Writing About Music

Writing about music is both impossible and appealing. I have learned over time that I would not want to be a music reviewer. The pressure to churn out words when I have little or nothing to say would range from unpleasant to detestable. If I don’t like the music or am not truly taken by it, I don’t want to have to say something dutiful and bland about it; if I do love it, I need varying amounts of time to put words together, and sometimes can’t at all. But when I do want to say something about music, I enjoy and value the challenge. Others have brought music to me in this way; it’s possible that I do the same now and then.

The other problem with being a reviewer is that you’re supposed to be “objective,” a losing proposition when it comes to music. How on earth can you be objective with music? If you take it into your life, you already have a relationship with it.

Years ago, I almost had a music essay—about a favorite musician—published in a San Francisco weekly magazine. The editor liked it and started working with me to bring it into final form. Then I made two mistakes. First, I was so eager to make it perfect that I kept sending him new edits, instead of taking my time and waiting for his response. Second, just as the piece was reaching its final version, I informed him that I had accompanied this musician in concert that very week. This had come out of a very new acquaintanceship—just a couple of weeks old—that later grew into a beautiful friendship; we are friends to this day. But the editor assumed that I was writing out of some personal bias, and killed the piece. That felt unfair for a long time. It is common in the music world for music writers to know musicians personally (or to be musicians themselves). Moreover, all of this had happened very recently; a week earlier, there would have been no conflict of interest at all. To make things still worse, another musician—a rather famous indie dude, not particularly known for his kindness—got involved and apologized to the editor on the first musician’s behalf, to clear her name, as if I had done something terrible. In retrospect, all of this was of so little importance….

It’s possible that the editor killed the piece for other reasons, not the apparent ones. But I learned two (nearly opposite) lessons from the experience.

The first is that when it comes to music writing, objectivity is neither possible nor necessary. It is good to know what you’re talking about and to be able to say it well. It is good to avoid hyperbole and meaningless praise (or snideness). But the best music writing comes from those who love the music they describe, who want to bring this music to others.

The second is that a person who loves music (and writes about it) can and should be professional about it. By that I mean staying collected in some way, not turning into a puddle. This person has something to offer and should treat that with as much care and respect as the music itself. There is no self-aggrandizement in that, just dignity. Back then, my two mistakes were probably (1) bothering the editor with two many successive edits, when it was possible to just hold on for a little while; and (2) bringing up the concert, which probably wasn’t necessary, given how recent a development it was, and given that no one would have cared or complained. I could have just focused on the piece.

That was over twenty years ago. Once in a while the episode vaguely stings, but I have long moved beyond it. I have continued writing about music over the years, mostly on my blog and on my own terms. But a new music essay of mine—one I am particularly fond of—has been accepted for publication. If all goes well, it will appear in the next couple of months, and I will announce it when it happens. If all goes well, it will be a great event in my life, not only because of the essay itself, but because I see that it’s possible to learn from and build something out of an old mistake.

Painting: Little Red Radio by Johnnie Stanfield.

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9 Comments

  1. Another wonderful piece. Two comments:

    “I was so eager to make it perfect that I kept sending him new edits, instead of taking my time and waiting for his response.”

    I did precisely this recently with an editor from The Washington Post for whom I was writing a story. I had to apologize to her for the many, many versions I sent. Her response? “Don’t worry about this at all.” The many versions reveal your passion for the story and for getting it right, both admirable. That you sweat the details is one reason why your writing is consistently a delight. Dylan Thomas’s editor wanted to include in an anthology the last poem the late poet had been working on. He found the poem in over sixty manuscript versions.

    “Second, just as the piece was reaching its final version, I informed him that I had played cello that very week in this musician’s concert.”

    Ha! That’s nothing. You might know that Edgar Allan Poe published his first volume of verse, Tamerlane and Other Poems, anonymously, crediting it to “a Bostonian.” He then set about writing glowing reviews of the book under his own name.

    Reply
  2. cx: self-published his first volume of verse, Tamerlane and Other Poems, anonymously,

    Reply
    • Thank you, Bob, for the kind and heartening words! It’s hard to know exactly what went wrong so long ago, but I see your point: on the face, there’s nothing wrong with sending multiple edits (even in succession) to an editor or having some sort of association with the person you’re writing about. This particular editor might have had limited patience or might have misunderstood my eagerness to get the piece right. But I think a bit of calm and trust on my part would have helped. These days, here and there, I still get a little nervous about such things, but not nearly as nervous as before.

      I wasn’t aware of Edgar Allan Poe’s self-review. That’s interesting. I know that Walt Whitman wrote his own praises more than once.

      I would like to read your piece in The Washington Post. If it isn’t behind a paywall, could you send the link?

      Reply
  3. Thanks, Diana, but this is not my best writing on the subject of what passes for “education reform” in the U.S. Here, if you are interested, are a couple pieces that are better.

    on standardized testing:

    https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/2020/03/19/why-we-need-to-end-high-stakes-standardized-testing-now/

    A previous version of that piece was published by Diane Ravitch on her blog.

    on reading instruction in the U.S.:

    https://saraslistofedresources.wordpress.com/2021/11/07/on-the-pseudoscience-of-strategies-based-reading-comprehension-instruction-or-what-some-current-comprehension-instruction-has-in-common-with-astrology-shepherd/

    Reply

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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