The Living Years

An open letter to the new Music Editor

Jun 22, 2005 at 4:00 am
To: Annie Zaleski

Re: Keeping your seat warm

OK, Annie, it's my last day here as Music Editor, and the last day of my "training" you. You haven't come in yet, which leads me to believe you'll fit in fine around here. This column (which has been a pleasure and a pain for nearly two years) gets finished up, and I am on the night train to the Big Adios. Now is the time for the Big Wisdom, huh? A final truth? A deathbed confession?

This has been without question the best job I've ever had, and I suspect it will be the same for you. You've been a full-time music writer long enough that I blush to give you advice. But, hell, I've blushed before. Here are some tips to ease your way into this life:

1) Remember that when you say something nice, people read it as a whisper, but when you say something negative, people read it as a scream. "Rivaling the wit of Elvis Costello with the melodic genius of Brian Wilson and the voice of Roy Orbison, but with the drums mixed a little high" reads as a negative review to some people. Beware, and don't worry about making everyone happy. You couldn't do it if you tried. But also take care not to be needlessly cruel, which you can often do by accident.

2) At the end of the day, you are a filter. While some people think the job of the critic is to explicate, to find the, oh Lord, capital-T Truth in music, most people who read you just want to know what new CDs to buy or what shows they might want to check out. The gainfully employed, working-for-the-weekend folks don't have the time or money to go through the amount of CDs, press releases, Web sites and magazines that you do. Let them know about the good stuff; if you can add a little wit or polish to the thing, so much the better. But if people read a review and don't know whether they want to buy the disc or not, you've failed.

A caveat to the filter theory: Normally, I feel that readers should find critics they agree with often, who share the same musical tastes. But the Music Editor isn't allowed to be a niche player. You've got to try to find the joy that other people find in music you aren't crazy about, and work with it. You can do this without being dishonest or pandering.

3) About the local scene: I really dislike the phrase "local scene." A "scene" is just an idea; I don't trust anything you can't pin down and kill. Which, eventually, you'll want to do to a few bands, and a few bands will want to do to you. But you'll do better to think of individual clubs and bands instead of abstracts. Most people mean "my band" when they say "the scene," anyway.

There are too many small pleasures around here to worry about big ideas. Check out the Way Out, Frederick's Music Lounge, Lemmons, Blueberry Hill (of course), Pop's (which never, ever closes), BB's Jazz Blues & Soups, the Gearbox, the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, Upstairs Lounge, the Pageant, Radio Cherokee... there's a lot to do. Use our recent Music Awards issue for a good primer on acts to check out, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.

4) While some days you'll spend plotting the slow deaths of publicists, never, ever forget that this job is fun. You now listen to music and go to shows full-time...and get dental. Someone, right this minute, is scooping the brains out of a cow's skull in a 100-degree meat-packing plant. That new Billy Corgan CD doesn't sound so bad now, huh? Go have a beer and check out the Sex Robots some time. You're on the clock. What the hell is there to frown about?

Beware anyone who would make popular music a life-and-death ordeal, those who mistake seriousness for being important and somberness for intelligence. Here's the thing: As has been famously said, 90 percent of everything is crap. Here's another thing: 90 percent of people who bitch about this aren't doing anything at all to change that equation. Ignore them.

5) You now have a job where you can swear in public print. Use it wisely. This isn't Deadwood. If you can keep it to one good curse in an issue, it will have more impact.

6) I'd like to apologize for all the times I made fun of Limp Bizkit in this column. That's just fucking lazy. There's no courage in going after a band like that. It's much more fun to knife a sacred cow than carve a strip off a rotting corpse.

If I can leave you with a final thought, something that sums up my attitude on life in the music-writing world: During his child molestation trial, the recently acquitted Michael Jackson's penis was described as looking like a brown-and-white barber pole. Am I the only person who is off swirl cones for life?

Thank you and goodnight.

P.S. You should tell people who want to get ahold of you that your e-mail address is [email protected].