I'm a Writer, All Right?
Hello, readers, Andrew Earles here with a very simple stand in defense of my occupation. Social contact dictates I'll be asked "What do you do?" at least four times a day, and the answer to this question is "I'm a writer." Most assume that I scribble in a notebook or that I'm another charlatan calling myself a "writer" because I keep a blog. As regular readers of the Memphis Flyer (and attentive readers of Memphis) already know, this is not the case. Aside from those two local publications, I've also written and continue to write for a slew of national publications and other alternative weeklies, including Harp, The Onion, Paste, The Philadelphia Weekly, and The Washington City Paper. By all accounts, my byline has appeared in what some consider "a lot" of magazines, plus I've had essays published in two books of music criticism.
I have yet to achieve the Esquire, Playboy, or Rolling Stone level of exposure, nor have my three working book proposals equaled, well, a book. Nevertheless, I am a real-life freelance music writer. And I'm inviting you to come along as I take on detractors of my occupation head on.
Often, and very naturally, the enemy of the music writer is the music maker. It is the musician that deems music criticism worthless. I've heard many potshots leveled at the form. A favorite: "Music writers are not failed musicians; they are failed writers." Though admittedly witty, that statement is ludicrous and proven wholly inaccurate by the works of Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, Cintra Wilson, Martin Popoff, early Robert Christgau, early Dave Marsh, the lesser known (and sadly deceased) Cream journalist Rick Johnson, and many others who have created phenomenal works of art as music criticism. Music criticism is as involved and can be as equally rewarding as any style of nonfiction.
On a couple of occasions, I've had the pleasure of interviewing the hilariously verbose Mike Watt, current bassist for the reformed Stooges, founder of the seminal post-punk band, the Minutemen. I say "hilariously verbose" because he was the easiest interview I've ever conducted. He talked, and talked, and talked. I even threw the phone on the bed at one point, used the restroom, and returned to a still-talking Mike Watt (hey, the tape recorder was running). As much as he said, this jewel stood out: "A music writer is just as much of an artist as a musician; the music review is your song." That might sound trite to some readers, but I must be honest: It felt damned good to hear it at the time.
Of course, not all music writing is outright criticism. We also ply our trade constructing (hopefully) insightful, informative artist profiles and reviews that display an appreciation for other people's art. That nerdy love is the reason many music writers start writing in the first place. For the amount of material panned, there is a passion for much more. I did not come to music writing through academia; therefore I cannot recommend or dissuade that. Writing about music was, very simply, something that I found enjoyable, and most importantly, people laughed (not at me) when I did it. Like a few of my contemporaries, I started writing about music via the world of 'zine publishing with my friend David Dunlap Jr. For those who don't recall, had lives, or are too young to remember, fanzines enjoyed a thriving — if brief — popularity in the '80s and '90s. These often homemade publications of low production value and intense pop cultural examination seemed to be everywhere, and I used mine to call out the prosaic tedium perpetually served to the public while exalting the works of artists that raised the hair on my arms. Sometimes I still do this, and unbelievably, I now get paid for it.
Criticism is necessary. Without it, there would be a glut of mediocrity and back-patting, indiscriminative complacency. If all music writing was positive, music writers wouldn't be critics. They would be publicists.
A popular idea primarily held amongst musicians is that people that don't play music shouldn't be writing about music. A ridiculous notion. I am a dyed-in-the-wool music geek who has experienced both the exuberant highs of exploration and pathetic lows of dismissal, the blind, fiery fandom and the intense, hateful bitterness. What I've gained from years of this is an amateurish yet encyclopedic knowledge of certain genres (some would say, the wrong genres, but that's all part of the fun), for better or worse. As legendary film critic Pauline Kael leveled against the backlash that criticism can bring, "I don't have to know how to cook an egg to know when it's rotten."