Michael Azerrad’s first book in fifteen years, Rock Critic Law: 101 Unbreakable Rules for Writing Badly About Pop Music, is, despite the playful title, a serious work of meta-criticism aimed at stale thinking. Set to be published by Dey Street in the fall of 2017, it’s a wry collection of faux-literary edicts reminding those who opine about music to avoid the slick phrases — “blazing solos,” “lush orchestrations” — that can make their work sound like it was churned out by a hipster robot.
Every critical niche, of course, has its stock expressions, but rock crit seems to cultivate them like kudzu. And so the laws, sardonic in tone, operate in aggregate as a harsh — but long overdue — condemnation of the banalities that have wormed their way into modern pop writing. “Any drum beat which uses only tom-toms is ‘tribal,’ ” goes one biting directive. “Use ‘prolific’ as a generic compliment,” states another, “even though it only means the musician has done lots of work, not that it’s any good.” Azerrad’s book serves as a kind of foil to his previous volume, 2001’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, a widely revered and utterly cliché-free tome about the indie underground. In a recent interview, Azerrad talked about the laws, Twitter criticism, and what it’s like to write a film script about the Meat Puppets.
How did the book come about?
It started with one tweet. “When musician A plays on musician B’s album, and then musician B plays on musician A’s album, musician B is, quote, ‘returning the favor.’ ” There’s no other way, apparently, to impart that information. So the book arose out of tough love. I’ve been writing about music for over thirty years, and I’ve been an editor for a decent chunk of that. You start to notice these patterns, partly worth carping about and partly worth celebrating.
But Rock Critic Law isn’t really a celebration, is it?
It’s a celebration of a shared language that’s been organically created, rote though it may be. But yeah, let’s face it, mostly it’s a critique. Hopefully, people who are familiar with the subject will look at it and chuckle. Everyone loves to poke fun at rock critics — even rock critics.
How do you think the language developed?
A lot of it springs from laziness — rather than try to coin your own phrase, you just crib a cliché. These phrases have been around a long, long time, since the Seventies, I’m sure. “Dueling lead guitars” and “twin lead guitars,” for example, which are two different things. “Moniker” and “rollicking.” And, of course, the seminal law of rock criticism is to use the word “seminal.”
Has the language used to describe rock music gotten more predictable?
I wouldn’t say that. The old saw is that everyone’s a critic, but now, because of the internet, everyone is. There are so many platforms for music criticism; it’s not necessarily formal reviews, but a tweet: “I saw Eric Clapton, and his solos were blazing.” That’s criticism, and that’s why the audience for this book is perhaps a bit larger than it would have been ten or twenty years ago.
Are music-writing clichés so prevalent because it’s hard to write about how something sounds?
Right, but therein lies the potential for the beauty of the writing. When you fall back on clichés, you’ve conceded, and it’s just kind of sad. There’s that famous quotation: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” But the thing is, I would love to see someone dance about architecture.
This will be your first book in fifteen years, but it’s a small one. Any larger projects on the horizon?
Our Band Could Be Your Life took three years to write, and it was every day, from the moment I woke up to the
moment I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. That will take a toll. So I really wanted, in terms of a big book, to wait for something that I was willing to sacrifice for, and I finally have an idea. I can’t reveal it yet, though I will say that my first book was a biography of Nirvana, and Our Band Could Be Your Life was kind of a backstory to that book — so the book I’m rolling around right now is kind of a backstory to that.
What else have you been working on?
Jamie Kitman, who managed the Meat Puppets, asked me to write a film treatment about them. It involves a trio of handsome guys touring America in the Eighties, tripping out of their minds. It’s making the rounds, and we have some interest. I’m also consulting on the start-up of a new print magazine called FAR. It’s about food, the arts, and rock ‘n’ roll, aimed at what I’ll call “the rock generation” — boomers and people maybe ten, even twenty, years younger than that, people whose worldview was formed in no small part by rock music and who have grown up a bit and seek out the same visceral thrill in a lot of other things, not just music.
You most recently edited The Talkhouse, a website that publishes music reviews by musicians. Did the artists you worked with obey Rock Critic Laws?
No, I think they had seen those lazy tropes and wanted to honor their peers with fresh writing.
The new book will include musicians’ illustrations of the laws. Who’s on board so far?
Laurie Anderson, Nicole Atkins, David Longstreth, Marissa Paternoster. If some people do two drawings, that will mean I won’t have to find 101 musicians. That’s a lot of musicians to enlist. I just committed a Rock Critic Law, by the way. You don’t “invite” someone to play on your record; you “enlist” them. It’s like you’re joining the Army, instead of making art.