October 22, 2012
via Examiner.com
via Examiner.com

Is there a field of writing more predictable and cliché than music journalism? Besides all of the other types of entertainment journalism, I mean. (And not so fast there regular news journalism.) Writing about music is so typically cliché-ridden (a phrasing itself that’s cliché), that it has its own cliché aphorism to describe its pointlessness that is in itself one of the most overused clichés when talking about how music writing is cliché. Harsh but true, but having been a music journalist myself for many years, it’s not racist when I say it. A lot of my best friends are music journalists, actually.

There’s a reason why we, yes, myself included, resort to clichés. It’s because the subject matter we’re writing about is so often rife with its own. (“Rife with,” by the way.) Garbage in, garbage out, as they say. A lot. They say that a lot. But there’s another, more mundane reason as well: we’re all lazy. Not just music writers, that is, but all of us as people. It’s the same idea behind how we speak in verbal clichés when we’re talking to someone we can barely muster the barest effort to engage with in person, you just reach for the first thing that comes to mind and plop it out on the word table, hoping that you can get in and out of this meaningless conversation as fast as possible.

Not all clichés were born that way, mind you. Some clichés are bigger than others, to subtly riff off of two well-known song lyrics to show that I’m aware of bands that exist. Some are actually quite evocative, and were perfectly chosen at the time, but years of misuse have rendered them sterile. When they retire an athlete’s number in sports it’s because they were so good at their job that no one else will ever be able to live up to the legacy. Think of this list of music writing clichés we’d like to see retired like that then—once exciting and vibrant, but now suffering from back pain and probably doing regional TV spots for local car dealerships.

Instead of just linking you to my own body of work from over the years and having you just pick and choose through the deluge (“deluge”) of bad writing contained therein, I’ll save you the trouble, and suggest a few of the most egregious examples. Yes, I’m aware that the idea behind this list itself is kind of a cliché too. You see how depressing this whole thing can get?

Musical recipes

Turf War’s sonic recipe is pretty simple: you marinate a big hunk of garage rock in whiskey and swamp water over night; then you country-fry it in pork fat. Let it rest, so the juices settle, then proceed to take it dirt track racing all day until it’s nice and tender. Finally, hand it a PBR, a cigarette and light a match to it. Voila! All Things Go

This is a handy way to jam in a bunch of evocative imagery into one nonsense sentence that has nothing to do with how music is actually made, and music writers love it because it lets us show off our atrophied creative writing muscles. Setting aside the fact that it almost never makes any sense, the concept itself is an insult. A recipe is something that’s meant to be followed to the letter and be continuously repeatable. In retrospect that does accurately describe most music being made today, but I don’t think that’s what we’re usually trying to imply.

Musical love-children

…if you imagine a musical love child of The Who and Guns & Roses raised in the outback of Australia, you’ll have a decent approximation of these burly blokes.” VH1

The Heavy sound like the soulful, roaring love-child of the Black Keys and Curtis Mayfield, fusing garage-rock, blues, soul, and funk in a way that is unequivocally unique in an era of generic, one-dimensional pop music. The Handle Media

Andrew Bird is a singer-songwriter-violinist whose quirky sensibility makes him, musically, the love child of David Byrne and Laurie Anderson.” Broad Street Review

This is a variation on the last one, because a baby is a recipe, right? Your average entry-level music writer knows enough not to come right out and say something as pedestrian as “This band sounds like xyz other band”, or they should anyway, so they think side-stepping it with a clever allusion to the hypothetical offspring of a couple of other, usually improbable musicians we’ve heard of will get the point across. Not sure if it’s worse if it’s something abstract that would never actually be possible (“love-child of Jack White’s distortion pedal and Lana Del Rey’s hair iron”), or something that might. David Byrne and Laurie Anderson could technically have a baby. It would probably sound more like a wailing mess of tears and piss than Andrew Bird, though. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good summary of Bird after all.

Bonus points for the use of “quirky” up there, which is a nicer way of saying the musician in question seems like kind of a fucking dork and probably has some sort of interesting sweater or other on in their press photos. Likewise with “fusion of genre 1, 2, and 3.”

Seminal

A lot has changed since El-P made his mid-Nineties debut as a member of the progressive New York rap trio Company Flow and launched his seminal record label, Definitive Jux, galvanizing hip-hop’s underground scene. Rolling Stone

With Kathleen Hanna’s archive now preserved at NYU’s Fales Library, her seminal riot grrrl band Bikini Kill is digging deep to reissue materials from their catalog, in honor of the group’s 25th anniversary. Pitchfork

Speaking of babies, this word, meant to connote a legacy of importance to the record or artist, is problematic for a couple reasons. First off, gross. “This record is made out of sperm” doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement to me. Secondly, there are all sorts of feminist implications involved here which I guess we don’t really have time to get into, but I’m pretty sure using patriarchal terms like this when writing about Kathleen Hanna is kind of a boner. Don’t try to be cute and get around it by saying “germinal” either. How about just cut to the chase and say “important” and call it a day?

Reverb-soaked

Beach House opened quietly with “Troublemaker” with synth drums pulsing, and chorus-and-reverb-drenched guitar climbing up and down. Charleston City Paper

We heard first single and opening track “Shadow” back in June, and now Wild Nothing have released “Nocturne,” a reverb-heavy swim through romantic waters: “You can have me/ You can have me all,” sings Jack Tatum, with a voice like cream. I dig it. The Tune

Dum Dum Girls Bring Reverb-Drenched Teenage Love Songs to the Blank Club….That doesn’t mean that the band is without comparison. Lead singer Dee Dee, whose name is a knowing wink at the candy punk of The Ramones, only sometimes broods betwixt the chasms of reverb and lingering refrains that beg comparison against the Mazzy Star and Jesus & Mary Chain of 20 years ago. MetroActive

I use this one all the time myself, unfortunately. This is kind of a bummer because we all know what the writers are trying to say when they call something “reverb-drenched” or “reverb-soaked”, but it’s simply become far too common to mean anything anymore – probably because there are way too many fucking bands drenching themselves in reverb these days, just diving into big pools of reverb, or, like pouring buckets of reverb down front of their shirts and rubbing all the reverb all over their bodies.

Bonus! I particularly like the idea of guitars “climbing up and down” here, because most guitars just usually stay on one note and don’t stray from it. Also, not entirely sure what a chasm of reverb is, but I’m pretty sure I never want to fall into one.

Anthemic

On Handwritten, the Gaslight Anthem’s new album, Fallon unspools his usual tales of struggle and triumph; they arrive in anthemic, Springsteen-ian form, but with a biting punk ethos. Rolling Stone

For the Icona Pop novice, their live show is an excellent starting point. The duo’s act is deceptively simple: They stand onstage beside one another in high-fashion, all-black getups, blasting the room with anthemic electro pop while a gorgeously staged set of lights beam colors across the room that you can almost reach out and grab. Pitchfork

Dinosaur Jr.’s third record begins with “Freak Scene,” one of the truly unimpeachable singles of the 1980′s. And this is merely the beginning of a fantastic album full of unstoppable anthems like “They Always Come” and “Let It Ride.” Stereogum

Another one I’m guilty of here. This essentially means a song is obvious and dumb enough that a room full of people can all agree to enjoy it at the same time, right? That’s why we call it the “National Anthem” by the way; it’s written for idiots to lose their minds over. That use of Springsteen-ian up there in the Gaslight Anthem quote (yikes) is telling. But then we have it in reference to Icona Pop and Dinosaur Jr. as well, three acts which all have one thing in common: they make songs. Using the phrase “anthemic songs” is just another way of saying songy-songs. Toss “sing-a-longs” and “stadium-sized” into the mix here as well (another crutch of my own). You’ve essentially told us that these songs have words, and sometimes people other than the singer of the song sing them. That doesn’t seem particularly rare, but what do I know about music anyway, I’m a music journalist.

Ethereal

How to Dress Well still works best when Krell favors the more ethereal side of his music, blurring together his influences into something more unique. He does this especially well on the fittingly frosty “Cold Nites,” which grows from clacking typewriters into a surprisingly epic lament… All Music.

She may not be a star here yet, but Marina Diamandis — whose second album recently bowed at No. 1 in her native U.K. — rivals Katy Perry for catchy hooks, commands with the swagger of Gwen Stefani, and even comes close to the ethereal vocal exhilaration of Florence Welch. EW

If you were going to make a cliché list of the music writing clichés that most music writers would get mad about, this would be at the top of list. I guess that’s what I’ve actually done here, so never mind. Ethereal is a reliable word in the music writer’s arsenal of bullshit, because it can mean so many different things that it works anywhere. Typically, it’s meant to describe something that sounds like it would’ve been on an angel’s playlist (<—), or comes from space, but neither of those are actual things that exist, so who even knows what it’s supposed to sound like. We already have a form of art that’s meant to inspire emotional responses through vaguery, and it’s called music. Writing is the exact opposite. Use words that actually mean something to express information—that’s literally the job.

Chanteuse

…but that’s a minor quibble for this ambitiously retro collection, which places the chanteuse in the same category as young old souls like Duffy, Fitz and the Tantrums, and Adele EW

Perhaps they were expecting another kind of indie-rock chanteuse type — but if they were expecting that, they probably weren’t paying much attention to the clues dropped in the latest Cat Power album, Sun. Salty Eggs

“Congrats to British singer Adele and her hubby Simon Konecki, People magazine reported on Sunday (Oct. 21) that the 24-year-old “Skyfall” songstress recently gave birth to a healthy baby boy! MStarz

Chanteuse and waif-like and cooing? Are we writing about a woman who happens to sing songs or a cartoon ghost bird skeleton with fake eye lashes? Don’t answer that. Chanteuse is the music writer equivalent of Americans who over-emphatically pronounce French and Italian food terms at a restaurant to impress their friends. Songstress is even worse. Do we say lawyeress, or bartendrix?

Let’s stop it with the coquettish, and nymph-like as well, too ok? I’m trying to read your think piece on electro-pop not a jailbait sub forum on Reddit.

Lush

With little more than an organ, a slide guitar, and Legrand’s voice, the two-piece dream-pop band wraps ­listeners in lush, expansive down comforters of sound. EW

Palindrome Hunches is a lush enterprise built on gentle, plucking melodies and Halstead’s otherworldly vocals… AM NY

I tried running a search for this one in my email full of press-releases and my laptop started smoking and whirring and tossed itself off the edge of the coffee table before it could pull up all the references. I found instances of the word “lush” being used to describe everyone from Neil Halstead and Beach House above, to Memory House and the Deftones in about five seconds of looking. You would die before you ever got a chance to read every article where a band’s music is described as lush, which is good, because about half way through you would want to.

The word lush describes something fertile, or overgrown with vegetation, or else something appealing to the senses, which is how it’s being used in music writing in theory. It also refers to a drunk, which is what most of us are when we’re working, so you can see why we wouldn’t be so good at thinking of new words to write down while standing in a rock club. What it actually means in the case of music writers is something more telling though: it means almost anything, which really means it ends up meaning nothing.

Angular

Another distinguishing element to this new record is the reoccurring jangle-pop, angular guitar work. MetroActive

The decidedly funky ‘Weekend in the Dust’ follows, Clark taking the vocal lead as beats skitter around her breathy vocal and angular guitar. The Line of Best Fit

Music writers tend to be, you know, idiots, particularly when it comes to math, so no surprise that we don’t really know what geometry is. (Interjecting with ‘you know’; ‘no surprise that…’). Oh man, you hear those guitars? So many angles to them. This might be the king of all of the music writing cliches, typically used to refer to post-punk bands like Gang of Four and other bands we think probably sound like Gang of Four but we aren’t sure because who has time to go check, like the Rapture and !!! and Bloc Party or whatever. (‘Or whatever’).

Bonus points to the reviewers up above who managed to work “breathy vocals” and “jangly” into sentences with “angular guitar.” That’s on some music journalist cliche bingo shit right there. Side note, stop using the phrase “on some ___ shit.”

This whole thing right here whatever the fuck it is

It leans mightily into a spastic sludge-funk groove that could give chills to fans of Maggot Brain-era Funkadelic and Big Business alike – and maybe pop fans, too, since both dudes have voices that are elastic like metal Minaj. Call it a prog-glurp masterwork. Spin

I don’t even know.

Winsome, fetching, winning, engaging

Earnest and winsome just like the title suggests, Santah unveils a new trailer in anticipation of their forthcoming EP, You’re Still A Lover. Indigenous PR

It’s not so much a problem when we go to the thesaurus to find new words for “likeable”.  In fact using the thesaurus is something all of us should do more often. But when readers can actually tell we’re doing it, it’s on some seeing-the-sausage-being-made shit. Fuck, I already forgot to stop using that phrasing. Writing is a sleight of hand magic trick, right? You perform a series of movements that presents an illusion that appears in the reader’s brain. No one wants to see the dove up your sleeve.

These are all fine words, they’ve just been over-used to the point where it doesn’t even seem like you went to the thesaurus yourself, you just siphoned off of someone else’s trip to the thesaurus because you couldn’t even be bothered, which is rather disobliging if we’re being honest.

BONUS CUTS, aka a cliche listicle addendum for things you were too lazy to write entire entries for.

Earnest, pleading

“This musician seems like they actually believe in the things they are singing but mostly they seem like a pussy.”

Singer-songwriter

“This person who wrote this song and is singing it is a person who writes songs and sings them.”

Achingly beautiful, gorgeous

“I want to have sex with the person who sings this song, but that would be weird for me to say so outright.”

Highly-anticipated

By who, exactly? They never end up saying.

Breezy

“This is not a metal song. Girls who know where at least one record shop is and dudes who’ve watched an ELO documentary might enjoy it.”

Washed-out

“This was probably made on a laptop by a nerd in Brooklyn who has access to one girl friend who looks good in American Apparel shorts.”

Acclaimed songwriter

“I am unfamiliar with this person’s work, but I just did a quick scan of Metacritic and it seems like my colleagues are into it so whatever.”

Soaring

“Remember how good Radiohead used to be when they played guitars?”

Jittery

“I’ve had an experience or two with illicit drugs, which I want you to know about, and this songs reminds me of that.”

Pastoral

“Animal Collective.”

Riffage

“You may be surprised to hear that this rock band utilizes short, repeated musical phrases in their popular rock songs.”

Dusty, back-roads, countrified

“Someone has a banjo but I’m ill-equipped to deal with that fact on a basic verbiage level.”

Follow all of Luke O’Neil’s future cliches on Twitter.

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