With seething sarcasm, Michael Azerrad has catalogued a plethora of music-critic clichés in Rock Critic Law: 101 Unbreakable Rules for Writing Badly About Music (out October 23 through Dey St., with illustrations by Seattle artist Edwin Fotheringham). One wonders why Azerrad—who's also written Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana and Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991—stopped there, when there are so many more; perhaps for sanity's sake?
Azerrad's book arose out of a Twitter account he started in 2014—@RockCriticLaw—to keep tabs on the multitude of played-out, lazy phrases with which many music critics sully their prose. One suspects that the fields of film, literature, gaming, food, etc. will eventually have their own Michael Azerrads lambasting feeble critical machinations. Let's hope, anyway.
Yet one must ask: Why gather so many clichés and uninspired critical tropes in the quasi-permanent format of a book... besides offering Mr. Fotheringham plenty of presumably lucrative work? Well, for one thing, not everybody wants to scald their eyes in the moronic inferno of Twitter (kidding; I love Twitter). For another, it serves as a cautionary tale to critics to check themselves at their keyboards before they commit linguistic fouls.
I'll admit, I've stooped to using some of the examples proffered by Azerrad in my 35 years of writing about music. For example, I've violated this one: "Feel free to call something 'an instant classic' even though, by definition, only time can tell if something is classic." (To nitpick, Azerrad's syntax here isn't great, but point taken.) But for every platitude I drop, I strive to create at least two metaphors or similes that have never before appeared on page or screen—or at least concoct a neologism every month. However, deadline pressure often leads to writers lapsing into familiar descriptors. It happens to the best and to the worst of us. But one does try to keep those lapses to a bare minimum. Nobody wants to be the tool who spews "seminal" excessively, nor does one want to overzealously worship "sonic cathedrals."
Some of Azerrad's pet peeves mirror my own while others come off as picayune beefs that sometimes seem derived from taking a phrase too literally. Here are a few examples of the former:
"Any drum beat that uses only tom-toms is 'tribal.'"
"When reviewing an album by a revered but fading musician you MUST say 'It's their best since [their last actually good record].'"
"You can definitely say 'ephemeral' when you mean 'ethereal.' No one knows the difference anymore anyway."
Can't argue with those. Here are some with which I can argue.
"By all means refer to what musicians put their heart, mind, and soul into as 'output.'" [Relax. This is just a synonym for "albums" and/or "songs"; it's just a way to change up the vocabulary—no judgment intended.]
"When interviewing a woman in rock, you MUST ask her what it's like to be a woman in rock." [Do journalists still ask this inane question in the second decade of the 21st century? Really? This one feels a bit musty.]
"You MUST complain that the Grammys are mainstream even though they've been mainstream since before you were born." [We must never stop complaining about this. It's imperative, lest we become complicit in blandification of the music industry. No matter that our complaining has not improved the content of the Grammys at all over the decades. It's the intention that counts, you see...]
"You are prohibited from saying anything bad about the following: Michael Jackson, the Beatles, the Ramones, Wu-Tang Clan, Bjork [sic], Radiohead, Taylor Swift, Talking Heads, Fugazi, and Abba [sic]." [I've seen negative criticisms about all of these artists; hell, I've written some of those, including one about Wu-Tang on Twitter today. The real critics' sacred cows are Terry Riley, Alice Coltrane, and Derek Bailey.]
One final thought about Azerrad's gripes in Rock Critic Law: Mediocre music almost always begets mediocre criticism. That there is a superabundance of both is a truth that will always be with us. There is nothing harder in music criticism than to write something interesting about music that elicits neither elation nor derision. Try to find fascinating ways to express the linguistic equivalent of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯; it's exceptionally difficult. Yet critics face that reality on a daily basis, if they're unlucky. Maybe—just maybe—lackluster music receives the shabby criticism it deserves.