Don’t Fight The Law

Talking rock crit lingo with Michael Azerrad

The Law of the land

Every profession has its jargon, its buzzwords, its nomenclature. People in the group use a word or group of specific words to quickly telegraph an idea. You know, insider shorthand.

Rock critics are no different, though that sort of shorthand actually reaches beyond insiders and goes out to a readership (at least in theory). But rock critics may be, uh, exceptional in their reliance on the accumulated terminology. What they’ve read by others in the field, assimilated and, then, knowingly or not, regurgitated. And by them, I mean we. I’ve been doing this rock critic thing 40-plus years.

Veteran rock critic Michael Azerrad – he of the Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana and the seminal book of ‘80s alt-rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life – found himself tripping over an increasing amount of rock critic clichés over the past few years and began posting sarcastic, clever little bits on Twitter and Facebook about them. (“Seminal,” by the way, is one of those words: “If a band pioneered something you MUST say they are ‘seminal.’”)

So, Azerrad would find a particularly egregious cliché and backhandedly honor it as a snarky “rock critic law,” such as: “Putting -core at the end of any word really helps readers get a quick handle on things.”

Those tweets expanded and turned into a book, published Oct. 23, called Rock Critic Law: 101 Unbreakable Rules for Writing Badly About Music. Azerrad’s laws are whimsically illustrated by Seattle-based cartoonist Edwin Fotheringham.

Turn any page and you’ll likely wince and/or smile. One of my favorite laws: “Quickly strummed guitar chords with a lot of distortion MUST be compared to buzzsaws.”

Buzzsaw guitars illustration from Rock Critic Law

Confession: I have referred to quickly strummed electric guitars as being like buzzsaws. Christ, look at any of my Buzzcocks reviews over the years. How could I avoid matching Buzzcocks and buzzsaws, I ask you? I’m sure I’ve called the Replacements “shambolic.”

And I’ve broken – or maybe adhered is the right word – a few of the other laws as well. I don’t feel I’m alone on this planet. Critics and clichés. We’ve all used ‘em and abused ‘em, whether we at first think it’s something bright and clever (only to find out later it’s anything but) or because we think it’s understandable shorthand for the reader or because, let’s face it, deadline looms and the internal thesaurus is running on empty. (Oops, cliché, referencing Jackson Browne album. Bad.)

So, I thought I’d ask the author in an email interview: How guilty was he of committing these sins?

You know,” Azerrad says, “I started reading rock magazines when I was ten years old and didn’t start writing about music until I was 25, so I had a lot of time to note all the clichés before I ever put finger to typewriter key. I guess I’ve always had an ear for buzzwords and jargon and things, and I was always careful to avoid that sort of thing. Although the other day I was going through some old clippings and discovered an old Rolling Stone record review I’d done of a Camper Van Beethoven album, and at the end I wished them “a long, strange trip,” which obeys a Rock Critic Law: “If a band has been around for many years, then their career is ‘a long, strange trip.'” But in all modesty, I might have to get a pass on that one because, let’s face it, it’s pretty sharp to make an implicit comparison of Camper Van Beethoven and the Grateful Dead.”

Advance copies of Rock Critic Law have circulated among, well, who do you think? Rock critics.

Azerrad: “One of my colleagues, a really sharp editor at one of the leading music publications, emailed me: ‘Congratulations on the book, it sends many daggers to my heart in the best way.’ Bingo, that’s exactly what I was trying to do: make a pretty barbed point without being mean about it.  Tough love, you know?  But most of my colleagues say the same three words to me about the book, it’s just uncanny: ‘guilty as charged.’  It’s the obvious rejoinder to a book called Rock Critic Law, and they all do it.  And then they mention whichever Laws they’ve observed.  And that’s great, it gets everybody thinking about what they write.  And, like I say, thinking about what they read, too.”

Azerrad has made his bones as a serious rock writer – the aforementioned Nirvana and Our Band … books, being examples A and B – so I wondered if he regarded this as something that’s more ephemeral or frivolous.

“It’s funny,” Azerrad says. “Rock Critic Law did start out as something impulsive.  I just spontaneously started tweeting all the lame clichés that rock critics have been recycling since the dawn of time — or since the early ’70s, anyway. And then I wound up making a book of them.  And yeah, I became one of those people who does a book of their tweets.  It did seem kind of frivolous but then I was asked to write an introduction for the book, and the more I thought about it, the more meaningful the subject became.  All those clichés — there are way more than just the 101 listed in Rock Critic Law — show just how difficult it really is to write well about music. But there’s another message to the book: it urges writers to think a little harder about what they write, and readers to think a little harder about what they read — and both things are tremendously relevant right now.”

Not just for rock critics

A key question I had when reading the book – and yes, it’s a quick read: Does this appeal to me because I am a rock critic (and enjoy having the piss taken out of me and others who do what I do)? And does this have any appeal to the reading rock fan? (Acknowledging that many rock fans are not readers at all, so this wouldn’t even cross their radar.)

Rock Critic Law was expressly written for real music fans, the people who read lots of writing about music and have seen all the clichés,” Azerrad says. “It’s framed as a set of ridiculous laws that rock critics must observe but rock critics really aren’t the main audience for the book. Rock Critic Law is kind of like another piece of satire, The Preppy Handbook, which was a huge bestseller in the early ’80s — that book wasn’t really aimed at actual preppies, it was actually for all the people who embraced preppy style, which was very fashionable for a hot minute there.  People like an insider perspective on what they perceive to be an exclusive club.  But really, everyone’s a critic. And yes, that’s a cliché, but it’s especially true now: people post about music all the time on social media, they have blogs, and they’re just as likely to observe Rock Critic Laws as the professionals are. So there’s something for everybody here.”

Azerrad is pretty spot-on about understanding about some of the nomenclature and why it’s prevalent. Laziness is part of it, deadlines, low pay/need to churn out many articles, editors under the same gun. Me, I’m 62 and grew up with what you’d call the first generation of rock critics in Crawdaddy, Fusion, Rolling Stone and Creem – and obviously some great writers that I was weaned on – Lester Bangs, R. Meltzer, Paul Williams, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, Ellen Willis, etc. I wondered how Azerrad rated that first generation of critics vs. the ones operating today?

Illustration from Rock Critic Law

 It’s worth noting,” he says, “that except for greats like Ellen Willis, the writers you list were all white men. The pop critic pool has diversified a whole lot in the past decade, and that’s allowed for fresh voices and viewpoints to come in, and the writing has been all the better for it.  That said, all the writers you list were pioneering this new form, and they took so many risks and went off in all sorts of directions, just experimenting because there were no rules and relatively few people watching.  And it was hilarious and dark and insightful and self-indulgent and all kinds of other fun things.  One doesn’t see many high-visibility writers taking that many chances anymore, which is too bad, but there’s still plenty of excellent writing out there, it’s just different from how it was in the ’70s, which one would certainly hope it would be.”

Of course, before closing, I had to ask Azerrad what the most surprising thing he learned in writing the book? (Yeah, I put a damn smiley face after the question.)

 Azerrad: “Ha, well, for the folks out there who haven’t yet had the distinct pleasure of reading Rock Critic Law, that is one of the Laws: ‘When interviewing a fellow Rock Critic about their book, you MUST ask them what was the most surprising thing they learned.’  Ironically, most of the interviews I’ve done for this book have ended with that same question.  In retrospect, I guess I really teed that up for interviewers.  But it really just proves the point of the entire book: believe it or not, even the best rock critics are only human.”

Jim Sullivan
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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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