Local Current Blog

A young music writer grapples with Michael Azerrad’s ‘Rock Critic Law’

Detail from the cover of Michael Azerrad's 'Rock Critic Law'; illustration by Ed Fotheringham.

During my high school graduation rehearsal, when the rest of my classmates were hung over from their celebratory partying the night before, I was sitting quietly crafting an e-mail to my favorite English teacher, Ms. Dara Bishop.

In the e-mail, I was trying to explain the importance of Forever, a state of being coined by Tavi Gevinson in one of her Editor’s Letters on Rookie Mag. I thanked Ms. Bishop for being a part of my Forever and for pushing me and helping me grow as a writer and as a person. In her response, she commented that my writing style, “mainly sentence construction,” is very similar to Tavi’s. To my 17-year-old self, that was like winning the lottery: being compared to my favorite writer by my favorite teacher.

It was then that I think I really started paying attention to writing styles and the words people use and how people frame their stories. The idea of a writer’s voice became very important to me and with practice, I began shaping my own voice, trying to stay as true to how I would normally speak as possible. When I started reading Michael Azerrad’s Rock Critic Law, I noticed a theme among a handful of the rules regarding the use of words that you would never say in real life.

Rock Critic Law began in 2014 when Azerrad — an acclaimed music journalist, editor, and author — started a Twitter account dedicated to the lazy and uninspired writing he was seeing from colleagues in attempts to fill space or hit a word count. The account was a way to make fun of and expose those music journalism shortcuts, and Rock Critic Law, a book published today in paperback, is a fully-illustrated compilation of 101 of these “laws.”

Among the gems: “Feel free to call something ‘an instant classic’ even though, by definition, only time can tell if something is classic.” Also: “If a band pioneered something, you must say they are ‘seminal.’ That is the Seminal Law of Rock Criticism.” My personal favorite, “Don’t describe the music, just say it’s ‘[band X] meets [band Y].’ If you want to get fancy, say they’re ‘at [Z]’s house.'”

I have written for four different music-based publications, including my own music blog, Got Any Tunes. Obviously, my writing style and voice is going to vary from my personal blog where I’ve published more swear words than have been edited out of band interviews for other publications. Still, I generally try to write how I would speak, give or take some candidness, so that was something I laughed along with Azerrad about. It’s something I do notice in people’s writing now; I’ll wonder to myself if they’ve ever actually said that word or phrase out loud.

When I first started writing about music, I hadn’t read a whole lot about music in the first place. I never sat down in front of the Pitchfork homepage or subscribed to Spin. I did enjoy reading interviews with some of my favorite musicians, but I didn’t branch far beyond that. So, as I read through Rock Critic Law, many of the conventions being ridiculed were ones I hadn’t ever read in a review. That’s not to say I don’t see how gimmicky they sound anyway. For example, records and analog recordings are “warm” and no other adjective is permitted; or, if a new group includes two or more members of a former band, then it is “formed from the ashes” of that defunct band.

One of the rules states that “you may ONLY compare a musician to other musicians of the same gender (except Prince and Joni Mitchell; that’s hip).” I think everyone who has been writing about music for more than two years has probably been guilty of this at least more than once, I know I have.

I’ve become more conscious of how I describe and write about musicians over the past few years, as I’ve started taking music journalism more seriously. After interviewing and personally getting to know many different musicians, I’ve noticed that women most often complain about same-gender comparisons. I completely understand it. As a writer, comparisons are a good thing to throw in for an audience that may not be familiar with the artist you’re speaking about, but artists never like being constantly compared to other people, especially when you’re reducing them to just their gender. Tina Halladay of Sheer Mag gave me an awesome quote about this exact issue in conversation once.

My absolute favorite rule in Azerrad’s book is that “fans may be ‘rabid,’ ‘hardcore,’ or ‘diehard.’ There are no other kinds of fans.” While a lot of these rules apply specifically to rock music, as intended, this one is special because it made me think of my dad and laugh. My dad is a huge metalhead, the ’90s being his prime, and over the course of my lifetime, I have heard so many stories of concerts and mosh pits and lost shoes and bruises and blood and even one about a tent blowing into the Apple River at X Fest. Along with these stories are descriptions of the bands and the fans that make up the audience, and I can’t even count how many times he’s described them as “rabid,” “hardcore,” or “diehard.”

Being a music journalist or a music critic comes with its ups and downs like any job, and you sometimes find yourself falling back on what Azerrad calls “shortcuts, lazy metaphors, and uninspired prose” because writing about music is hard to begin with — but if you aren’t excited about it, it’s even harder. As with anything in life, being able to criticize your own work is very important, and Rock Critic Law is a book that helps us have a light-hearted laugh at ourselves while also thinking about ways to improve. Being young and being in the music industry is fun and exciting, and even if this book began as a lark, I have a feeling a handful of these rules are going to stick with me as my career continues.