead. Just because you improvise on a pentatonic scale past the twenty minute mark doesn’t make you a jazz player, just self-indulgent, really stoned, or both.
6) “Poet-Rocker”: Just because a rocker writes a lyric a little more sophisticated that “Yeah, baby, baby,” doesn’t make him a poet. Many ambitious rockers may rip-off some Shakespeare or Rimbaud and I applaud their efforts in obtaining a library card, but they really should find their own language. Sure, Dylan, Cohen, Waits, and Springsteen get a pass in this area, but even with these artists, those two labels have been overused. I’d like to hear something more along the lines of Polka-Poet or Klezmer-Poet. This also goes back to number four. It seems many music journalists refer to a musician as a “Poet” when the lyrics are over their heads. If a lyric isn’t understood, it’s usually assumed it’s about drugs. But that’s only right half of the time. Come on folks, it’s rock not rocket surgery.
7) “Pseudo-Pop”: Isn’t this redundant?
8) “Retro-Rock”: Again, isn’t this redundant?
9) “Groundbreaking”: I’ve heard this in reference to people artists like Kanya West, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Sorry but that’s just wrong. These musicians may be groundbreaking in terms of how much money they make for their record companies, but artistically? I’m not saying these artists haven’t entertained millions or that they lack talent. But where will their albums be in five to ten years. Come on writers, let’s try not to sound like snotty purists stuck in the past. And let’s not lower the bar any more than we already have. There’s got to be a balance.
10) “Beautifully haunting”: These words together make more sense in terms of silence or a description of a really attractive stalker or an apparition. A song, an album, a performance, or even a note can of course be beautiful, too. But if it’s haunting you, talk to your shrink.
* * * * * *
To read more posts by Devon Wendell click HERE.