Use your f**king imagination: or, why YouTube clips will never be a match for powerful music writing
The other day, there was a comment posted on FACT that seemed to summarise the way The Internet At Large thinks right now. It was posted on this article, was by a user calling themselves City, and basically complained about the fact that an 800-word article only featured two links to music (YouTube clips, in this case). City’s complaint revolved around the fact that “music is meant to be heard … it does no good to just talk, because you really can’t capture the essence of music in words”. Granted, City then went on to admit that “I really lazy when it comes to the internet”, but that hardly makes him or her an exception these days, does it?
This article wasn’t prompted by City’s comment, but it’s a useful springboard to discuss something that I think about a lot. When I first started seriously reading about music (which was only 2004), there wasn’t an immediate way to hear what you were reading about. This is before Spotify, before Soundcloud, and before YouTube became a hub for radio rips of forthcoming music. Often the only point of reference you had for an unreleased tune – something that had been doing the rounds at raves, or pirate radio for instance – was a description of it from a music writer who’d been lucky enough to hear it. And you know what? When your first – in some cases, only – point of reference for a piece of music is a piece of writing, it gives that writing a special value, and encourages a level of imagination that seems to be becoming lost.
A bit of personal history here: I got into music writing because of grime. I’d finished school but wasn’t at university (I’d call it a gap year, but that implies I went and found myself in a bong on a Thailand beach as opposed to just doing some internships I hated and wanking a lot), and I was obsessed with the stuff. English was the only subject I’d ever aced, but I didn’t have any intentions to get into writing, and didn’t write in my spare time (as established, I wanked a lot instead). Slowly, through chance and Google, I discovered this network of blogs – Silver Dollar Circle, Woebot, Derek Walmsley, Lower End Spasm and others – that wrote about grime, and moreover, in a really personal, imaginative way. Sometimes it was over the top, and I don’t doubt that there’s a hundred posts in the archives of those blogs alone that the writers would cringe looking back over now, but it was the sort of from-the-heart writing that you’d never have found penned from the distance of the NME or a broadsheet. Although they all had decent sized audiences, these blogs were writing with such freedom it was like nobody was reading them, and from the perspective of someone who was new to music writing in general, it was mind-blowing.
“Sometimes it’s possible to capture something beyond a song’s essence in words, something that sticks in a reader’s head for years.”
The reason I bring up this blogging network is that there’s a post deep in the archives of Silver Dollar Circle (written by Simon Hampson, who would later become FACT’s reviews editor and was the first person to ever commission me work) that has always stayed with me. It’s about a Wiley track called ‘Dylan’s on a Hype Ting’, and although it’s not particularly embellished (“I’ve never heard an MC sound like his MCing is this important to him. Wiley sounds like he’s on the verge of tears, and that’s as hardcore as music ever gets” is the crux of it) it’s stayed with me for one key reason: despite the fact that it’s one of my favourite ever writers talking about a song by one of my favourite ever musicians, and thus, surely, I will fucking love it, I’ve never knowingly listened to it. And I never will knowingly listen to it. Reading that post, in 2005, the track’s built up such mythical status in my head that I’d rather imagine what it might sound like than know what it actually does sound like. So to refer back to City’s comment, sometimes it’s actually possible to capture something beyond a song’s essence in words, and create something, a lasting piece of art in its own right, that sticks in a reader’s head for years – even if it’s just that one reader.
There seems to be a certain embarrassment present in a lot of music journalism right now. Quietus writer Neil Kulkarni rightfully gave the NME a recent kicking over the non-committal blurbs in their best songs of the 1990s feature, but when the view of an increasing proportion of your audience is that your words are simply light context to some embedded audio, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of dribbling out an inoffensive, greyscale blurb to be forgotten by both you and your reader as soon as it’s published. Yes, it’s something that journalists should – and largely, still do – strive to avoid, especially given how quick we all are to slaughter a musician for resting on their laurels, but sometimes a bit of thought from your readership wouldn’t go amiss – at the very least, an intelligent, imaginative post reminds us that not every website’s comment section’s gone the way of YouTube’s. And sure, it’s probably bad form to look like you’re criticising your audience, but when the Internet’s whole “thing” is supposed to be breaking down divides between artist and audience, surely it’s only fair that both parties share a bit of the scrutiny.
Or, in short: use your fucking imagination sometimes. Good musicians do it, and good journalists do it – let’s see some of you good readers do it, whether there’s a YouTube link on your screen or not. Blogging may have gone the way of instant gratification a long time ago, with pictures (Tumblr and Instagram) replacing words, but not all music journalism has to. You never know, you might end up with something that stays with you a lot longer than that three-and-a-half minute clip.