Why is mainstream music writing so bad?

I was thinking this would be a piece about why metal is so poorly treated in mainstream music journalism. Why, after all these years, after all that we’ve been through, does it still only get the most superficial of readings in the mainstream press? Particularly when other subcultures receive nuanced and detailed treatments from bigger media outlets. But there’s two reasons I’m not going down that road. One is the simple fact that it’s not necessary. The wider perception of metal as at once black sheep, elitist oaf, figure of fun, and actual real life danger is part of its essence. And the sense of community that has grown around this alienation has given it longevity. The tireless activity in the underground more than makes up for whatever we’re missing from the professional writing classes (if anything). But the second reason is that – after listening to a lot of fans of underground music beyond metal – it’s apparent that mainstream music journalism across the board is prone to some pretty shoddy standards when compared to say film, or literature.

This can take the form of poor research, superficial readings of artistic intent, hyperbole, or more fundamentally just good old fashioned bad writing. How often have you read an article from a respected media outlet (e.g. not Metal Sucks or Metal Injection) and felt like it was written for a twelve year old? It’s all too easy to dismiss these complaints and point out that these writings are essentially marketing material, which exist for no other reason than to sell albums, gig tickets, generate clicks. But these are written by journalists and critics, at least some of whom care for their craft and the subject matter.

As mentioned, other art-forms apparently receive a hearing in commercial media outlets that’s at least not lazy to the point of insulting. Why can’t we expect more? It is possible to write engagingly for the newcomer whilst treating the subject matter with the nuance it deserves.

Instead of lamenting this relatively minor infraction on my intellect however, let’s delve into a case study to further elucidate what form these poor standards take. And I’ve deliberately chosen a non-metal source, from a newspaper that prides itself on a certain standard of intellectualism: The Guardian.

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Their listener’s digest feature has received a higher profile in recent weeks, I’m assuming due to the lockdown. Pick any established artists with a significant back catalogue, offer some tips on where to start for new listeners, and offer some further listening suggestions.

Fine idea, let’s dissect it line by line. (I won’t be pointing out any missing information like ‘they didn’t mention Teutonic thrash’, these articles have a word count limit, let’s cut them some slack. Nor will I be fussing over which albums they chose over others, as that’s outside the scope of this enquiry).

The album to start with

Reign in Blood (1986)

In 1986, thrash truly emerged from its classic, generally British, heavy metal influences, with the “big four” – LA’s Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and NYC’s Anthrax – all finding their sound. Metallica emphasised a paranoid grind, Anthrax a tongue-in-cheek, streetwise hardcore bounciness, and Megadeth a remnant of old-school, hard-rock boogie; Slayer, however, distilled and concentrated the essence of pure metal: the crystal meth to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest’s medical Dexedrine.

This passage is inoffensive enough, but by tweaking a few words we could delve far deeper into the defining features of the big four, and be just as informative to the casual reader without insulting the bands and their fanbase. Things like ‘Metallica explored neoclassical narratives whilst paradoxically indulging in cliched classic rock ballads. Megadeth delved into prog rock of the 1970s and combined this with more traditional blues elements. Anthrax suck balls and are responsible for pizza thrash, avoid at all costs.’ The description of Slayer is the usual vague hyperbole and lazy metaphor.

Every blastbeat and guitar widdle is faster, every scream higher, every grunt lower, every mood either assault or preparation for assault, and the subject matter is boiled down to Satan, slaughter and pain. All of metal’s preposterous theatre and grandiosity is here, but at only 28 minutes from the first everyone-hitting-everything stab of Angel of Death to the final trickle of Raining Blood, it’s perfectly nasty, brutish and short.

Everything, everything, in this passage is superficial. They have boiled the analysis of ‘Reign in Blood’ down to ‘metal….but more’. This reduces one of the most important artists in the evolution of death metal down to ‘it was louder’. They point out that the lyrics deal with ‘Satan, slaughter and pain’ but don’t ask why. For instance, what does it say about the world that produced this art? Is it reflecting this world? Or commenting on it? The lyrics are characterised as a ‘boiling down’, not an intentional statement via medium and message on the part of Slayer.

Those two tracks (Angel of Death and Raining Blood) are the classics that never left Slayer sets. Yes, Angel of Death is about Nazi surgeon Josef Mengele; no, Slayer are not Nazis, any more than they are Wahabbists for writing Jihad from the point of view of a 9/11 hijacker in 2006. In fact, their politics seem to lean to the oafish side of libertarianism. Like the rest of the album, Angel of Death is a schlock slasher movie, to the bone.

When a film is released about Nazis no one starts to question whether the director is a Nazi sympathiser. People understand that such things are a feature of our reality, and a source of artistic expression. When music deals with controversial, violent, or unpleasant subject matter, people get confused between what the art is saying, and what the musicians believe. Music as much as any other art-form reflects and comments on the world around it. The vocalist can be a narrator, or a poet, a historian, a character on a stage, or a political orator. All completely separate from the private person they are off stage. This tendency to take lyrics at face value (particularly in metal) offers the most superficial reading of art, but it also leads to tiresome and needless obfuscation around the artist’s true intent, and by extension the disposition of their fans.

Secondly: ‘oafish libertarianism’. C’mon, Slayer aren’t political philosophers but let’s not insult their intelligence, or ignore the fact that they are very anti-Trump. Sure we can laugh at American gun toting government haters all we want, but a strong streak of libertarianism runs in many working class left wing traditions that felt threatened by top down authority. For further reading go back to E.P. Thompson’s tome ‘The Making of the English Working Class’. And the majority of Slayer’s fanbase are proudly working class.  Sure, we could say this writer has a word count that doesn’t allow for in depth political analysis, but if that’s the case why even include the dig? 

Slayer-Early-Days

Raining Blood, meanwhile, is utterly thrilling: even the squeamish or metal-averse can get caught up by the sharp-toothed earworm riffs. The twin-lead intro emerging from thunder and rain is probably the ultimate metal moment for main songwriters and guitarists, Kerry King and the late Jeff Hanemann.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this passage, aside from the infuriatingly chirpy style.

But there’s not a weak link on the album. Necrophobic is under two minutes and rivals the UK grindcore acts emerging at the time for speed. Altar of Sacrifice is three minutes of perfect momentum, not a second to take a breath, just a constant rockfall of noise, perfectly controlled then grinding to a halt in the final seconds. It also features singer Tom Araya at his shoutiest, part of an undercurrent of hardcore and anarcho-crust-punk rage that always simmers beneath the metallic surfaces in Slayer. Epidemic is the closest to classic Brit metal, but it’s done with such confidence that they’re owning the sound rather than paying homage to Maiden. And on it goes. Rick Rubin’s production and the band’s incredible ear for structure means that, aside from all the theatre, lyrical dumb-assery and athletic virtuosity, it can – even now – be appreciated on an immediate, unconscious level as a pure sonic rush.

Sure, sure, but it’s one of the most enduring metal albums of all time, there’s more intellect to this than an unconscious ‘pure sonic rush’. How were the riffs constructed? How did this inform Slayer’s approach to structuring each track? How did the drums interact with the guitars? How did this differ from a lot of metal and rock of the time? And again with the lyric bashing. This isn’t some snooty jibe at this writer who just doesn’t ‘get it’. This is a demand that a critic, who’s job it is to write about art and culture, delve a little deeper than the most superficial reading of the lyrics, and maybe explore the wider cultural and historical context they were written in.

The three to check out next

Seasons in the Abyss (1990)

Slayer were not the heaviest, the fastest nor the most revolting extreme metal band. They were quickly outflanked in the gruesomeness race by Death, Carcass and Cannibal Corpse, and in speed terms by Napalm Death, Electro Hippies and Extreme Noise Terror. But nobody else hit that sweet spot between metal histrionics and pure grunting bestial racket as precisely as Slayer.

This is a clunky and roundabout way of saying that Slayer pushed thrash as far as it could go, but death metal and grindcore pushed the bracket of extremity further. Again, it’s a stylistic point here, it reeks of the needless and tiresome hyperbole that infects so much music writing.

While they tried to diversify and even mellow on South of Heaven, Seasons in the Abyss is the sound of them realising that they’re at their swaggering best going all-out. There is still some subdued grind here, but it’s the proper rippers, such as War Ensemble and Hollowed Point, that make it. It’s also got some of Slayer’s most fun sonics: the way lead guitar notes leap out of the surge of churning riff like spurts of lava from a boiling hellscape demonstrates their key skill of making extreme musicianship come off as audacity rather than onanism.

Again, a clumsy way of stating which tracks the writer prefers, with a needless dig at metal’s high regard for virtuosity and long-form compositions.

The author goes on to cite ‘God Hates Us All’, ‘Live Undead’, and ‘South of Heaven’ as follow up listens for the newcomer.

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So let’s start be reiterating that I’m not commenting on the writers picks, nor any information they omitted; the brutality of word counts cannot be underestimated. No, the problem is one of respect. How deeply have they thought about their subject matter – the band Slayer – and why their music speaks to so many to this day? The analysis goes no deeper than ‘Slayer were heavier and faster, but still accessible’, and ‘their lyrics were generally violent’, with the usual tiresome caveats and explanations about metal that deals with violent or horrific subject matter. As if music that deals with sensitive topics requires pained explanations over and above that expected of film or the plastic arts.

This not the worst piece of music writing by far. In fact this is above average. But ultimately, the tone of the whole piece implies that the writer is treating Slayer like a bit of fun; they’re campy and entertaining. But the article shies away from popping the hood open and delving a little deeper. Sure, Slayer and thrash of that era oozes fun, and no small amount of camp. But if you go deeper you get more out of it. On lyrics for example, Tom Araya has said on more than one occasion that they simply sing what they see. If art is a product of time and place, and a reflection of that time and place, what does that say about the world it came from? This is a simple and fundamental point missing from this analysis, and no it doesn’t require six thousand words to begin to unpack. Equally, Slayer’s approach to riffcraft, their blending of hardcore punk with the epic narrative structures of NWOBHM gets a cursory mention, but the idea is left half-baked by the article for the sake of needlessly over-emphasising how extreme it is.

Underground metal, and indeed underground music, is not short of good writers. It is by its nature DIY. So let’s not lament the lack of regard the mainstream press has for independent music too much. They have editors and money to worry about after all. But it still feels that the respect given to other forms of culture is lacking in music. The research, the knowledge, the actual craft of writing meaningfully and engagingly is all but missing, leaving nothing but an over excited tone more fitting of a kids TV show. So why not ask that they treat underground music with a bit more respect, and the patient analysis it deserves?

One thought on “Why is mainstream music writing so bad?

  1. This was an awesome article. Yes, who needs them (mainstream media). The alienation form the mainstream is what keeps us strong in the first place.

    Like

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