Illustration by Adam Vieyra.
It's a quote that's been attributed to so many people that its very inception seems dubious. But the assertion that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” has somehow managed to wriggle its filthy little tendrils into my thought process during the past week or so, much to my dismay.
Some of this stemmed from a (slightly intoxicated) conversation I had with two musicians last Saturday. Some of it was initiated by zer0 Books editor Tariq Goddard's insightful short essay “Why Music Criticism is Important,” which I read several days ago on thequietus.com. Some of it was inspired by a response I received online about a previous column, in which I alluded to that futile tango with inanimate structures.
However, most of it comes from the need to relieve myself of the disdain I believe that a small, but significant, portion of the public holds for music critics. So, instead of, um, dancing around it, I'd prefer to address the issue head-on.
A convenient little cliché, “dancing about architecture” is often used by musicians and other naysayers as a way of discrediting bottom-feeding, lowbrow, knuckle-dragging music journalists—those immoral back-stabbers who would bite off one of their own fingers to lay claim to just a scrap of their subjects' fame and glory.
But what does the quote really mean? If we assume that whomever first came up with it (some say Frank Zappa, others Elvis Costello, or Laurie Anderson, or Miles Davis) was entirely serious, we'd also have to question their logic.
Because “dancing about architecture” is obviously ridiculous and nonsensical, we're led to believe that “writing about music” is, too. But claiming one medium can't take another as its subject—or worse, even be inspired by another—is absurd, so the quote doesn't really make sense in the first place.
For those who think it's a valid position, I offer this: A filmmaker who makes a documentary about music, or a visual artist who paints portraits of musicians, is surely in the same boat as the lowly music writer, right? And what, exactly, is so ridiculous about dancing about architecture? I think offended choreographers need to speak up.
Of course, like many simple maxims, it contains a tiny shred of truth and a whole lot of generalization. But those who ascribe to this belief display a fundamental misunderstanding of the current, and still developing, relationship between the two media.
The relationship between rock musicians and journalists is symbiotic. Writers feed off the music (or in some cases, the outsized personalities that create it), and, in turn, musicians feed off the writers' acclaim, or lack thereof.
In his essay, Goddard's sentiments ring familiar. He says, “Neither vocation is to be taken lightly and it is the interdependency between the two spheres that raises the suspicion that if there is something wrong with music writing then there might be something lacking in music itself.”
Today, it almost seems impossible to imagine a time before artists could ascend to such immediate stardom, and writers are currently just as responsible for this as the musicians themselves. It's our job to disseminate information for public consumption, and with the onslaught of new technology, many have had to step up their game in order to stay ahead of the curve.
But then, I'm failing to take into account the high percentage of journalists who aren't doing their job with the requisite passion, knowledge or integrity to do justice to the music, the musicians, or themselves.
As Goddard points out, we are a self-defeating bunch, prone to not treating the writing with any reverence simply because of the perception that it's not taken seriously by publishers. The realities of the music business are harsh—if it seems like the musicians rarely get their proper due, there are just as many writers who've bitten the dust with far less fanfare.
But I'm still inexplicably drawn to it. During my long, convoluted conversation with the two musicians last week, I was asked why I do it. “I don't know,” I responded. “Why do you write music?”
The answer that we all seemed to agree on: It feels natural. I'm sure that, for someone out there, dancing about architecture puts them similarly at ease.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org