There's not much less attractive than musicians complaining about their treatment by their press, is there? Case in point; I went to see Mark Kozelek play at the Scala a couple of weeks ago (possibly more by the time you read this). A great set, if a little long, but boy was he grouchy. He explained how he'd been touring the past week, and had mostly been playing to "crowds of 50 fat backpack-wearing dudes with no girlfriends". We, apparently, were a much better-looking crowd. So far, so good. But later, he returned to his theme with more enthusiasm, complaining ungraciously (I felt) about low attendances in the regional dates. "Maybe I need to record my next record in a log cabin... or become a transvestite or something" (I paraphrase).
This, presumably, was a reference, firstly to Bon Iver, who of course recorded his excellent debut For Emma, Forever Ago in a log cabin, and secondly to Antony, who is a transvestite (so I'm told by Wikipedia). Kozelek's point being (still presumably) that some, maybe all, of the press attention heaped on said artists is due to these "press angles" which have little or no bearing on the actual content of their music. Woah! Bitter! (Full disclosure: I own a backpack and have no girlfriend). Bullshit, obviously – the main reason such plaudits have been awarded is that they are deserved; said artists have impeccable bodies of work (and impeccable bodies, as anyone who has seen Justin Vernon with his shirt off can attest.
I mean, who cares? These days, with laptops and FireWire audio interfaces and whatnot you can make high-quality recordings anywhere. (There's an awesome studio, Bombanella, in a barn near Bologna. Horses and everything). Well, Bon Iver managed to capture the sound and feel of what it's like to live in that isolation perfectly; presumably if he had done it at Abbey Road it wouldn't have that sense of intimacy. Saying it was recorded in a log cabin actually imparts a little of what it's like to listen to the record - rare, these days in a record review. (Cutting! JW 1, media 0!) But as well as being an artistically informative fact about a lovely record, the whole log-cabin thing is also an example of what can be a pernicious drain. These days (same as it ever was), in order to publish an article about an artist, the hapless writer must first convince his or her editor that it'll be of interest to the readers. If there's little in the way of commercial success, or hype, or radio play, or if the artist does not fall into the sort of style or genre that automatically gets lots of coverage in whatever press organ we're talking about (e.g. boring indie and the NME – just kidding guys!), then the writer must be able to call on some other reason as to why the artist will be of interest to readers. The actual music itself only suffices in the rarest cases of extreme prowess.
What you need is a press angle. You know – a public spat with another artist, drug habit, weird and entertaining stories about the recording. Something to pad the piece out with some human interest. Sometimes the press angle is actually more interesting than the music e.g. Oasis, whose interviews are far more entertaining than their music – these days at least. Of course, I'm being naïve. At the end of the day, magazines and interweb netsites are there to be read. Their purpose, and the reason they're successful, is because they're interesting to read. So you'd better be able to say some interesting things about the artists you want to write about. So, you know, near-death experiences, supermodel liasons, unusual recording locales; the fact is, people would rather read about this kind of thing than an in-depth discussion of how cool the guitar sound on the third track is. Personally, I find this kind of thing to be a bit of a bummer. But I know being a critic is difficult - you're constantly balancing what you want to write about with what people want to read about. And it's not like I have any answers. I just wanted to bum everyone else out too. Anyway. Can't hang around - I'm off to start a beef with Laura Marling, develop a hard drugs habit and invent a brand new way of playing guitar (spoons underneath your armpits, no flexing of the elbow allowed).
See you next month.
DiScuss: would you rather read about guitar sounds and lyrical metaphors or celebrity hookups and tour anecdotes? Am I just being way cynical? What's your favorite press angle/gimmick?
This month Jeremy is plugging his new internet TV thing (which he filmed himself, ineptly).