IN A WEEK I’ll be conversing with fellow “critics” Laura Barton and Will Hodgkinson on the subject of how one writes about music – or dances about architecture, to cite Martin Mull’s almost-infamous 1979 phrase.
I have no idea what I’ll say, though the prospect of the evening has got me thinking about Roland Barthes’ 1972 essay “The Grain of the Voice”, which shaped a 1991 book of mine called From a Whisper to a Scream, and about an NME piece I wrote back in 1984 called “Subbed Culture” – a strident defense of “critical” pop writing in the face of the MTV/Smash Hits dumbing-down of the discourse in that era.
I may go back and read some Lester Bangs, Nik Cohn, Ellen Willis; or some Ian MacDonald, Geoffrey O’Brien, Simon Reynolds. Or I may just point to three remarkable essays in Mark Greif’s 2016 collection Against Everything: “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop”, “Punk: The Right Kind of Pain”, and “Learning to Rap”.
The three pieces, written in an unapologetically intellectual style that’s nonetheless intimate and confiding and wholly unpretentious, made me realise it’s still possible to write about pop music and pop culture in ways that haven’t exactly been done before – to ask questions of punk, hip hop, and electronica that haven’t exactly been asked before.
“Learning to Rap,” written by a white Harvard graduate, may be the best thing this white Oxford graduate has ever read about hip hop. It engages with the music of, among others, Nas and the Notorious B.I.G. is ways that make their records as emotionally real as they’re socially radical. Greif is brilliant on race and class and crack and capitalism, just as he’s super-perceptive in “Punk” on how much the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead had in common; just as he’s fascinating on the “philosophy” immanent in the vocal tics and synthetic textures of post-OK Computer Radiohead.
I don’t know what I’ll say at Spiritland, but I’ll certainly be thinking about the way Greif has encouraged me to take pop music seriously and personally all over again – to understand why, as Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote in Dancing in the Dark, music is the “rope” that holds my memories together and keeps my life in position.
An Unbound Night Out: How Do You Write About Music? 03/04/2017 6.30 pm
Spiritland, Granary Square, 9 – 10 Stable St, Kings Cross, London N1C 4AB