“Dancing about architecture”

Music Editor Kevin O’Neill examines the tired industry of music writing, asking why is it all going so wrong?

“Dancing about architecture” is a term coined to describe the tenuous art of music writing. The quote has been attributed to any number of scorned musicians – Elvis Costello, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa…

And to read any modern day music publications you can see that the idea has become a reality, rather than something to be avoided. In the last decade or so, the journalism world has undergone a rapid and unforgiving evolution, the rise and demise of publications coming as regularly as the tides.

In Ireland, the landscape has been relatively unchanged. State Magazine appeared and disappeared in a flurry that went near unnoticed to anyone outside Jim Carroll’s head, the current incarnation as an online journal proving far more successful than the print version ever was.

Unfortunately for us, this has left the monopoly of Hot Press inflicting its medley of unresearched, badly written and simply inaccurate work. To claim that they never get anything right is unfair, but it is clear that the already diluted formula of Hot Press has been undergoing a continuous watering down in recent years.

In fact, this dilution of media is a problem that is evident on a wide scale. Q Magazine, once the pinnacle of music journalism, has become a running joke in media circles. Playing it safe became the name of the game in the late 1990s and the early 2000s (note the five star reviews given to the likes of Oasis’ Be Here Now and The Strokes’ Room on Fire, only for the magazine to later slate these very records once it became acceptable to do so.), though this has since given way to sheer tabloid sensationalism.

This policy has not gone unnoticed by artists either, with Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys among the most outspoken critics of the publication. Upon Q’s honouring of Take That (pre-reunion) with an “Idol” award at the 2006 Q Awards, claiming that “even I know [they] were bollox.”

Q have fallen into the age old failing of a publication – the “safe” territory. Their top 100 countdowns (dime a dozen at this stage) are regularly littered with the same acts, the magazine afraid to push the boundaries even a little. Rather than champion a new act themselves, they wait until the plunge has been taken by another publication – see John Grant this year. Grant’s debut album was doused in plaudits by Mojo magazine upon its release and, despite near total ignorance at the time, it cropped up near the top of end of year lists for many publications, Q included.

On Sunday last I found myself with some rare free time and decided to pick up a copy of Q, based on the premise of articles on Noah & the Whale, John Grant and Beady Eye. An hour later, I was left reeling with the volume of irrelevant content littering the pages.

Both Noah & the Whale and John Grant crop up in this issue of the Express for their musical talent, in contrast to interviews in Q, both of which were characterised by tabloid-style frenzy. The writer seemed more concerned with Noah & the Whale front man Charlie Fink’s former relationship with Laura Marling and his feelings regarding the success of cohorts Mumford & Sons than the huge change in direction the band have undertaken on their forthcoming third album, while the discussion with “maverick” Grant obsessed over the intricacies of his drug abuse, not the startling and powerful album that emerged last year as a result of his problems.

As for the Beady Eye piece, I felt embarrassed for the writer. An article of its nature should never make it into the pages of the most amateur of publications, let alone an established name such as Q. The journalist (a term I use loosely) used every available opportunity to try and force a jibe about Liam’s brother and former Oasis bandmate, Noel Gallagher. Obviously a headline about the brothers’ falling out will shift much more than an article on the direction of the new band.

NME, too, has fallen into a tirade of tabloid style writing – note the daily gossip features on the website, and the inclusion of a “worst band” award at the NME Awards (the Jonas Brothers have won it on three occasions) – simply to remind everyone that NME are the cool kids on the block.

Despite their attempts to remain at the cutting edge of the musical world, NME have become a shambles. Year after year, they push the same class of new acts – this year it’s the Vaccines, in previous years they have supported everyone from Forward! Russia to Dogs. Don’t worry if the names mean very little to you, the same goes for all of us.

Both publications pride themselves on the discovery of new music, though neither has happened upon a new act in well over a decade. Take this month’s Q, once again – their introducing series focuses on the Joy Formidable, MNDR and Miles Kane, three acts with a well established following as is.

On the one hand, their outright refusal to open their eyes to emerging genres until they are fully established (see: dubstep) is the cause for this. Both magazines still pigeon-hole themselves very much in the same territory they have done for the best parts of their existence: Q sits in with the steady, safe English legends – from Dire Straits to Coldplay, it’s as inoffensive as possible. The NME, on the other hand, lives on the “cutting edge” of grungey guitar rock – the Libertines, the Strokes and every clone that has dropped since. Think they have moved on? In the last twelve months, the Libertines have been the NME cover stars on three occasions – not too shabby for a band who played just one reunion show.

On the other hand, however, it is the aforementioned dilution of content that has caused the problem. Q firmly established themselves as a rock publication – what business do Take That have winning an Idol Award at the Awards ceremony? Or Lady Gaga adorning the cover?

It’s tough to imagine Thom Yorke gracing the cover of Smash Hits, let me tell you that much…

The two have become institutionalised in their current state that a proper evolution is impossible. Q sits atop two and a half decades of misguided reviews, safe bets and half-hearted changes: you want to celebrate pop music? Then do it!

NME, on the other hand, has become obsessed with the notion of “cool” – they publication swerves in and out of the latest “hot” band (provided they have a substantial online following already), pausing only to release its annual “Cool List”, a petty and childish list that sums up the state of the New Musical Express better than anything else ever could.

This does ask the question, however, whether the abundance of blogs and sites have negated the need for music journalism. They can break music faster, they can break news faster – modern culture cannot be expected to wait a full month to hear the latest music news when it’s all just a click away.

The downside to this, of course, is the pressure on blogs to remain on the cutting edge – the very same pressure that dogged the NME since its inception. Scour the archives of any online publication for incorrect tips for that most dreaded “next big thing” – it’s staggering, it’s shameless. Aside from that, of course, bloggers run riot – their opinions go unchecked. The medium is flawed, to say the least.

So, has the onset of blog culture eliminated the need for printed musical press? I certainly hope not – there is still a place for well written, well researched work. The overwhelming impact of the online community, however, has been the release of a plethora of diluted quantity – rock magazines are littered with pop acts, tabloid writing and shoddy writing. Rather than sitting at the so-called “cutting edge”, the publications play it safe, backing the certain things and back-tracking once things have gone awry.

There is life in the medium yet, though it is contributing tremendously to its own demise. Stuttered attempts at evolution are more damaging than stagnation ever could be – embrace popular music, or live wholly within eclecticism: readers, quite simply, do not want both. And, luckily, due to the extensive online community, readers no longer have to tolerate both.

Such publications need to cast aside the petty notion of breaking the next big thing – building an institution on such shaky blocks is a recipe for disaster – and remember that they exist to bring the lofty and intangible stars to an accessible level through in-depth interviews, reviews and features.

The Qs and the NMEs are not, and should not be, renowned for tabloid headlines, petty spats and inaccurate, sensationalism comments, but, rather, for mastering the art of dancing about architecture.


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