Question of the Week: What Are the Worst Music Journalism Clichés?


February 25, 2008 by A.C. Rhodes

Perhaps some of you spied with your little eyes a relatively new term (hint: three articles down), that caused quite a stir not so long ago. When do expressions, or phrases, start becoming clichés and which can’t you stand most?

18 thoughts on “Question of the Week: What Are the Worst Music Journalism Clichés?

  1. Brendan K. says:

    Not to sound inflammatory, but I believe that spending any more than about 100 words describing what music sounds like is an anachronistic form of music journalism. The advent of new medias’ egalitarian accesibility (absolutely anybody can start a blog) or join a community (especially with folksonomic systems of tagging in social networks) and overwhelming information flow has lead to a modern era of music writing that emphasizes the sharing of personal experience with music over attempts to present/represent that music for an audience that might not be familiar with it.

    Third-person descriptives are holdovers from before we could all hear a band or record independent of having to be told it exists by conventional media outlets.

  2. Garrett says:

    It may be pointless to add these comments, in light of current cultural trends, but I make them anyway. Individuals have always had their own experiences – of culture, of love, of pain; and yet they have looked to artists and thinkers to illuminate common experiences. Individuals have always had their own response to music, and many of them have read critics to get an objective (or even subjective) response to music, new music and old, known and unknown. We live in an age that is increasingly anti-intellectual, and that anti-intellectual bent takes many forms. Someone said that we are becoming neo-primitive, returning to a time when image and sound are more important than word and thought; and that may be the case, and if so it is profoundly dangerous.
    I suspect that Brendan K. is younger than 30 (I’m starting not to like people younger than 30: I’m half-joking). His affirmation of the status quo – and that is what his commentary is – is very unfortunate, and very predictable. What we often find in those short “reviews” is nothing more than snarky comment, attitude instead of insight, prejudice instead of fact. Those comments (“reviews”) will be useless to history except as documentation of a culture’s decline. Insight remains necessary and writers are still individuals who can provide it.
    For myself, rock music cliches include ideas of “authenticity,” “radicality,” and “the cutting edge.” I’m also concerned about ageism in music, that often musicians are seen as irrelevant after a certain age, even though they may – in fact – be better than ever in terms of their mastery of craft, skills, language, thought. I affirm diverse forms of music – rock, jazz, blues, pop, world music, and think it’s a good idea to seek out the best in whatever forms exist. I trust my own ears to tell me what is best; and I read critics to celebrate and challenge and expand what is I hear.

  3. gkruz says:

    I agree with you in the main but the snarky sound-bite reviews are nothing new. CREEM used to publish them in their Record Rama section of short reviews that followed the longer, more thought-out review columns in the rear of the magazine. As a teen-age fan of America’s Only Rock and Roll Magazine, I used to love them for their sarcastic pithiness, and that will always appeal to people of that age.
    I admit to a growing dislike of anyone under 30, as well, but unlike you I’m not even half-joking. (To be fair, I’m not too sure I would like the teenaged me if I met him now). By the way, the person most responsible for the short, sharp, shock record reviews at CREEM was none other than rock critic god and elternal adolescent Lester Bangs.

  4. To go back to the original question, I hold a special hatred for the age-old formula of band X being like band Y crossed with band Z on acid. I’m surprised to still see it being used after all these years — I wonder who coined it? — but it keeps cropping up.

  5. Bob says:

    Any band on acid…or the “don’t know what’s in the water in (fill in the scene…)” or anything “evocative” without telling us what exactly it evokes…but as far as band X and band Y, for whatever reason that’s always seemed like handy short-hand. I’d rather read something sounds like the Red Hot Chili Peppers crossed with Creed than have the writer try to describe it otherwise…because when the comparisons are somewhat close (Interpol DOES sound like Joy Division no matter how “lazy” the comparison — and here I think the “laziness” has to do with the band not hiding it well enough on their earlier releases) it gives me a heads-up as to whether or not I would want to proceed further…most useless is “album of the year” or “album of the month” or whatever. Then it’s just trying to get quoted in the press kit…

  6. Nate P. says:

    The idea that spending more than 100 words writing about an album is an archaic or redundant venture seems to be directly connected to the hype-phobic, over-in-two-weeks nature of current quick-churn music blogging. It seems like a pursuit where everybody’s tired of a band or album or song by the time year-end polling comes around and the most prominent, attention-getting way to elaborate on why you aren’t feeling a certain work of music is to get overly hostile, trafficking in strawmen and generalities. I’ve written both long-form and short-form criticism, and often times I wish I had leeway to do the latter in a space strictly bound to the former (and vice-versa), but the idea that critics don’t really need to spend too many words (or too much thought) at all when people can preview songs on iTunes seems more like the attitude of a marketer than a music enthusiast.

    There was a place for snark and brevity back in the ’70s – this’d be a poorer biz without Creem or Christgau – but not everything, especially today, can be Record Rama or Consumer Guide, especially without a base of in-depth longform crit to balance it out. Otherwise we get a whole lot more of our discourse dictated by 2 1/2-star blurbs written by people who didn’t even bother to listen to the actual album and 250-word reviews drowned out by the 2,500 words of unedited, inarticulate “f u if you dont like this ablum” sniping in the comment box.

    (I’m exactly 30, though I’ve felt this way for years. And I’m pretty bad about updating my blog though, like a few of my friends/fellow writers, it’s not where I do most of my work anyways.)

    I also second the justification of “sounds like [x] doing [y]” (except with the whole “on acid” bit) — I get complaints about name-dropping every so often, but it does give a band both stylistic and historic context in an efficient way, and sometimes it’s good to hit on a connection nobody (including yourself) might have made before that helps people hear the music in a different kind of way.

  7. Brendan K. says:

    I just want to clarify, I said 100 words describing what music sounds like, not 100 words in a writeup of music. Actually, 100 words is quite over the tolerance I usually have for such wastes of ink or electrons, but I give leeway here for those rare talents who are creative and interesting writers enough to push the limits of what I just don’t have patience for anymore- namely anybody telling me what something “sounds” like.

    Internet ain’t going away. Everybody CAN now have their own experiences with the music you write about, so the only thing worth writing about is your own, unique experience with it.

  8. porky says:

    Many cliches over the years have bothered me. The latest one is “stripped-down.” If I had a nickel…..(oops, that’s a cliche too).

    another is “wunderkind.” Or how about “pyrotechnics” (as in “guitar pyrotechnics.”

    Or writers who call artists by nick-names, like they’re hanging out with them (the Boss, the Purple One or the worst…the ‘Mats).

    And calling the Monkees “the Pre-fab Four” WAS funny the first time it was used CIRCA 1976 in Bomp Mag.

  9. Michael J. West says:

    Brendan K.:

    “Everybody CAN now have their own experiences with the music you write about, so the only thing worth writing about is your own, unique experience with it.”

    The problem is, your own, unique experience with the music is not worth READING about.

  10. Brendan K. says:


    You’re funny. You’re also wrong (though I’m sure a fine talent and a really nice person.)


  11. It’s the specific formula of “X is like Y and Z on acid” that bugs me, not the idea of ever comparing bands to other bands.

  12. Michael J. West says:


    I’m really not wrong. At all.

    Writing about your own unique, subjective experience with the music has two major, major flaws that make it terribly bad reading.

    1) It’s a unique, subjective experience. That means it’s an experience that only the writer can ever have. The reader cannot share it. He/she may RELATE to it, but not within the context of the music–they’ll have their own unique, subjective experience, which makes the writer’s unique, subjective experience entirely irrelevant.

    2) It assumes that the writer is more interesting than the music about which he/she is ostensibly writing. And the writer almost never is.

    With respect, I think that you’re confusing good writing with good music journalism. They’re not interchangeable: music journalism is a craft unto itself, and it requires more than talent–it requires discipline, guidelines, dedication to the craft, and a good, experienced, professional editor. That’s why most of the music bloggers and overall new-media writers you speak of don’t get paid.

  13. Brendan K. says:


    Good writing is good writing. And I question your premises both of your implied premises (that good writing doesn’t require anything more than talent and that being paid means you’re a good music journalist.)

  14. Brendan K. says:

    I don’t know why i typed “your premises” twice in that last post. My bad.

  15. All music journalism is cliched. It’s all been done, what else to do but perform the variation on the theme? In this mp3 era, who even has the time to care, really? The attention spans have become even shorter and as I hear it, most don’t really give two shits anymore. That’s fine. Times change, as do people. Writing big Important things only serves as nothing more than to blow oneself, and going the snarky route is just giving head service to the Lester Bangs legacy. Either way, it’s the same old, same old. So why do I do it? The money, man, the money. The CD is dead. Long live opinionated b.s. that all reaches the same conclusion: gee, the Beatles sure were swell, weren’t they?

  16. Brian Cooper says:


    So where does New Journalism fit in then?

    As for the “tired old” this and that’s of reviews…I just hate how we deliver the goods. 90% of the music public doesn’t think or listen like a critic, and few have a broad enough context to compare the music in…we tend to listen to relatively similar genres over and over etc…For example, I’m really excited about Mando Saenz and a good friend is still swallowing the Smashing Pumpkins release from forever ago and couldn’t really care less about Mando Saenz…So it goes.

    I’m not sure where or how we deliver the goods in the same manner as the larger population listens and discovers music, but we need to find it because dropping obscure band references and ripping on bass lines etc…bores me silly.

  17. Fred Mills says:

    Two thoughts:

    1. First person usage in a review: Never, ever, ever, nope, nada, whoop, steer clear… don’t do it, kids. (But if you do, there’s hope: you’ll grow out of your narcissist phase.) Any review that comes in to me that starts with the work “I” automatically gets sent back to the writer. Exception to this rule: when an anecdotal passage suggests, illuminates or elaborates upon some key point in the review. (“While sitting in the third row I was suddenly assaulted from behind, and as I turned around I was suddenly face-to-balls with G.G. Allin’s shrunken, shit-smeared unit. Which is a pretty good description for his latest album….”)

    2. “RIYL” or “For Fans Of [insert a bunch of goobers’ names here]”: Do you really think that if I like, individually, Arcade Fire, Ennio Morricone, c60-era Bow Wow Wow, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion Jukebox Series and the Enoch Light Orchestra, that I would have even a passing interest in a band that unfocused in its style? Exception: I have to admit, when I’m plowing through a stack of new arrivals, those little RIYL stickers that the p.r. firms feel compelled to attach to the discs are a great screening device, because I can chuck whole bushels-worth of CDs without ever listening to them (whoa! Maxim alert!0 purely on the basis of such vapidity. Other red alerts include: “As featured on last year’s Warped Tour”; “Discovered his divorced dad’s Harry Nilsson, Gordon Lightfoot and Steely Dan records…”.

    Um, I think I veered off topic. RIYL: tangents.

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