Give a word a break

A lot of people, myself included, learnt how to write about music by reading about music. (What evidence do I have for such a huge generalisation? I’ll come back to that in a minute.) When I was in my late teens, I was obsessed with Jockey Slut — a now-defunct U.K.-based dance music magazine — and as in awe of its writers as the artists they wrote about. The language they used felt authoritative, and I took note. Of course, it’s not just media preference that helps shape a person’s perspective on music — personal experience, cultural background, and listening habits all feed into it, too. The more we listen and read, the wider our taste and knowledge grows.

Decisions around word choice, however, sometimes seem caught in a cul-de-sac. In the mp3 blog years, for example, you could barely move for breathless posts describing grime as “dark” and “alien.” Even the “real” journalists seemed to fish for adjectives to describe the black London sound from the same pond. Either they were all coincidentally arriving at the very same sonic description — informed by both what they had and hadn’t listened to previously — or they were all reading one another.

Fast-forward to my time at The FADER in the mid-2010s. One of my responsibilities as managing editor was to oversee the internship programme, which I saw as an honour: an opportunity to help train the next generation of music journalists. Something I always tried to instil was the importance of finding your own voice. The simplest way of kickstarting that journey was sending them a press kit for a new song release and asking them to write a post about it. More often than not, they borrowed descriptors from the press release. When your writing voice has yet to crystallise and you’re presented with “official” information, it can seem like there is a “right” and “wrong” way to talk about something. “Take the facts from the press release, and throw out the language,” I would say. “Listen again. What do you think it sounds like?” Without fail, they’d always come back with something fresh and exciting — they just needed the encouragement to trust their own opinion.

I continue to remind myself to do the same. I’m still learning how to be a better writer, and I hope I keep learning until the day I die. Writing for me is mainly editing. Constant editing. Writing a sentence, looking at it, thinking about what the words mean and what they symbolise, changing the words, rewriting a paragraph, starting again. I’ve had to intentionally develop this practice because it is easy to word-vomit — and, as it happens, more profitable, given the quick turnarounds required on a lot of music “content.” But as with actual vomit, what you throw up on the page often reflects, in part, what you’ve digested. (In that regard, what makes matters trickier is that the internet tends to direct more love — and more hits — towards an exclusive interview with an artist over an in-depth piece of criticism about their work. But that’s a whole other rant.)

After I got laid-off from The FADER earlier this year, I realised I didn’t have a website to speak of, and so slowly started to update this decade-old blog. Pulling together a portfolio of sorts meant reading a lot of my very early work. Bits of it I liked, but a lot of it felt unsure of itself. The same words would pop up, illustrating that I used to cover insecurities about my musical knowledge with language that had been given a tick elsewhere. I was reminded that it wasn’t until a couple of years into my time at Dummy Mag that I realised it wasn’t my musical knowledge that was the problem; I’d been bamboozled by the swaggering confidence of a lot of the white male journalists I’d met and read, and made the foolish mistake of seeing my opinions and insights as less than.

It took time and effort to find my own voice, but I still slip into music journalism’s equivalent of legalese now and then. Despite what they say, first thought isn’t always the best thought. More recently, I have started to interrogate my word choices once again. What are the implications of the repetition of certain words used in relation to artists making the same kind of music? How do those descriptors relate to the cultural contexts of those musics? Are those descriptors in fact reinforcing the status quo? What does it mean when artists of the same gender, race, or sexuality are continually compared and contrasted when the music they make has nothing in common? Do music journalists have a responsibility to help decolonise language? (The short answer: yes. Especially because music is youth culture, and music blogging often a young writer’s entry point into journalism.) Music journalism by definition involves symbolism: one must conjure up an image or an idea of a sound using a bunch of letters. It follows that the way in which different kinds of music are written about often communicates more than just the words on the page.

With that in mind, below is a non-exhaustive list of words that I started making a couple of weeks ago, and have been thinking about ever since. All of them I have worn thin in my own writing about electronic music over the years. I’m going to try to avoid them from now on. After all, as the Fade To Mind artist Leonce recently tweeted, “Music writers always quick to say when a established artist isn’t innovating but I haven’t been seeing any innovation in music writing.”

Words I’m giving a break

Abrasive
Aggressive
Alien
Cold
Dark
Experimental
Explosive
Hard
Jagged
Sensual
Serrated
Soft
Thrilling